A Complete Guide To Exploring Channel Islands National Park

Woman In Orange Coat Stands On Trail Over The Santa Cruz Island Cliffs in Channel Islands National Park
Image Credit: Kelly vanDellen & Shutterstock.

Channel Islands National Park is one of California's most remarkable places. Known as the “Galapagos of North America,” the islands are a wonderland for outdoor enthusiasts.

Although getting to this national park requires some planning, the trip is a great way to experience coastal southern California. Here is a closer look at exploring the Channel Islands' unique environment, activities, and wildlife.

What Is Channel Islands National Park?

This beautiful archipelago is located off the coast of southern California near Los Angeles and encompasses five remarkable islands, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, Anacapa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara. If you like to hike, kayak, camp, or want to escape the city, Channel Islands National Park is a must-visit. Here, you can find various wildlife and plant species and crystal-clear waters perfect for snorkeling or scuba diving.

Santa Cruz, the largest and busiest island, is excellent for day trips, camping, kayaking, and snorkeling. Santa Rosa Island has beautiful white sand beaches and is a solid choice to get away from people and hike. The catch with Santa Rosa and the other “outer islands” is that boat transportation is limited to a few times per week in season, so plan to camp out for a few nights if you want to visit.

How To Get to Channel Islands National Park

The only way to get to the national park is by boat. Visitors can reach the islands via private charters or park concessionaire boats through Island Packers Cruises out of Ventura Harbor. Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands, the “local islands,” are about an hour from Ventura Harbor and have more frequent run times. Transportation to these islands is available year-round.

The other islands are 3-4 hours away, and shuttle boats are only offered a few times per week in season. In either case, reservations are highly recommended if you plan a trip to the islands.

Round-trip rates on Island Packers vary depending on which island you visit and are higher if you are camping and transporting gear.

For example, current rates for adults traveling to Anacapa or Santa Cruz islands are $63 or $84 if you are camping. The price of transport does not include the price of reserving a campsite which is $15.

Finally, Island Packers offers many different ways to see the islands. From birding trips to whale-watching or multi-port day trips, it's worth reviewing their website to plan your excursion.

When to Visit

Each season has unique charms. Winter is a great time to spot migrating gray whales, and fall is excellent for kayaking, snorkeling, and swimming. Summer is the busiest time of year, with many folks camping and hiking, and is the start of blue and humpback whale watching. Spring is when wildflowers start to bloom, and birds are nesting.

Weather

While southern California is known for beautiful sunny weather, that's not always the case in the Channel Islands. Instead, weather conditions are unpredictable daily, with the potential for wind, fog, and rough seas, which makes planning a trip more challenging.

But this unpredictability is also what makes these islands unique. Generally speaking, the islands are in a Mediterranean climate all year, with temperatures consistently in the mid-60s for highs and low 50s for lows.

Things To Do in Channel Islands National Park

Kayaking

The islands are an excellent place to kayak. Santa Cruz Island (SCI) is one of the most popular due to its proximity to the mainland and easy access to launch a kayak from Scorpion Beach. From there, visitors can explore beautiful sea caves, and it is a fantastic place for paddlers of all levels.

There are no kayak rentals on the island, but you can book a sea kayaking tour through Channel Islands Adventure Company. If you are new to kayaking, a guided tour is the best way to go.

If you prefer to bring your gear, make arrangements ahead of time with Island Packers. An additional charge to transport kayaks to the islands is around $20-30. For convenience, kayak trailer parking is available at Island Packers. Just be sure you can lock your kayak trailer up for security.

A word of caution. Kayaking in the ocean can be risky. The wind, weather, and water conditions can change quickly. If you are new to kayaking, a guided tour is a great way to have a safe and fun paddling experience.

Camping

Family Enjoying Camping Holiday In Countryside
Image Credit: Monkey Business Images & Shutterstock

Camping under the stars on a secluded island is an experience you won't soon forget. Visitors can camp on any of the islands, but each has a unique setup and, in some cases, challenges.

