A Guide to Visiting California's Channel Islands

How to visit this marine sanctuary off the California coast.

Beach, Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park, California
Photo: Danita Delimont/Getty Images

California isn't short on natural beauty. Beyond its iconic coastline, the Golden State is home to 28 parks and sites managed by the U.S. National Park Service. Stretching from San Diego nearly to the Oregon border, these protected settings range from the remote desert of Death Valley to Yosemite's vast wilderness and the ancient volcanic features of Lava Beds National Monument. What's more, California's parks include three World Heritage Sites and 10 wild and scenic rivers, and are home to dozens — possibly hundreds — of threatened and endangered species.

Yet the Channel Islands, located off the coast near Santa Barbara and Ventura, still stand out. Among the youngest national parks, this marine sanctuary was established in 1980 and includes five islands and the six nautical miles surrounding each. It's also one of the least-visited national parks — in part because visitors must travel there by boat or small plane — and remained largely undisturbed for centuries. As a result, the park is a prime example of the coastal Mediterranean ecosystem, found in just five places on earth. In fact, 145 species inhabiting the Channel Islands are found nowhere else.

Thinking about visiting one of California's national parks? In the Channel Islands, these experiences can make your trip.

Have an Ocean Adventure

The magic of the Channel Islands is found on and in the water: kayaking, swimming, surfing, and some of the world's most incredible snorkeling and diving are all possible. For the most options, head to Santa Cruz Island, which has more habitat diversity than any other island in the park. Scorpion Beach, on the eastern shore, offers clear, swimmable waters and sprawling kelp forests where divers and snorkelers can spot feeding dolphins, porpoises, and whales. You can even dive into underwater caves and caverns, some reached by kayak and teeming with colorful sea creatures. Conditions shift, so heading out with a park-authorized guide is recommended.

Trek Across Island Trails

Anacapa Island, Channel Islands National Park, California
Mint Images - Frans Lanting/Getty Images

Trails wind through each of the Channel Islands and the year-round Mediterranean climate makes the park a hiker's dream. That said, terrain and weather conditions do vary from island to island. Though the trails of San Miguel island are currently closed for repairs, the high winds and rugged, canyon terrain of this former bombing range give it some of the archipelago's most challenging hiking. Gentler slopes are found on Anacapa, the nearest island to the mainland, where you can visit a lighthouse built in 1932 and follow the moderate climb to Inspiration Point for views to Santa Cruz Island.

Check Out the Pools

Sea Urchins and Starfish, Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park, California
Joseph Dovala/Getty Images

Anemones, sea stars, and periwinkles are just a sampling of what you might uncover in one of the park's incredible tide pools. The islands were undisturbed for thousands of years, allowing for some truly peculiar species (just look at the chitons) to make their homes in these fragile spaces between land and sea. Frenchy's Cove, only reachable by boat on Middle Anacapa, is one of the best.

Spot Whales, Sea Lions, and Seals

Sea Lions, Point Bennett, San Miguel Island, Channel Islands National Park, California
Suzi Eszterhas/ Minden Pictures/Getty Images

For bigger eye candy, keep your eyes peeled for gray, blue, and humpback whales wherever you are in the park, or join a whale watching expedition departing from Santa Barbara, Oxnard, or Ventura harbors. California sea lions and harbor seals are also regular Channel Islands visitors, but Point Bennett on San Miguel Island — reached by a ranger-guided 16-mile hike in the summer — is the best place to spot rarer species like Guadalupe fur seals and Stellar sea lions.

Spend the Night

Pitch a tent on any of the five islands year-round, and wait for the crashing waves to lull you to sleep. Or, to experience California as the Chumash Indians did, gear up for backcountry beach camping along the 55-mile coastline of Santa Rosa Island, available from mid-August through December. While you're there, hike along the flat Coastal Road to see the island's unique Torrey pine subspecies (one of the rarest pines anywhere in the world). Just be sure to come prepared with snacks and supplies, as there are no stores or equipment rentals in the park. Water is available only at campsites on Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz Islands.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles