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Channel Island National Park is a hidden gem located right off the Southern California coast. Made up of several small islands, Channel Islands is an oasis away from the hustle and bustle of nearby Los Angeles.
Accessible only by boat or plane, these islands are super remote. You won’t find the typical crowds of most national parks, making a Channel Islands day trip a rare, but amazing experience in quiet solitude.
Due to its remote location, visiting Channel Islands takes a lot of planning and preparation. Luckily, I’ve done all the research for you!
Below I’ve compiled information to help you choose which island to visit, how to get to each island, and what to do once you get there.
Basic Things to Know About the Channel Islands
- Location: Southern California
- Weather: Pleasant and mild, with high’s averaging in the 60’s and lows in the 50’s (fahrenheit)
- Number of Islands: 5 Islands make up the national park
- Entrance Fee: none, but you’ll need to pay for transportation to the islands.
- Visitor Centers: no staffed ones in the islands themselves, but two in the mainland in Ventura and Santa Barbara
- Other things to know: there’s no food, very little (if any) cell service, or lodging in the islands. Primitive campsites are available, check out the NPS website for more info.
How to Get to Channel Islands National Park
There’s only two ways to get to Channel Islands National Park, by boat, or by private plane charter.
Arriving by boat is the most affordable, and common way to visit Channel Islands. You’ll need to book a boat ride with Island Packers, the only authorized boat concessionaire.
Island Packers offers boat rides and boat tours to the islands most days from the Ventura and Oxnard harbors, making a day trip super easy.
Weekday boat trips are often fairly empty and easy to book even with limited advance notice.
If you’re visiting on a weekend you’ll want to reserve a bit more in advance, as those sailings can sell out.
Depending on what island you choose, the boat ride lasts anywhere from 45 minutes to 3 hours.
Our trip to Santa Cruz island and it was fairly smooth sailing. Crossing the channel to get to the Channel Islands can be a bit rough depending on weather, so packing some motion sickness medicine is always a good idea.
The boats have indoor and outdoor seating, as well as bathrooms.
You’ll definitely want to sit outside if you can to get some wildlife viewing on the way.
But choose your seat wisely, because you can definitely get wet on this boat trip!
Note: Island Packers has snacks on board that you can purchase, but you should plan to bring plenty of your own, as there’s no food on the islands!
Approximate sailing time to each island is as follows (one way):
- Anacapa: 1 hour
- Santa Cruz: 1 to 1.5 hours
- Santa Barbara: 3 hours
- Santa Rosa: 3 hours
- San Miguel: 4 hours
You can access just two islands by air, Santa Rosa and San Miguel. Both islands are served by the NPS approved concessionaire Channel Islands Aviation. Trips start at $1,200.
For more information, check out the Channel Islands Aviation website.
Choosing an Island
With five different islands making up this stunning national park, it’s no easy feat to choose just one to visit.
Having said that, Santa Cruz island is the one we chose to visit for our day trip to Channel Islands due to its proximity and accessibility, and we were not disappointed.
I’ve included a detailed guide to Santa Cruz Island, as well as information on each of the other islands to help you decide which one is right for YOU.
Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz is the largest island in California, and is absolutely stunning. The island is a mini version of the State of California, with beaches, mountains, canyons, and wildlife you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
Santa Cruz island is the most easily accessible island, and has plenty of things to do. This makes for a great day trip!
There’s two landing areas to choose from when visiting Santa Cruz island: Scorpion Anchorage and Prisoner’s Harbor.
Scorpion Anchorage is closest to the mainland (about an hour). Here you’ll find potable water, campsites, and hiking trails. If you’re planning to visit Santa Cruz island, I’d recommend landing here.
Note: Scorpion Anchorage closed down in late 2019 and is not projected to open again until at least 2021. Check the NPS website for more info.
Prisoner’s Harbor sits in the middle, northern part of the island. It takes about 1.5 hours to get here from the mainland, but you’ll often be greeted by pods of dolphins as you get closer to land.
There’s fewer things to do on this side of the island, but you can still easily spend one fun day here! When we visited Channel Islands National Park we landed in Prisoner’s Harbor, and had a wonderful, fun-filled day.
