While many national parks face record crowds, the Channel Islands remains among the least visited national parks in the United States. In fact Channel Islands has about one tenth the number of annual visitors as Yosemite. So if you’re looking for a quieter and more peaceful outdoor experience, this is the place.
To visit Channel Islands requires pre-planning. Start by booking ferry reservations since this is the only way to access the islands. If visiting on a weekend, reservations may be needed a few weeks in advance. Next, be prepared to bring all the food and water needed for the length of your trip since you’ll find no concessionaires in the park. Finally, be sure to take all your trash back on the boat since you won’t find any trash cans in the park either.
It definitely takes some effort to visit Channel Islands, but it's worth it.
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Channel Islands History & Overview
Channel Islands National Park is comprised of five islands; Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara. Santa Cruz Island is both the largest and most visited and the one Jason and I chose to visit for our first experience at this park (because we will definitely be back!). Below is a map of the Channel Islands.
The first people to occupy the islands were the Chumash Native Americans. In 1542 the Spanish discovered the islands and claimed them as property of Spain. Unfortunately, the introduction of new diseases almost decimated the native population. The natural animal and marine life experienced a similar fate due to excessive hunting and fishing.
Over time these islands were home to U.S. military bases as well as sheep and cattle ranches. In 1967 the land was transferred to the National Park Service. Over the next five decades, through a number of successful conservation efforts, the health of this land has significantly improved. Today the plant, animal, bird and marine life has rebounded, offering kayakers, divers, snorkelers and hikers the opportunity to see island life as it was centuries ago.
Want to learn more about this area? Explore books, maps and guides to the Channel Islands National Park.
How To Get To Channel Islands
The Channel Islands ferry is available at either the Oxnard or Ventura Harbor, both of which are a one hour and twenty minute drive North of Los Angeles (with minimal traffic, so do allow plenty of time for this drive). We had booked the first boat of the day, so we opted to arrive in the area the night prior to our scheduled boat ride so we wouldn’t have to get up too early.
Island Packers is the official provider of the ferry to Channel Islands. Tickets range from $59 to $102 round-trip, depending on which island you are visiting. We opted to travel to Santa Cruz Island and land at Scorpion Anchorage (there are two other harbors on the island). Depending on the time of year and day of the week, there may be one to three departures for each island. Tickets must be purchased for a specific departure and return time. If you're going to one of the other islands, read How To Get To The Channel Islands for great, detailed information.
Travel tip: I did experience some sea sickness on the ride to the island, so consider bringing Seabands, Bonine, or both.
Either before or after your day on the island, be sure to check-out the Channel Islands Visitors Center, located in the Ventura Harbor. Start with the informational movie offered and then browse the excellent exhibits.
Channel Islands Tours
While Jason and I enjoyed everything about our visit to Santa Cruz Island, the highlight was definitely the sea cave kayaking tour with Santa Barbara Adventure Company (also known as the Channel Islands Adventure Company). I’ve written more below about our kayaking experience.
If at all possible, schedule a tour while visiting this park. There are several options for kayaking and/or snorkeling tours. While planning the trip I was hesitant to try the snorkeling, but after having seen the marine life from the kayak, I’d try it next time. To swim in the kelp forest with garibaldi, sea stars, sea urchins, harbor seals and much more would be an awesome experience.
To learn more about the flora and fauna on the island take the guided hike that is offered each morning as soon as the ferry arrives. A volunteer naturalist leads these hikes which typically last an hour.
Channel Islands Kayaking
I’ve been fortunate to go kayaking in California many times, but it’s never been as enjoyable as in the Channel Islands. This was our first time kayaking in a National Marine Sanctuary, and the abundance of marine life was impressive. Our guide was very knowledgeable about both the sea and bird life.
We began at the Santa Barbara Adventure Company kiosk where we received lifejackets, helmets, and paddles. Then we walked to the waterfront for our safety briefing. Finally we carried our kayaks to the water’s edge and launched.
For the next two hours we paddled over an enormous kelp forest, around several rocky outcroppings and through five sea caves of various sizes. I’ll admit the caves were a bit intimidating, so I appreciated that our guide made paddling through them optional. However, Jason and I did opt to go in all of the caves and I’m really glad we did.
