One of California’s nine national parks, and the only one accessible solely by boat or plane, the Channel Islands is a shining and distinctive example of California’s coastal landscapes and wildlife. And, even though Channel Islands National Park is one of the lesser-visited outdoor destinations in the golden state, it pays dividends to those willing to make the trek! I promise, despite the remoteness, it’s not even that much of a ‘trek’ at all.
Want to know how to get to the Channel Islands, where to camp, and more? Read my guide to the Channel Islands National Park first.
There are five islands within Channel Islands National Park: Santa Barbara Island, Anacapa Island, Santa Cruz Island, Santa Rosa Island, and San Miguel Island. While each of the five islands has a bit of its own unique flair, they all offer a similar variety of things to do for intrepid visitors looking for an unparalleled adventure!
Here are some of the best things to do to get the most out of your visit to the Channel Islands, whether you have one day, or multiple, to spare!
What to Do in Channel Islands National Park: 5 Things You Can’t Miss
1. Take the Ferry
You can fly to the Channel Islands if you don’t mind the larger price tag, but many will tell you (myself included!) that the ferry is the way to go. Ferries to the Channel Islands are operated pretty much exclusively by Island Packers, which is based in Ventura and operates departures to all five islands at different dates and times throughout the year.
These boat trips, which can last anywhere from one to three hours depending on the island you choose to visit, aren’t just a means to an end. On the journey to and from the Channel Islands, the chances are you just might spot some (or a ton!) of marine life if you keep an eye out. Everything from pods of dolphins, to flying fish, to sea lions, to birds, to otters, and even whales are all within the realm of possibility, even on the shortest of routes!
For the most up-to-date information on prices and departure schedules for accessing Channel Islands by boat, visit the Island Packers website here. Keep in mind, schedules and prices will vary depending on the island, as well as whether or not you plan on camping overnight!
This was without a doubt one of my favorite parts of my entire visit to Channel Islands National Park.
2. Check Out the Hiking Trails
Each island has a selection of marked trails to offer visitors, from the roughly two miles of scenic hiking on Anacapa Island to much longer coastal and forested treks available on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa. You can pick up trail maps and additional information about the weather conditions at either Island Packers or the Channel Islands National Park Visitor’s Center, or you can start familiarizing yourself with hiking on the Channel Islands by clicking any of the links below!
- Hiking on Santa Barbara Island
- Hiking on Anacapa Island
- Hiking on Santa Cruz Island
- Hiking on Santa Rosa Island
- Hiking on San Miguel Island
3. Explore Sea Caves, Kelp Forests, and More
Walking around on foot is only half of the fun at the Channel Islands. The marine life here is unparalleled, and in fact, the Channel Islands have even been referred to as the Galapagos of the US! The waters immediately surrounding the Channel Islands are a marine sanctuary, which has helped retain healthy kelp forests that all kinds of animals call home.
At the very least, you should absolutely swim or snorkel. You can bring your own gear or rent it from one of the kayaking companies that service the Channel Islands. I was short on time, so I just went for a swim, and even then I still saw leopard sharks and fish without even needing to venture far from the shore!
If you have more time, consider renting a kayak or taking a kayaking tour. This is one of the best ways to visit the Channel Islands’ infamous sea caves, as well as some of the more secluded beaches on the islands. Kayaking tours booked ahead of time typically include the ferry ride in the price or as an add-on, too.
If you plan on renting a kayak and venturing out on your own, keep in mind that the safest and easiest islands to kayak at are typically Anacapa and Santa Cruz. The other islands (Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel) should be reserved for the most experienced kayakers, and you should absolutely exercise caution as the water conditions here can be much more demanding.
Also, make sure you reserve kayak space ahead of time on the ferry when booking your transportation!
4. Admire the Unique Wildlife
In addition to the unparalleled marine life here in the Channel Islands, there’s also some really cute and unique critters! Because of the islands’ remoteness, species diversity here is narrower than what you’d typically expect to find in other national parks, but that makes the animals that do call these islands home that much more special.
On land, keep an eye out for island foxes, island deer mice, harvest mice, and spotted skunks. You may also spot salamanders, frogs, and rarely, snakes (non-venomous). There are no real predators on these islands, like bears or boars, which makes overnight camping a bit more stress-free. The island foxes, which are most abundant from my experience, are SO cute and so small. And, they aren’t afraid of anything. They’ll walk right up to you to say hello!
For birdwatchers, the Channel Islands is a really special haven, because bird species diversity is really special here. The island scrub-jay is one of the easiest to spot and is endemic to the Channel Islands. You’ll notice it right away because of its bright blue feathers!
Last but definitely not least, you might be able to spot sea lion and seal colonies resting on the shores, depending on where you look. One of the most popular places to sea colonies en masse is out on San Miguel Island, at Point Bennett.
5. Spend the Day, or the Night
Despite how remote the Channel Islands may seem, it’s actually a quite popular day trip! Lots of people take the ferry to Santa Cruz and Anacapa Island for a half-day visit, using the time to go on a quick hike or a picnic. This is definitely a good option if you’re short on time!
If you have extra time to spare, spending the night is definitely the way to go in my opinion. You get more time to swim, hike, and experience the sunset, which is a seriously underrated highlight of any trip to this national park! Additional time will also allow you to learn more about the islands’ history, from the era of the Chumash, to European explorers, to early Californian ranchers who all inhabited the islands prior to their adoption into the National Park Service. Camping overnight on any of the islands costs just $15 per night.
For those with more money to spare, you can charter a sailing excursion for anywhere from two to ten days, but it’ll cost you! Prices start at around $2,000 (which, maybe wouldn’t be that bad if you got a big group of friends together and split the cost… right?).
The Channel Islands are an outdoorsy, adventure-lover’s dream! Which of these activities would you be most excited to do? Tell me below!