Things To Do in Channel Islands: Santa Cruz
- Hiking: If you hate crowded hiking trails, you’ll appreciate the quiet solitude you’ll find on the trails at Channel Islands. At Prisoner’s Harbor, there’s only two ways you can go; up the navy road, or through the Nature Conservancy. I recommend taking the navy road for as long as you’d like for some stunning views!
- Kayaking: You can rent kayaks for your time at Santa Cruz island. The waters are so pretty and the wildlife is abundant, making kayaking the perfect activity for your Channel Islands day trip.
- Snorkeling: One of the biggest draws of Channel Islands are the crystal clear waters. Pack your own snorkeling set for an affordable, fun trip! In Santa Cruz island, you can snorkel right off the beach.
- Wildlife Watching: The Channel Islands are home to species that you can’t find anywhere else in the world! Look out for the island scrub jay and the island fox while you’re here.
- Picnic at the beach: You’ll need to bring your food for the day with you, so pack a picnic blanket and have a picnic at the beach at Santa Cruz island.
Tip: Download the Channel Islands app before you leave the mainland so you have park information easily accessible even if you lose cell service.
While Santa Cruz island is the most accessible one, the other islands offer plenty of fun as well!
Anacapa island is the closest island to the mainland. This island is made up of three separate islets only accessible by boat.
Anacapa is fairly small, and only has a two-mile hiking trail system, but there’s still plenty to do on a half day trip or full Anacapa Island day trip.
The island is best known for the pretty lighthouse that sits atop the cliffs, and the magnitude of birds that call this island home.
There’s no direct beach access at Anacapa unless you have your own boat, but instead you’ll be greeted with stunning cliffside views, and in the early months of the year you can often see beautiful wildflowers!
Anacapa is a great island for wildlife viewing, and makes a good introduction to the Channel Islands National Park.
Note: when you land at Anacapa, you have to climb 157 steep steps to get to the top, so keep that in mind if you have any accessibility concerns.
Santa Barbara Island is the smallest of all the Channel Islands, but still packs a punch! After a three hour boat ride, you’ll be pleased to be surrounded by wild flowers and wildlife.
This small island is home to many elephant seals, sea lions, and sea birds. Santa Barbara Island also offers about five (5) miles of hiking trails, which will take you to stunning overlooks and ocean views.
Santa Barbara is a cliff island, so if you want to access the water you’ll need to do so at the landing dock.
There’s no sandy beaches here, but the water is great for swimming, snorkeling and kayaking – just keep in mind there’s no lifeguards on the island.
Note: there’s not as many scheduled boat trips out to this island. Double check the boat schedule when planning a trip!
Santa Rosa Island is further away from the mainland, requiring up to a three (3) hour boat ride (one way) to get here. The island is super windy, making it harder to reach. You can expect a bumpy crossing if you do make the trip here!
Once you arrive, however, there’s plenty for you to do in Santa Rosa. The island is home to a stunning white sand beach, and miles of hiking trails.
Popular hikes include Water and Cherry Canyons. Check out the NPS hiking guide for more info.
Note: due to the high winds, watersports such as kayaking and snorkeling are limited, and should not be attempted unless you’re highly experienced.
San Miguel Island is the westernmost of all the Channel Islands. Due to its location, this island experiences extreme wind and lots of fog. It can take up to 3.5 hours to get to San Miguel, and the crossing can be rough.
There’s no landing pier at San Miguel Island, so all landings are via skiff or shore boat directly on the beach.
The island is home to several hiking trails, pretty beaches, and a variety of marine life.
Because the island used to be a bombing site, a waiver is required for visiting the island. In addition, exploring beyond the ranger station is only allowed with a guide.
Note: water activities are not recommended unless you’re highly experienced. The weather and water in San Miguel are rough, so caution is advised.
Channel Island Tours
If you prefer not to leave the boat, Island Packers also offers Channel Islands boat tours. You can go on a boat tour of sea caves or wildlife watching.
You’ll usually be able to spot marine life from the boat as you get to the islands, but a dedicated wildlife viewing boat tour will give you more time to search for whales which frequent the area.
