How to Have the Perfect Trip to Channel Islands National Park (and Why You Should)

The Channel Islands National Park is filled with incredible views for hikers.
The Channel Islands National Park is filled with incredible views for hikers. Chetan Kolluri
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A trip to Channel Islands National Park requires an entire weekend (and sometimes that’s not even enough) in order to enjoy all that this unique park has to offer. Comprised of five ecologically rich uninhabited islands—Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara—the park is only a hop, skip and a jump from the Southern California mainland, yet feels worlds away. Encounter marine life from microscopic plankton to gigantic blue whales, and experience a biologically diverse ecosystem with more than 2,000 plant and animal species, of which 145 are unique only to these islands.

With so much scenic beauty and an abundance in adventures to choose from, it can be difficult to know where to start. Here are some tips for planning your first trip to the Channel Islands.

When To Visit

The clear waters off the coast of the Channel Islands make it a perfect spot for snorkeling and diving.
The clear waters off the coast of the Channel Islands make it a perfect spot for snorkeling and diving. Chetan Kolluri

The park is open year-round and can be visited during any season. However, the best time to go is dependent on the type of outdoor activity you’re interested in doing on the islands. Summer and fall are considered peak seasons for snorkeling, diving, kayaking and swimming as ocean temperatures may reach 70 degrees, and you’ll find ocean visibility as deep as 100 feet. Most people visit the park starting from June through late September.

The winter and spring months are less frequented by visitors due to high winds and rains (a bonus for those who want a more isolated experience and don't mind the weather), but still offers plenty of unique events and sights. For example, gray whale watching occurs from late December to April and peak wildflower blooms can be enjoyed after the rains from late January to March.

How To Get There

Most people arrive at the island by a boat from one of the park’s concessionaires, or by private boat.
Most people arrive at the island by a boat from one of the park’s concessionaires, or by private boat. Ken Lund

The most popular mode of transport to all five islands is by park concessionaire boats. (Weekly schedules and accessibility may vary depending on the island and permitting weather conditions.) Most public boats depart from either Ventura Harbor or Channel Islands (Oxnard) Harbor in Ventura County. (If you’re traveling from Santa Barbara, it’s about a 30-minute drive south to Ventura along Highway 101.) Reservations can be made on the Island Packers website with prices starting at around $35 for a single adult. Another option is to take a private boat, which can land at any of the five islands without a permit.

For a quicker yet much more expensive ride, there’s also the option to take a 25-minute charter flight through Channel Islands Aviation from the Camarillo Airport to Santa Rosa Island. You’ll get an amazing view of the national park, flying over Anacapa and Santa Cruz before landing at Becher’s Bay, but get ready to dish out some major cash for this option—prices start at $1,000.

Note that there is no transportation available on the islands. All areas can only be accessed on foot, kayak, or private boat.

Things To Do

You’re likely to spot humpback whales from the Channel Islands during the summer.
You’re likely to spot humpback whales from the Channel Islands during the summer. Anita Ritenour

Hiking: The Channel Islands are a hiker’s dream come true. With no motor vehicles allowed on the island, the only way to explore is by foot. Several trails and dirt roads traverse the islands’ varying terrains from the relatively flat paths of Anacapa to the unmaintained, rugged and mountainous routes of Santa Rosa. One of the more popular hikes is a 2-mile trek on Anacapa to Inspiration Point, which is considered to have the best views of the park, overlooking the two smaller Anacapa islets and the Santa Cruz Island beyond.

Sea Cave Kayaking: Scorpion Anchorage, located along Santa Cruz’s coast, has some of the most beautiful sea caves in the world. Guided group kayaking tours are available from the Santa Barbara Adventure Company, which received an exclusive contract from the National Park Service to operate there. You can travel to other locations in the islands with the help of Island Packers, Channel Island Outfitters, and Aquasports. You’ll find various packages from half-day tours to overnight trips, and many include opportunities for snorkeling. If you’re more of the solo adventurer, some outfitters can also transport your personal kayak to the islands for a fee.

Snorkeling and Diving: There is much to explore on land, but even more to discover underwater among Southern California’s kelp forests. Santa Barbara, Anacapa and the eastern Santa Cruz islands have the best spots for both snorkeling and diving, and it’s highly recommended to go with a local diving operation like the Channel Islands Dive Adventures.

Backcountry Camping: Each of the five islands has one established campground that visitors must reserve in advance for a fee of $15. However, for a truly wild experience, backcountry camping is available at the Del Norte campsite near Prisoner’s Harbor on Santa Cruz Island year-round, and on select beaches on Santa Rosa Island from Aug. 15 to Dec. 31. Both sites require hiking in, but provide an unparalleled seclusion from the rest of the park. For more info on the different campgrounds, refer to the park’s website.

Whale Watching: About a third of the world’s cetacean (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) species can be seen from the park or a boat during migration seasons. Gray whale sightings occur from late-December through mid-March, blue and humpback whales during the summer, and common dolphins throughout the entire year. Other than providing transport to the islands, Island Packers also provide whale watching tours during these months.

Other activities on the islands include fishing, boating, surfing, wildflower viewing, seal and sea lion viewing, and exploring the tidepools.

Where to Grab a Bite

Before beginning your adventure to the Channel Islands, start the day off right with a nutritious and delicious breakfast in Santa Barbara. Backyard Bowls serves organic acai bowls, whole grain bowls and smoothies that’ll give you all the healthy energy you need for the day’s activities. (If you’re in a rush, you can even take it to go.) For something sweeter and more substantial, Renaud’s Patisserie and Bistro’s chocolate croissant is like taking a bite out of Paris, with the flakiest crust you’ll ever taste. They also serve savory croissant options with eggs, ham, and cheese.

Afterwards, head back into town and enjoy a meal of blackened cod tacos, lobster and shrimp sandwiches, and pretzel-and-beer-battered fried shrimp at The Nook, a restaurant built inside a blue shipping container within the trendy Funk Zone of Santa Barbara for an extra unique vibe. The restaurant shares a space with the Lama Dog Tap Room and Bottle Shop, which offers excellent craft beer pairings. Head down to the harbor for fancy burgers topped with a fried egg and soft-serve ice cream for dessert at On the Alley.

Where to Stay

The spectacular pool at the Bacara Resort and Spa.
The spectacular pool at the Bacara Resort and Spa. Rob Bertholf

If a day trip to the Channel Islands is all you can spare, then book a stay at one of Santa Barbara’s many accommodations. For more of a personal feel, check out the small, budget-friendly neighborhood inns with their own unique themes like Agave Inn on State Street, where the room décor is Mexican pop meets modern. The Hotel Santa Barbara is also architecturally eye-catching with its Mediterranean-styled lobby and spacious, elegant rooms. Plus, it’s within walking distance of all the shops and restaurants in downtown. And if you’re really looking to indulge or escape, treat yourself to a stay at the Bacara Resort & Spa located about 30 minutes further up the coast from downtown, on 78 acres of oceanfront property with guest rooms and bungalows overlooking the Pacific.

Originally written for Visit Santa Barbara.

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