CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK: AN OUTDOOR ENTHUSIAST’S GUIDE
By Kim Vawter, Bearfoot Theory’s Community Manager
The Channel Islands National Park is one of the least visited National Parks due to their remoteness off the coast of Southern California. That’s what attracted Kim Vawter, Bearfoot Theory’s former Community Manager, to the area. Kim spent a summer as a sea cave kayak guide at the Channel Islands National Park after hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Today she lives in Santa Barbara managing that same company that leads tours out at the islands, so she has a ton of local knowledge.
Many people reference Catalina Island when they hear about the”Channel Islands.” While Catalina Island is a Channel Island (check out Kim’s review of hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail), it’s not considered part of Channel Islands National Park.
The 5 islands that make up the Channel Islands National Park – Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara Islands – are all protected and preserved without modern amenities. That means there are no restaurants, bars, and hotels, like there are on Catalina. The National Park has more than 20 endemic species found nowhere else in the world & the park offers a snapshot of what native California (without Disneyland & freeways) would look like.
Channel Islands National Park is just a short boat ride from Ventura, California and offers camping, kayaking, hiking, diving, and more.
Use our Channel Islands National Park guide to plan a quick day trip off the grid, or better yet a full weekend of island time.
Skip to a section:
- Where is Channel Islands National Park?
- Best Time to Visit
- How to Get There
- Which Island Should I Visit?
- How to Camp at the Channel Islands
- Santa Cruz Island
- Anacapa Island
- Santa Rosa Island
- Santa Barbara Island
- San Miguel Island
Where is Channel Islands National Park?
The Channel Islands National Park is located about 20 miles off the coast of California near the Southern California cities of Ventura & Santa Barbara. Year-round you can access the islands from Ventura & Oxnard, CA which is only 1.5 hours from Los Angeles, 3 hours from San Diego & 5 hours from San Fransisco.
Read Next: 6-Day Central Caifornia Coast Road Trip Itinerary
The Best Time to Visit Channel Islands National Park
The islands are open and accessible year round but it is important to check for closure 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 travelling to/from the islands. Wildlife sightings while on the Island Packers 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 travelling 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
- This is the best time to view blooming wildflowers & due to Spring rain the islands will generally be very green.
- Some seabirds begin nesting & the Channel Islands fox gives birth to pups this time of year.
Summer in the Channel Islands
- One of the best time of year to visit the islands but also the busiest.
- Seals & sea lions give birth to their young.
Fall in the Channel Islands
- Water temperatures are the warmest for snorkeling, especially in September & October.
- Water conditions can be very calm for ferry transportation, in case you’re prone to seasickness.
Winter in the Channel Islands
- Northern Elephant seals & Harbor seals give birth to their young in early winter.
- California brown pelicans begin nesting.
- Water conditions can be inconsistent and ferry transportation can be cancelled for rough sea conditions.
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, CA & Ventura, CA depending on which island you are visiting.
Is there a National Park Visitors Center for the Channel Islands?
There is! In the Ventura Harbor on Spinnaker Drive (right next door to Island Packers ferry company) there is the Channel Islands National Park Visitors Center. There is also information & exhibits on 3 of the islands – Santa Cruz Island, Anacapa Island, and Santa Barbara Island. If you’re into old farming & ranching equipment, there is an incredible display of original machines at Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island.
Which is the Best Channel Island to Visit?
This is a tough question. The best Channel Island to visit depends on how long you have & 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, although 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 (where I work!) or you can rent snorkel gear on the island at their storefront to explore the underwater kelp forests.
While day trips to the island are inspiring, we strongly encourage you to make your visit to the Channel Islands National Park an overnight camping stay so that you can truly experience it all.
How to Camp at Channel Islands National Park
Camping is available on all 5 of the islands. Reservations can be made online at Recreation.gov. Campsite reservations for Spring Break & the summer will often sell out months in advance, as well as ferry transportation. It is important to make reservations at least 2 months in advance, and reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance. There is a $15/night per site reservation fee.
Camping on the island allows you to experience them with few guests. Camping also gives you the opportunity to catch sunrise & sunset over the surrounding islands.
A few things to know about camping within the Channel Islands National Park:
- There are no services available on the island so double-check you have everything you’ll 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.
- 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 JetBoil 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.
Santa Cruz Island
There are two main areas of Santa Cruz Island that are accessible to the general public; Scorpion Anchorage & Prisoner’s Harbor. 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.
Being the largest island within the National Park, Santa Cruz Island offers the most amount of activities & 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 in this post. 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. 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+ boats a day travelling to Scorpion Anchorage. Travel time to Scorpion Anchorage is 1-1.5 hours & travel time to Prisoner’s Harbor is 2 hours & often the boat also visits the famous Painted Cave area.
Santa Cruz Island Camping
There are two campgrounds on Santa Cruz Island; Scorpion Ranch campground & 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) & it does not have potable water.
If you’ve seen photos of the 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 combines 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 and the rest of the 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.
Santa Rosa Island
Santa Rosa Island is the 2nd largest island within Channel Islands National Park. Santa Rosa is known for its beaches. Expect the weather to be more similar to Big Sur than SoCal, in other words, bring long pants & 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 December, January & February and 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. Primitive camping is 9+ miles from the ferry landing location.
Santa Barbara Island
Santa Barbara Island is the smallest of the islands within the National Park but still has 5 miles of hiking trails. As of February 2019, the landing pier at Santa Barbara Island is closed for an unknown duration, so there is no access. As soon as NPS set a date of completion for repairs to the pier we will update this post with information on visiting Santa Barbara Island.
Santa Barbara Island Ferry Information
Travel time to Santa Barbara Island is 2.5 – 3 hours. At this time no transportation is available to Santa Barbara Island. Generally, trips are offered April-October.
Santa Barbara Island Camping
There is one campground on Santa Barbara Island. The campground has 10 campsites and is a 0.25-mile steep uphill climb from the ferry landing area. There is no potable water available on the island. 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 & 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 July, August, September & sometimes October. Transportation to San Miguel is for campers only; they do 1 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. The campground is a 1-mile steep uphill walk from the ferry landing area. There is no potable water available on the island.