Scorpion Canyon Campground on Santa Cruz Island is one of the most accessible and popular spots to pitch your tent. The campground has 31 primitive campsites with picnic tables and a food storage box to keep animals out of your food.

Water and pit toilets are provided at the campground. If you camp here, be prepared to pack all of your gear a 1/2 mile from the landing to the campground. Unfortunately, the island has no transportation to help you get your gear to the campsite. In addition, there is no trash service, so you must pack your trash out when you leave.

For a more remote camping experience, Santa Rosa Island might be just what you are looking for. Here you will find 15 campsites, each with a food storage box and a picnic table. Like Scorpion Canyon, toilets and potable water are provided.

But here's the kicker: a 1.5-mile trek from the landing to the campsite. So camping here is best for backpackers who travel light. In addition, boat service to Santa Rosa Island is only offered a few times per week, so you need to plan accordingly.

No matter which island you camp on, reservations are required. You can book your campsite at recreation.gov.

Discover our comprehensive camping packing checklist right here.

Hiking

Channel Islands National Park has spectacular hiking opportunities that showcase the area's unique natural features. Part of the allure of Santa Rosa Island is excellent hiking. Since the island is remote, there are fewer visitors and open trails.

If you want an easy flat trail, try Water Canyon Campground Hike. This hike is a three-mile round trip from the pier. On the other hand, Black Mountain Hike is a strenuous trek, and the reward is fantastic views of the mainland and other islands. This hike is about 8 miles in total.

Santa Cruz Island is a popular hiking destination with plenty of excellent trails. Most hikes here are for people looking for moderate or strenuous hikes. Cavern Point Loop Hike is a 2-mile moderately challenging round-trip hike from Scorpion Beach.

The Cavern Point hike is an excellent spot to see whales migrating if you are in season. If you are a seasoned hiker looking for a challenge, Montañon Ridge Loop Hike is for you, a strenuous 10-mile loop from Scorpion Beach.

Fishing

If you are an avid angler, fishing is permitted in Channel Islands National Park with a California State fishing license. The best way to go fishing is to rent a charter fishing boat. But you can get closer to the action if you are a kayak angler. There are protected areas in the national park where you can not fish, so you must be aware of these boundaries. Other than that, the islands are home to various fish species that are fun to catch.

Snorkeling and Diving

Channel Islands National Park has some of the world's best snorkeling and diving opportunities. Sea caves, kelp forests, and marine life are all abundant in the waters surrounding the islands. The crystal clear waters provide fantastic visibility so visitors can experience the diverse underwater habitat.

Diving and snorkeling are best at Anacapa, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz islands, especially for beginners. Some of the most accessible kelp beds are by the pier on Santa Cruz Island and on the east end of the bay.

It is important to note that the waters surrounding Santa Rosa and San Miguel islands can be challenging with strong currents and windy conditions. Therefore, experienced divers must be well-prepared for these areas. And if you are a novice, stick to the other islands for a safe and enjoyable experience.

Wildlife and Wildflowers

Finally, Channel Islands National Park is a fantastic place to see wildlife and wildflowers you can't see anywhere else. One such example is the scrub jay only found on Santa Cruz Island. In addition, spring is an excellent time to see wildflowers, given a “normal” rainfall year.

Conservation

The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary preserves and protects nearly 1,500 square miles in this remarkable ecosystem. The sanctuary helps protect important habitats and species through its network of protected areas. In doing so, the sanctuary provides a habitat for marine life, including whales, dolphins, and others. In addition, the sanctuary plays an essential role in protecting California's coastal resources. These conservation efforts are commendable.

Visiting Channel Islands National Park is an extraordinary experience. There are plenty of opportunities for adventure, kayaking the sea caves, scuba diving through kelp forests, hiking scenic trails, and camping under the stars.

This article originally appeared on Savoteur.

Steve Morrow
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