Channel Islands National Park: How to Visit & Things to Do
Plan your visit to Channel Islands National Park with this guide including things to do, when to go, what to pack, info on camping, and more.
Channel Islands National Park is one of the least visited National Parks in the US due to its remoteness off the coast of Southern California. The 5 islands that make up the Park – Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara – are all protected and preserved without modern amenities. There are no restaurants, bars, or hotels like there are on nearby Catalina Island, which makes it a perfect getaway for outdoor enthusiasts, especially if you’re interested in Channel Islands camping.
The National Park has more than 20 endemic species found nowhere else in the world and it offers a snapshot of what native California (without Disneyland & freeways) would look like. I spent a summer as a sea cave kayak guide in the Channel Islands and it was one of my best summers ever.
Whether you’re looking to go camping, kayaking, hiking, or diving, Channel Islands National Park offers it all and is just a short boat ride from Ventura, California.
Use this Channel Islands National Park guide to plan a quick off-grid day trip or, better yet, a full weekend of island time.
As it goes in all of the destinations we share, please practice good trail etiquette and remember to Leave No Trace. This means packing out all of your garbage, being respectful to others on busy trails, and following the established rules.
Where is Channel Islands National Park?
Channel Islands National Park is located about 20 miles off the coast of California near the cities of Ventura & Santa Barbara. You can access the islands year-round from Ventura & Oxnard, CA which are only 1.5 hours from Los Angeles, 3 hours from San Diego & 5 hours from San Francisco.
Many people reference Catalina Island when they hear about the”Channel Islands.” While Catalina Island is a Channel Island (check out our guide to hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail), it’s not considered part of Channel Islands National Park.
How to Get to Channel Islands National Park
The sole ferry transportation provider for the Channel Islands National Park is Island Packers. They have ferries that depart from Oxnard and Ventura, California. Ferry schedules vary due to seasons and weather, so always check their website before planning your trip.
Island Packers has ferries to each of the islands for day or overnight trips or you can choose to just do a whale-watching or birding tour.
The Best Time to Visit Channel Islands National Park
The Channel Islands are open and accessible year-round but it is important to check for closures and updates on the Channel Islands National Park website before planning your trip.
Whales, dolphins, seals, and sea lions can be viewed year-round in the Santa Barbara Channel traveling to and from the islands. Wildlife sightings on the ferry are an added perk to any Channel Islands National Park excursion.
I hands-down recommend taking a day trip out to the islands vs. doing a whale watching trip. Island Packers & The Condor Express do offer whale & marine wildlife watching trips in the Santa Barbara channel if you’re not interested in traveling all the way to the islands.
Here is a great chart from The Condor Express regarding which sightings you might anticipate based on the season:
Here are a few things to note about each season within the park:
Spring in the Channel Islands
Spring is the best time to view blooming wildflowers on the Channel Islands. Due to spring rain, the islands will generally be very green during this time. Some seabirds begin nesting in spring and the Channel Islands fox gives birth to pups this time of year.
Summer in the Channel Islands
Summer is one of the best times of year to visit the Channels Islands but also the busiest. You’ll have the best chance for warm weather, just be sure to plan your trip far in advance especially if you want to camp since permits go fast. Seals and sea lions give birth to their young during this time as well.
Fall in the Channel Islands
Fall can be a wonderful time to visit Channel Islands National Park, especially in September and October, with a good chance of warm, clear weather and the warmest water temperatures for snorkeling. Water conditions can be very calm during this time for ferry transportation as well, something to consider in case you’re prone to seasickness.
Winter in the Channel Islands
In the winter, water conditions can be inconsistent and ferry transportation can be canceled due to rough sea conditions. However, winter weather on the California coast can vary widely, from warm sunny days to cold rainy days so you never know what you’ll get. If you head to the Channel Islands in winter, check the weather before heading out so you can pack accordingly and bring warm layers. In terms of wildlife, winter is when Northern Elephant seals and Harbor seals give birth to their young and when California brown pelicans begin nesting.
Channel Islands National Park Visitors Centers
The Robert J. Lagomarsino Visitor Center is located on the mainland in Ventura Harbor on Spinnaker Drive right next door to Island Packers ferry company. The Visitor Center features a marine biology display and exhibits that showcase the diversity of each of the five islands. There’s also a small bookstore.
In Santa Barbara, there is an outdoor Visitors Center with great views of Santa Barbara as well as information on Channel Islands National Park, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, and the City of Santa Barbara.
There are also small visitor centers on Santa Barbara and Anacapa Islands and at Scorpion Ranch on Santa Cruz Island. If you’re into old farming & ranching equipment, the incredible display of original machines at Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island is a must.
Channel Islands National Park Camping
Camping is available year-round on all 5 of the islands and reservations can be made online at Recreation.gov. Campsite reservations for Spring Break & the summer will often sell out months in advance, as will the Channel Islands National Park ferry transportation. As such, it is important to make reservations at least 2 months in advance, although reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance. There is a $15/night per site reservation fee.
