Ultimate Guide to Visiting & Exploring Channel Islands National Park
I’ve lived in Ventura County for the last 7 years and this was my first time to Channel Islands National Park. Now I’m kicking myself for waiting so long! The entire experience was amazing and I felt like a kid in summer camp again.
The Channel Islands are made up of 5 different islands off of the coast of Ventura and Santa Barbara.
Channel Islands National Park is one of the most underrated national parks. Compared to other parks, even the ones in California, Channel Islands doesn’t see nearly as many visitors. Mainly that’s because of the difficulty to get here. Unlike the other parks, you can’t drive into the park, you need to take a boat ride from Ventura or Oxnard.
Although it’s an underrated park, it’s one you must visit! It’s beautiful! Because it’s so difficult to get to, it’s such a pristine park, and it makes you appreciate the experience more. Plus there is wildlife everywhere!
Just remember when visiting Channel Islands National Park to pack out all of your trash! There are no trash cans on the island, so bring a baggie and pack everything out with you.
When planning a trip, I always recommend getting a trail map so you can see all of the trails in the area and be able to plan more thoughtfully. If you’re visual like me, everything always makes more sense when looking at a map! I recommend this National Geographic Channel Islands map.
Where is Channel Islands National Park?
Channel Islands National Park is off of the coast of Ventura which is around an hour or two North of Los Angeles, CA.
Getting to Channel Islands National Park
The only way to get to Channel Islands National Park is by boat. Island Packers is the ferry service that operates in the area and you just book your ticket online!
Island Packers doesn’t do trips to every island year round, so make sure to check their website as you’re planning your trip to see where they’re going when you’re planning to go. They also sell out of ferry tickets pretty frequently, especially for weekend trips, so try and plan ahead!
Depending on which island you go to, the ride might be longer or shorter. Roughly plan for 1.5 hours, but it could be longer if you see wildlife! My boat ride to Santa Cruz island ended up being around 2 to 2.5 hours because we stopped to see hundreds of dolphins playing, jumping, and swimming alongside the boat. We also saw several blue whales along the way too.
Mid to late December through mid-march, the most common sightings are of gray whales. Then in the summer months, blue and humpback whales pass through the channel, and you can see common dolphins year-round.
If you get seasick, bring medication, and take it before you get seasick.
And make sure to arrive 45 minutes before departure from Ventura or Oxnard! Also when you’re heading back to the mainland, make sure you’re on the boat before the departure time. If the departure time is 3:30pm, that means the boat is leaving at 3:30pm. I suggest getting on 15-30 minutes before departure so you have time to fully explore the islands, but you’re not rushing and worried about the boat leaving you behind.
The boat will leave without you, so get there on time. If you miss the ferry, you’re going to wait until the next day to get back. If you have camping gear with you, it’s not the end of the world to miss the ferry because you can camp. But if you don’t have camping gear on you, it won’t be a fun experience not having anywhere to stay.
When To Visit Channel Islands National Park
Since it’s off of the coast of central California, the weather tends to be milder year-round. In the spring you get wildflower blooms and if you’re looking to go kayaking, go in the fall. My kayaking guide told me that the tide is lower in the fall and you can go in and see sea caves.
There is a chance of rain in the winter. Central California doesn’t get as much rain as other parts of the country, but you could expect at least some rainfall. If the weather and ocean conditions are bad, Island Packers will cancel the boat ride within 24 hours of departure, so be mindful of that and check your emails ahead of time. If you’re looking to do more water sports like kayaking and sailing, winter is not the best time.
In the winter from December to mid-March, gray whale watching starts. Brown pelicans also start nesting in Channel Islands.
If you’re looking to experience wildflowers, go to Channel Islands National Park in the spring! Especially if California has had a heavy rain year! Everything is lush and green with colorful wildflowers. But the lush green color doesn’t last long, so if you want to see everything green, go during the spring.
Birds also start nesting on the island and the island fox pups are born. They’re so cute and small.
If you want to explore sea caves while kayaking, spring might not be the best time. You can still go kayaking, but because of high tide, you might not be able to experience sea caves.
During the summer months, humpback and blue whales come into the channel. Sea lions also give birth to their pups during this time. You can also see common dolphins year-round! Summer also attracts more crowds.
Because the weather warms, it’s a great time for swimming, diving, kayaking, snorkeling, sailing, and other water sports.
I went in the fall and it was wonderful! Central California still has mild temperatures usually through November, so fall is usually still warm making it perfect for water sports, but it’s not as crowded as during the summer months.
Also if you want to go into the sea caves while kayaking, the tide is lower so you have a better chance of actually getting to go in. Which I highly recommend if you’re kayaking!
During this time whale watching also starts ending as the blue whales and humpback whales start migrating south towards Mexico.
Which Island Should You Visit in Channel Islands National Park?
Every island is unique and offers something special. One of the more challenging parts about visiting Channel Islands is you can’t really island hop. Occasionally, Island Packers does offer a ride between two of the islands, but normally, you’d need to take a boat ride back to Ventura, spend the night there, and then take another ride to another island the next day or so.
