Located off the coast of Southern California, Channel Islands National Park is an untouched, pristine group of islands that offer plenty of opportunities for outdoor exploration.

As the perfect day trip (or longer excursion) from nearby cities in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, Channel Islands is a special environment that only the most devoted national park enthusiasts know about. We’ve put together this guide to help you plan an experience on one of these five beautiful islands.

Photo by Brendan Bannister

BASICS

  • Location: Southern California
  • Established: March 5, 1980
  • Size: 249,561 acres (1,009 square kilometers)
  • Number of Islands: Five
  • Closest Major Cities: Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Ventura
  • Annual Visitors: 364,800 (in 2016)

PLANNING YOUR VISIT 

Since Channel Islands National Park is fairly cut-off from the mainland and only accessible by boat or plane, you’ll want to plan your itinerary ahead of time.

First, decide how long you want to stay. Channel Islands makes for a great day trip destination, but it’s also possible to camp on the islands if you wish to stay longer.

The park itself is open 24 hours a day year round, but weather and environmental conditions vary depending on the season. For more information on what to expect during the spring, summer, fall, or winter, check the Channel Islands website and plan accordingly.

You’ll also need to check the island’s transportation schedules and purchase tickets ahead of time (for more information, see the transportation section below).

Photo by Jeremy Bishop

When prepping for your visit, note that Channel Islands has no food stores or equipment rental shops, and cell service is spotty at best. With this in mind, be sure to pack food, extra clothing, and any necessary supplies for your outdoor activities, and download any maps or helpful information you may need before you lose cell reception.

Though some national parks are dog-friendly, Channel Islands is not. In fact, there is a strict “no pets” policy. The islands are home to a number of species that don’t have a particularly strong immunity to bacteria and diseases that dogs may carry over from the mainland. So make plans to leave Fido at home for the day.

Because of the park’s remote nature, it’s crucial that visitors be prepared to accept responsibility for their own safety while on the islands. Bring extra food and water, check for ticks and poison oak, and dress in layers in anticipation of sudden weather changes. Also be wary of any ladders, railings, or walkways, and keep a safe distance from cliff edges. And always remember to respect the wildlife and leave the islands as you found them.

Photo by Chad Madison

Finally, note that there are two mainland visitors centers that act as access points to Channel Island National Park: one in Ventura and another in Santa Barbara. These are good places to stop on your way to the islands for up-to-date information and alerts about the goings on in the park.

Photo by Erin Fienblatt

CHOOSING AN ISLAND 

Though there are eight Channel Islands, the five that comprise Channel Islands National Park are varied and unique. Each offers something different, so do a bit of reading before deciding which one is best for you.

Anacapa Island 

Made up of three separate islets,Anacapa Island features trails, natural bridges, sea caves, cliffs, fields of wildflowers, sea lion rookeries, seal herds, and underwater worlds that include ocean animals, kelp forests, and tidepools. Great for half-day, single-day, or overnight trips, Anacapa is likely the best option if you’re limited to a short amount of time.

Santa Cruz Island

It’s said that Santa Cruz has such a vast variety of foliage and geology that it could be considered a “miniature California.” With mountain ranges, steep cliffs, deep canyons, tidepools, beaches, and one of the largest and deepest sea caves in the world, Santa Cruz is an incredible spot for outdoor exploration. Similar to Anacapa, its location and extensive outdoor opportunities make it perfect for short visits.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop

Santa Rosa Island

A bit further from California’s coastline, you’ll find Santa Rosa Island. As the second-largest of the five islands, Santa Rosa is home to varied plant and animal species and a multitude of hiking trails. Its location makes it prone to strong wind, meaning that water activities are only recommended for experienced visitors. However, one of the park’s best beaches — Water Canyon — can be found on Santa Rosa.

Photo by Andrew Fisher

San Miguel Island 

The westernmost island, San Miguel, is battered with near-constant wind and weather, making it a difficult but rewarding environment. Here, you’ll find the island fox and deer mouse — both of which are indigenous to the Channel Islands. Given its location, marine animals are often spotted off its coastline — and they’re likely to be larger than those surrounding the other islands. Since the island requires the longest travel time and offers the least frequent transportation options, San Miguel is best for longer visits.