Camping on the islands allows you to experience them with few guests with more time to explore. Channel Islands camping also gives you the opportunity to catch sunrise & sunset over the surrounding islands. You can learn more about the different campgrounds and check for updates on the NPS website for Channel Islands camping.
A few things to know about Channel Islands camping:
- There are no services available on the islands so double-check you have everything you need to be self-sufficient. There is a small store/snorkel rental shop on Santa Cruz Island at Scorpion Anchorage that does sell Channel Islands swag, rashguards, boxed water & sunscreen, but they don’t have food, propane, matches, or batteries. Use our 3-day backpacking checklist to make sure you have everything you need before heading out.
- It can be windy so bring a sturdy tent & don’t forget extra tent stakes.
- Check out this post for easy backpacking meals.
- No campfires or open flames are allowed on the island. You’ll want to pack a backpacking stove for food.
- The Channel Islands foxes, as well as the ravens, can break into soft coolers so a hard-sided cooler with wheels is recommended.
- Pack as light as possible. The campgrounds all require a bit of a trek to access. If you’re travelling with a group consider bringing a collapsible cart or dolly.
Planning Your Channel Islands National Park Visit
Which Channel Island is best to visit? This is a tough question. The best Channel Island to visit depends on how long you have and what you want to do/see. If you only have 1 day available then I’d recommend visiting Santa Cruz Island or Anacapa Island. Santa Cruz has the best options for day hiking while Anacapa has a shorter, flat-ish trail with amazing views (and lots of seabirds).
If you’re looking to get on or in the water, then Santa Cruz Island is where to head. You can kayak through the sea caves at Scorpion Anchorage with the Channel Islands Adventure Company or you can snorkel through underwater kelp forests for a chance to see Garibaldi (California’s state fish), leopard sharks (don’t worry, they’re harmless), and other sea life.
While day trips to the island are inspiring, we strongly encourage you to make your visit to the Channel Islands National Park an overnight Channel Islands camping stay so that you can truly experience it all.
Santa Cruz Island
As the largest island within the National Park, Santa Cruz Island offers the most amount of activities and ranger programming in the summer months.
A perfect 2 day, 1-night itinerary to Santa Cruz Island would include a morning self-guided hike or tagging along with a Channel Islands National Park naturalist followed by snorkeling in the afternoon. In the evening, there are ranger-led talks or you can cruise up to the ridge to check out the stars.
The next day, allow for a full day of sea kayaking before returning to the mainland. Read more about our favorite things to do on Santa Cruz Island here.
In the summer months, the Santa Barbara Adventure Company also offers day trips leaving from Santa Barbara to the famous Painted Cave area on Santa Cruz Island.
If you’re looking for something a bit more secluded, then plan a 3-day, 2-night backpacking trip from Prisoner’s Harbor to Scorpion Anchorage. There are distinct differences between the two areas, which is what makes hiking from one area to the other such an incredible way to experience the entire island. Scorpion Anchorage is drier & similar to the mainland while Prisoner’s Harbor is forested.
After getting dropped off at Prisoner’s Harbor, you’ll spend your first night at Del Norte Campground. On day 2, hike to Scorpion Anchorage and spend another night. This will leave a third day where you can still kayak the sea caves before catching a late ferry back to the mainland.
Santa Cruz Island Ferry Information
Ferry transportation is available to both Scorpion Anchorage & Prisoner’s Harbor year-round. In the spring, summer, and fall you’ll often find 2 or more boats a day traveling to Scorpion Anchorage. Travel time to Scorpion Anchorage is 1-1.5 hours while travel time to Prisoner’s Harbor is 2 hours and the boat often also visits the famous Painted Cave area.
Santa Cruz Island Camping
There are two campgrounds on Santa Cruz Island; Scorpion Ranch campground and Del Norte campground. The Scorpion Ranch campground is the largest of all the Channel Islands National Park campgrounds with 31 total campsites. The Scorpion Ranch campground is a 0.5-mile flat walk from the pier.
The Del Norte campground is primitive (meaning you have to hike in 3+ miles) and it does not have potable water.
If you’ve seen photos of Channel Islands National Park you’ve most likely admired a photo taken from Inspiration Point on Anacapa Island. What some people don’t realize is that Anacapa Island is actually three islets (East Anacapa, Middle Anacapa, & West Anacapa) that make up the island. All three islets combined have a total area of 1 square mile (so you can imagine how tiny each islet is).
If you’re not into birds, we highly recommend skipping Anacapa as the seabirds nest here starting in late April and can be very overwhelming.
Anacapa Island Ferry Information
Ferry transportation is available to East Ancapapa while the other two islets are inaccessible from one another except by private boat. East Anacapa boasts 4 hiking trails that can all be combined into a 1.5-mile loop. All of the trails are easy but it is important to note that landing at Anacapa Island requires climbing about 150 stairs to get off the boat.
