Insider's Guide to Channel Islands National Park

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  • Channel Islands National Park, CA
The Channel Islands.
The Channel Islands. National Park Service
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Channel Islands National Park, which consists of five of the eight islands found along the coast of Southern California, is known for its unique plants and wildlife. In fact, the park is known as the “Galapagos of North America” and visitors get to experience the Channel Islands in their natural state—there are no shops, no restaurants, and no hotels.

The northern Channel Islands have been home to many native Chumash communities over thousands of years, who relied on the land and the ocean for survival. After the Europeans discovered the islands, sheep and cattle ranches were created out on the islands, and the fish and marine mammals in the water were highly sought after. Today, visitors can see the remains of Chumash culture, historic ranches, and military structures that were built later.

The islands that make up the Channel Islands include San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Anacapa, and the park service has worked to restore the natural ecosystem to the islands since taking over ownership in 1980. It has helped that the islands are relatively isolated—even though the closest island is just 12 miles offshore, the more popular Catalina Island draws the most visitors of all the islands.

Every island has a unique history and something wonderful to offer, and they are all accessible by boat and airplane. The most difficult part of visiting the Channel Islands National Park is deciding which one to go to first!

Santa Cruz Island.
Santa Cruz Island. David Wan

Classic Adventures

Santa Cruz is the biggest of the five islands, and even though it’s the most visited, you’ll never feel crowded here. The boat ride is about an hour, and there are camping, hiking, and kayaking opportunities. There are 15 hiking trails on Santa Cruz Island, ranging in distance from less than a mile to 18 miles. Most of the trails that lead to great views start from Scorpion Canyon Campground, like the 2-mile trek from Scorpion Canyon Campground to Cavern Point (which is a great spot for viewing whales) or the longer, 5-mile Potato Harbor hike. Smugglers Cove has three trails that are short (2,3, and 4 miles) but strenuous, and Prisoners Harbor has mostly strenuous, backcountry trails. The half-mile Prisoners Harbor Trail gives a quick overview of the historic area. The Scorpion Canyon Campground is a great place to stay and makes for a home base for kayakers to paddle around the Scorpion Bay. The island is also well-known for the variety of caves to explore along the shoreline.

Santa Rosa Island is the second largest island, with a landing strip for airplanes, or visitors can take a 3-hour boat ride out. It’s more difficult to get there, as there can be high winds in the area, and because of the boat schedule, visitors usually have to stay for at least three days. There are several hiking trails, ranging from easy to strenuous, and from about 3 miles to 16 miles. The 8-mile Black Mountain hike is more strenuous, but will give hikers great views of the other islands and the mainland. Another option is the Torrey Pines trail, which has two options (5 and 7.5 miles) that feature one of the rarest pine trees in the world, the Torrey pine. The closest camping on the beach is 10 miles from the drop off point.

Scorpion Harbor Channel Islands.
Scorpion Harbor Channel Islands. Ken Lund

San Miguel Island is also difficult to get to (it’s 58 miles from Ventura Harbor), and a permit is required to visit. Because the island used to be a bombing range, there is the possibility of finding un-detonated bombs, so visitors have to stay on the trail and must be accompanied by a ranger if venturing out beyond the ranger station. There are some fantastic hiking opportunities, though, and nine primitive campsites.

The smallest island, Santa Barbara, is just one square mile, but has some wonderful opportunities to explore the land and sea. The water is very clear in the Landing Cove, making it great for snorkeling, while kayaking towards Arch Point or the Sea Lion Rookery will pay off with views of sea caves, arches, and a variety of marine life. There are five hiking trails at Santa Barbara, ranging from 1-3 miles: two trails lead to sea lion and elephant seal viewpoints, while two others have great views of wildflowers and the coast. The fifth trail leads to Signal Peak, a strenuous 2.5-mile hike to the highest point on the island. There are ten primitive campsites for visitors who want to spend the night.

Anacapa Island is the closest island to the shore (it’s only 12 miles away), and is ideal for a half or full-day trip. There is a single 2-mile hiking trail around the island, but you can kayak, swim, and snorkel at the Landing Cove, a marine reserve. Anacapa is a wonderful place to view wildflowers (though the island is treeless), birds, and sea mammals. The island has seven primitive campsites.

Secrets of the Park

On Santa Cruz Island, many visitors hike up to Cavern Point to check out the view and look for whales. Instead of looping back around to the campground, though, take the 2-mile North Bluff Trail along the bluff to Potato Harbor for even more spectacular coastal views. Look for seashell fragments along the way, which is evidence of where the Chumash people camped out thousands of years ago.

Santa Rosa Island has a 2-mile strip of white sand beach that you can get to from the landing pier, but beyond that is a place called Skunk Point. Here, visitors will find tide pools, blowholes, and can see the wreckage of the Jane L. Stanford schooner wreck.

San Miguel is the most challenging island, but with possibly the biggest payoff. Besides the sea lions and seals, visitors see the unique caliche “forest”, which is essentially a petrified forest of ancient roots and vegetation.

Sea lions tend to congregate around the Landing Cove at Santa Barbara Island, perfect for photo opportunities.

The view from Anacapa Island.
The view from Anacapa Island. Chetan Kolluri

Anacapa is one of the islands where natural wildlife is finally returning after non-native species almost wiped them out. The island is the place to go to see Bald Eagles, which recently returned to the island after being gone for nearly 60 years.

Immerse Yourself

The best way to explore Channel Islands National Park is to pick an island and plan to stay for awhile. Each island has something different to offer, so it really depends on what you are looking for, but they all offer solitude and breathtaking ocean views.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit

  • There are no services and no water on the islands. Bring everything you need, especially if you are camping.
  • There are no lifeguards on the islands, so enter the water at your own risk.
  • Because you can only get to the islands by boat or plane, plan ahead and make your reservations before your trip.
  • The best time to spot migrating whales is December through April.
  • Channel Islands National Park is technically open 24 hours day, 7 days a week, but there are some restrictions based on tides and bird nesting.
A dolphin plays in the water off Santa Cruz Island. Create new entry and link Add some existing entries.
A dolphin plays in the water off Santa Cruz Island. Create new entry and link Add some existing entries. Ken Lund

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