Want to know what to expect when you visit the Channel Islands?
Watch our 3 mintue video to find out.
We learned during our kayak tour--and I confirmed it later with the park service--that Channel Islands National Park is home to the largest concentration of sea caves anywhere in the world. There are caves of all shapes and sizes, and most can only be experienced by water.
If you’ve never before been kayaking, don’t be intimidated by this tour. Two of the six people in our group had never kayaked before. They learned to handle the boat quickly, paddled through every cave and had a great time.
Channel Islands Hiking
All of the Channel Islands, including Santa Cruz Island, offer hiking trails to explore. We opted for the five mile long Potato Harbor Overlook trail which starts at sea level and then rises to the cliffs for beautiful vistas.
From Scorpion Anchorage there are a total of six trails available ranging in distance from 2 to 10 miles. For visitors arriving at Smugglers Cove or Prisoners Harbor, there are several additional trails offered.
A note about hiking in the Channel Islands. Fog is a very common phenomenon here and it comes and goes all day long. I share this because a long hike to a scenic overlook may be blocked by fog. So proceed with patience and flexibility. Despite hiking to Potato Harbor Overlook, we didn’t actually see it due to the fog. However, when we hiked back down we we did enjoy some great views of other viewpoints.
With all the hills on Santa Cruz, be sure to bring your hiking poles.
One of our highlights while on land was observing the island fox. This small animal--about the size of a house cat-- is found only on the Channel Islands. It’s related to the mainland gray fox, but about a third smaller.
We had the good fortunate to see three of these island fox on the day of our visit. It’s important for visitors to keep a close eye on their food since the foxes will brazenly snatch it when possible.
Channel Islands Whale Watching, Snorkeling and Diving
Kayaking and hiking are just two of the activities available to island visitors. Whale watching, snorkeling and diving are options as well.
With the improved health of the National Marine Sanctuary around the islands, whales have increasingly been attracted to the plentiful food sources. Past sightings have included blue whales, humpback whales, gray whales, orcas and finback whales. This is in addition to other sea life including seals and dolphins.
To get in the water and swim amongst the sea creatures, arrange for some snorkeling or diving. According to the National Park Service, the best spots for this are Santa Barbara, Anacapa and Eastern Santa Cruz. Several companies offer tours from either the Oxnard or Ventura Harbors.
Eager to get in the water? Bring your own snorkeling gear to Santa Cruz.
Channel Islands Camping
Since there are no hotels located on the islands, camping is the only way to stay overnight. While I normally won’t even consider sleeping in a tent, I have to admit that after a day exploring, I was seriously considering Santa Cruz Island camping in my future. We hiked through one of the campgrounds and it looked like a great place to relax after a busy day of kayaking and hiking. With no WiFi, this would be a great way to disconnect from the world for a while.
There is one National Park Service managed camp-ground on each island, all of which are described as primitive. All equipment and food must be brought over by boat and then carried to the campsite. Campfires are not permitted since there is no fire-fighting equipment on the islands.
It’s recommended that reservations be made a few months in advance and can be made at Recreation.gov. Campsites range from $10-$40 per night. When booking Channel Islands ferry tickets through Island Packers, there will be an additional fee charged to transport camping equipment.
Channel Islands Hotels
In case camping isn’t your style (as it normally isn’t mine), then there are plenty of Channel Islands hotels to choose from. We selected the Hampton Inn Channel Islands located near the Oxnard Harbor. We’ve stayed many times in Hampton Inns and always find the rooms to be large, clean and comfortable. The included breakfast is a bonus. My only unpleasant surprise with this location was the charge for parking. Since we spent an entire day looking at great ocean views I did not opt for a harbor view at the hotel, but that is certainly an option.
Most of the hotels in this area are in the three star range and include well-known chains like the Courtyard by Marriott, Best Western, Holiday Inn, Hilton Garden Inn, etc. Any of these are a nice option, especially when the goal is a clean and comfortable bed after a day full of fresh air and exercise.
We chose to stay at the Hampton Inn Channel Islands for two nights, but this isn’t required for a visit to the park. In fact, this could be done as a day trip coming from Los Angeles or Orange County (or northern cities as well) depending on the time of your departing boat ride.