Anacapa Island Camping
There is 1 campground on Anacapa Island with 7 campsites. The campground is a 0.5-mile walk from the boat landing location. There are picnic tables, food storage boxes, and a pit toilet. There is no potable water available
Santa Rosa Island
Santa Rosa Island is the 2nd largest island within Channel Islands National Park and is known for its beautiful beaches. Expect the weather to be more similar to Big Sur than SoCal, so bring long pants, warm layers, and a windbreaker.
Santa Rosa Island Ferry Information
Travel time to Santa Rosa Island is 2.5 hours. Island Packers travels to Santa Rosa Island every month except for November, December, and January. Departures are limited throughout the week.
Santa Rosa Island Camping
There is 1 established campground on Santa Rosa Island with 15 campsites and backcountry camping options available between August 15th – December 31st. The campground is a 1.5-mile walk from the pier and is equipped with a wind shelter, picnic tables, food storage boxes, a toilet, and potable water.
Primitive camping is 9+ miles from the ferry landing location. Learn more about backcountry camping on Santa Rosa Island here.
Santa Barbara Island
There is no ferry access to Santa Barbara Island due to a damaged pier. No repair date has been set. Visitors in private boats can access the island via a rocky ledge next to the damaged dock.
Santa Barbara Island is the smallest of the islands within the National Park but still has 5 miles of hiking trails. The landing pier at Santa Barbara Island is closed for an unknown duration, but visitors on private boats can access the island via a rocky ledge adjacent to the pier.
Santa Barbara Island Ferry Information
Travel time to Santa Barbara Island is 2.5 – 3 hours. Because the pier is damaged, there is currently no ferry transportation available to Santa Barbara Island. Generally, trips are offered April-October.
Santa Barbara Island Camping
There is one campground on Santa Barbara Island with picnic tables, food storage boxes, and a pit toilet. No water potable water is available. The campground has 10 campsites and is a 0.25-mile steep uphill climb from the ferry landing area. Due to the ferry boat schedule, expect to camp a minimum of 3 days on the island.
San Miguel Island
San Miguel Island boasts your best chance of seeing an elephant seal while visiting the National Park. San Miguel also has one of the largest congregations of seals and sea lions found anywhere in the world at Point Bennett, which is a 16-mile roundtrip hike. Due to the abundance of sea life and colder water temps, great white sharks also like to congregate here.
Island Packers ferry staff will give you thorough instructions for visiting San Miguel as landing at Cuyler Beach is often done by inflatable boats from the ferry boat.
All hikes into the interior of San Miguel Island must be escorted by a naturalist or NPS staff member.
San Miguel Island Ferry Information
Travel time to San Miguel Island is 3 hours. Island Packers generally only travels to San Miguel in June, July, August, September, and sometimes October. Transportation to San Miguel is for campers only. They do offer one day trip in October yearly which sells out quickly.
San Miguel Island Camping
There is 1 campground available on San Miguel Island with 9 campsites, a wind shelter, picnic tables, food storage boxes, and a pit toilet. The campground is a 1-mile steep uphill walk from the ferry landing area. There is no potable water available on the island.
Have you visited Channel Islands National Park? Which island is your favorite? What other advice or recommendations do you have? Leave a comment below!
Nice post! Love the pics!
Hey, I read this article and enjoyed alot, you have shared lots many information. I have bookmark your lovely site. Thanks for sharing such a nice and helpful information with us. Have a nice day ahead.
Thanks for all your tips on this guide. I used it while planning my own trip to Santa Rosa this past weekend: https://www.seekadventure.net/d/150-channel-islands-national-park-santa-rosa-island-backcountry-beach-camping
Nice, glad you found it helpful! Looks like you had a great trip. I was supposed to camp on Santa Rosa the following week but we canceled due to the air quality from the fires. Hopefully another time 🙂
Yea air quality has been odd this year. I really want to go back since most of my pictures have an orange glow lol.
Hopefully hitting up some of the other Channel Islands too, got some new kayaks coming in December (Been delayed due to COVID) once they come in I want to go on some more kayak kayaking adventures hopefully around the channel islands.
Hello wondering how people go about carrying water for the duration of your backpacking trip? Any recommendations on gear to hold large quantities of water would be appreciated. I have only backpacked where there were water sources to replenish. Looking forward to advice and this trip.
Hi Faith, great question. If you know there won’t be any water along your hike, then you will need to carry all the water you need with you. Most backpackers use lightweight water bladders or water bottles strapped to their packs or stashed inside. You could also plan your route so that you hit a water source if possible or cache water beforehand if you can’t carry it all with you.
Hey all. Any recommendations for a couple that missed the window for an open reservation for may 7th at scorpion on Santa Cruz? I know the upper loops allow for up to 6 campers but im not sure how to find out who is using that and reach out. Email me if you have any ideas: email@example.com
I enjoyed your post – very helpful. I will be visiting solo. Any specific advice for solo travelers?
Hi Leslie, so glad you found it helpful! Our advice would pretty much be the same whether you’re traveling solo or with others, but if you’re looking for a way to meet others, there are ranger-led guided hikes that happen most days. Enjoy your trip!