Santa Barbara Island 

The smallest of the Channel Islands is no less exciting than its neighbors. Santa Barbara Island features herds of elephant seals, fields of yellow wildflowers, nesting sites for 11 different species of seabirds, and five miles of trails with incredible coastal views. Ideal for water sports, Santa Barbara is a bit more difficult to reach due to its limited transportation schedule and remote locale.

Photo by Chris Henry

ENTRANCE FEES AND TRANSPORTATION 

Admission to Channel Islands National Park is free, but getting to the islands is not. Since the park isn’t accessible by car, you have two options for getting to the islands.

BY BOAT 

All of the islands are accessible by boat via Island Packers Cruises, a company that departs from the Ventura and Oxnard harbors. It takes approximately one hour to reach the Santa Cruz and Anacapa islands, three hours to reach Santa Rosa and Santa Barbara, and four hours to reach San Miguel.

Island Packers ferries visitors to Anacapa Island three to seven days a week, year round, and to Santa Cruz Island five to seven days per week. The other islands are accessible on various schedules (Santa Rosa from April to November, several days a week; San Miguel from April to November, several days per month; and Santa Barbara spring through fall, several days per month).

Prices vary depending on which island you plan to visit and how long you intend to stay. Check the Island Packers website for up-to-date prices and departure schedules.

Photo by Erin Fienblatt

BY PLANE

Two of the islands — Santa Rosa and San Miguel — can be reached by plane. Flights are 25 and 40 minutes long, respectively, and both land on dirt airstrips. You can find more information on both at the Channel Islands Aviation company website.

Photo by Blair Rohan

WHAT TO DO 

Hiking 

Hiking opportunities abound on all five islands — from relatively flat trails on Anacapa to mountainous treks on Santa Rosa. Hikers of all levels will find options at Channel Islands National Park, and there are plenty of trail maps and guides available at the park’s visitor centers.

Snorkeling and Diving

In the water surrounding the islands, you’ll find a whole underwater world completely separate from the land environments. Take a deep breath and explore the kelp forests, sea caves, coves, and so much more. There are plenty of local dive companies that offer both snorkeling and diving trips, and the Channel Islands Adventure Company offers equipment rentals and guided tours on Santa Cruz Island.

Photo by Josh Katz

Kayaking 

One of the best ways to experience the marine environments of the park is by kayaking. This fun outdoor activity is available at all of the islands, and there are various companies that offer guided excursions. The most popular area for sea kayaking is near Scorpion Beach on the eastern side of Santa Cruz Island. Keep in mind that, like any water sport, kayaking can be dangerous, so be sure to do a bit of research ahead of time.

Camping

Pitch a tent on any of the five islands, at any time of year. Each island features an established campground, and Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa offer backcountry camping options as well. Note that reservations and a $15 site fee are required. Make your reservations by calling 877-444-6777 or visiting Recreation.gov. Campers are limited to using enclosed, gas camp stoves (as fires aren’t permitted), and must keep food and drink in rodent-proof containers.

Photo by Isabella Zhou

Wildlife-Watching 

The Channel Islands are home to a multitude of land and water species, including whales, seals, sea lions, island foxes, and a variety of land birds, seabirds, and shorebirds. Island Packers offers whale-watching excursions, but many of the other species can be seen without a guided tour. Grab a pair of binoculars and look to the sky; keep your eyes peeled for island fox sightings, or head to the seal and sea lion viewing points for a closer look.

Photo by Maggie O’Donnell

Boating, Fishing, and Surfing 

Given the nature of the islands, there are plenty of opportunities for boating, fishing, and surfing. That said, those who wish to throw their lines into the water must have a valid California fishing license, and there are rules and regulations for anyone wishing to set out on the open ocean. If surfing’s more your speed, grab your board and head to Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, or San Miguel, where the swells are great no matter the time of year (surf the northern shores during the winter and spring, and the southern shores during summer and fall).

Photo by Jeremy Bishop

Exploring the Islands 

Each of the islands hosts unique activities and landscapes. Spread out a picnic; see the wildflower blooms on Santa Barbara, Anacapa, or San Miguel in the springtime; or hunt for underwater life in any of the island’s tidepools. Just don’t forget to bring your camera!

Header image by Jeremy Bishop