Whichever island you decide to visit, you can’t go wrong!
You can also camp on all five of the islands. You can make reservations on recreation.gov. Keep in mind that they may sell out fast! So book in advance! It’s $15/night per site reservation fee.
Keep in mind that you will basically be backpacking. There are no accommodations in Channel Islands, so you will need to bring everything that you need with you. For my full backpacking pack list, read through this blog. There are also no campfires or open flames on Channel Islands, so make sure if you plan on cooking, bring something like the MSR Windburner or MSR Pocket Rocket.
Santa Cruz Island
If you’re planning a day trip to Channel Islands National Park, Santa Cruz Island is a great option! It’s filled with sea caves and so much more! You can book a snorkeling or kayaking trip with Santa Barbara Adventure Company.
Santa Cruz has two landing spots, Scorpion Anchorage and Prisoner’s Harbor. One of the best ways to experience the area is to hike from one area to the other! Scorpion Anchorage is drier and similar to the mainland while Prisoner’s Harbor is more forested.
Since Santa Cruz Island is the largest island in Channel Islands National Park, it offers more activities.
Scorpion Anchorage has more sea caves for kayaking, it’s also closer to the campgrounds. When I went kayaking, I went from Prisoner’s Harbor and it was an amazing experience. To read all about my kayaking experience, read through this blog. You can also see the Painted Cave on Santa Cruz Island.
The two campgrounds on Santa Cruz Island are Scorpion Ranch campground and Del Norte campground. Scorpion Ranch is the bigger of the two campgrounds and it’s half a mile walk from the dock. The Del Norte campground is more primitive so you will need to backpack in around 3 miles. There is also no water on the island, so pack in everything that you need. Don’t forget the water for cooking!
If you only have a day to explore Channel Islands National Park, Anacapa Island is another great island to visit. The entire island is a total area of one square mile. Anacapa Island has a lot of seabirds that nest here, so if you’re not into birds, this might be one to skip. There is only one campground on Anacapa and it’s about half a mile walk from the boat landing location.
Anacapa Island is made up of three islets; East Anacapa, Middle Anacapa, and West Anacapa. The ferry transports you to East Anacapa, but the rest of the areas are inaccessible unless you take a private boat. All of the trails are fairly easy, but it does require climbing about 150 steps to get on and off the boat when landing on this island.
Santa Rosa Island
Santa Rosa Island is known for its beaches and it’s the second-largest island within Channel Islands National Park. Although it’s known for its beaches, the weather more closely resembles Big Sur instead of Southern California’s beaches. To dress accordingly!
The ferry ride to Santa Rosa Island is longer than the ride to Anacapa or Santa Cruz Islands, it’s around 2.5 hours long. But it could be longer if there is wildlife along the way!
Island Packers does not go to Santa Rosa Island December through February, and trips are limited throughout the week. So plan accordingly.
There is one campground with reservations open August 15th through December 31st and it’s a 1.5 mile walk from the dock. You can also go backpacking 9+ miles from the ferry landing
Santa Barbara Island
Santa Barbara Island is the smallest of the islands within the national park. As of February 2019, the landing pier at Santa Barbara island is closed, so you can’t get to this island right now.
The boat ride to the island is usually around 2.5 to 3 hours and Island Packers goes generally from April through October.
There is also one campground on the island which is a steep quarter-mile hike from the landing area. There is no water on the island so bring your own and bring enough for the whole trip! Because of the ferry schedule, this is not a day trip. Plan to be on the island for around three days. Once the national park service opens up this island again, make sure to review the ferry schedule carefully when planning.
San Miguel Island
San Miguel Island has one of the largest congregations of seals and sea lions for anywhere at Point Bennett, which is a 16 mile round trip hike. Your best chance of seeing an elephant seal is also on this island. Because of the abundance of sea life, there are also great white sharks in the area too.
It typically takes around 3 hours to get to the island and there are only trips from July through September and sometimes in October. This is a camping/backpacking only destination, so plan accordingly. Island Packers does one day trip to San Miguel in October and it sells out quickly!
Visiting San Miguel is different from the other islands. Island Packers staff will give you instructions for visiting the island because the landing is often done by inflatable boats from the ferry boat. Also, all hikes on San Miguel Island must be escorted by a naturalist or a national park service staff member.
Channel Islands Packing List
First thing, make sure to bring enough food and water with you! After you get off the boat, there are no accommodations on the islands, so bring what you’ll need with you. This goes for if you’re day hiking or backpacking/camping on Channel Islands.
Also bring sunscreen! I forgot to apply any sunscreen to my legs and got a pretty bad sunburn. Don’t make the same mistake as me.
If you’re day hiking, read through this blog post. I review my entire day hiking packing list.
If you’re camping/backpacking on Channel Islands National Park, read through this blog post. I outline everything I bring with me on backpacking trips.
Following The “Leave No Trace” Rule
Make sure to follow Leave No Trace while in Channel Islands National Park so we can work together to protect this pristine park. Never feel wildlife and always pack out all of your trash!
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