Check out the Island Packers website for more info.
What to Pack for a Channel Islands Day Trip
Because Channel Islands National Park is so remote and has almost no facilities, you really need to be prepared for a visit. Planning in advance is key!
Here’s what you should pack for a Channel Islands day trip.
- Sunscreen: an absolute must. There’s very little shade in most of the islands, so slather on plenty of sunscreen, even on overcast or foggy days. This is my favorite sunscreen, it smells like coconuts and is super lightweight.
- Reusable water bottle: you should plan to bring plenty of water to the Channel Islands. Remember, there’s no concessions on any of the islands, so you should bring all the water you need. I have this 32oz water bottle that I take with me everywhere. To keep your water cold, this other water bottle does the trick.
- Hiking boots: one of the best lessons I’ve learned is to always bring appropriate shoes, and hiking shoes are an absolute must for Channel Islands. This is the brand I love.
- Hiking socks: similar to hiking boots, having the right hiking socks has been life changing. The right hiking socks will provide support and keep your feet dry. There’s no better brand than these socks, they come with a lifetime warranty and got me through almost two weeks of hiking in Utah.
- Lip balm: optional, but highly recommended. I’ve never appreciated lip balm more than when I’m hiking outside and my lips feel parched. These round ones are easier to find in my purse!
- Change of clothes: while this isn’t absolutely necessary for a day trip, I find that having a change of clothes on hand is always helpful. Whether you feel gross after a full day of hiking in the sun, or accidentally get wet, you’ll be glad to have a change of clothes accessible.
- Picnic blanket: if you’re able to picnic at the beach, you absolutely should! Having a nice, lightweight picnic blanket like this one will ensure you have plenty of room to lounge around and keep your food as sand-free as possible.
- Quick dry towel: so much of the fun at Channel Islands is on the water, you’ll want to have a towel to dry off after a day playing in the beautiful Pacific. Don’t just pack any towel though! You’ll want something that’s lightweight and dries fairly quickly. These microfiber towels are a good option.
- Light jacket: if there’s something I’ve learned about California weather, it’s to always have a jacket with you. The boat ride to the islands can be pretty chilly, so having a jacket (like this cute one!) on hand will help you stay warm. Plus, you’ll be prepared for any weather changes on the island (which are totally possible!)
- Camera: I try not to go anywhere without my camera, and Channel Islands is no exception. There’s so many pretty things to photograph, a camera is a must. This is the DSLR I own and love.
- Ziploc bags: one of the best travel ‘hacks’ I’ve picked up over the years is that you can’t ever have too many ziploc or plastic storage bags with you. For a Channel Islands day trip, I recommend you stash your clean change of clothes in some plastic bags, and bring some extra gallon sized bags for a wet swimsuit or towel.
- Swimsuit: the water around the Channel Islands is so pretty, you’ll want to jump right in. Bring a cute swimsuit (like this super flattering one) to make the most of your island trip.
- Snorkeling Gear: did you know that snorkeling gear is fairly inexpensive? I bought a set for a Hawaii trip where snorkeling was a huge draw, and would recommend. Snorkeling is a popular activity on Channel Islands, so grab your set for your next trip.
- Waterproof cell phone cover: when doing anywhere in the water, you’ll want to protect your phone. Waterproof cell phone covers are a pretty affordable way to do so.
- Snacks and lunch: There’s no food for sale at any of the islands. Bring a picnic lunch (we packed sandwiches) and snacks for hiking around. These KIND bars are my favorite!
- Trash bag: there’s no trash cans on any of the Channel Islands, so you have to take ALL of your trash back home with you. Bring a trash bag or two to ensure you do your part to keep the islands pristine.
- Daypack: now that you know what to pack, you’ll need a place to pack it all in! I have this daypack (in orange) from REI and it’s served me well.
Other California National Parks and Adventures You’ll Love
I continue to fall in love with the natural beauty of California every single day. If you’re looking for more to explore after your trip to the Channel Islands National Park, California does not disappoint.
In nearby Southern California, you’ll find Joshua Tree National Park. Spend a day in Joshua Tree to experience the California desert.
Looking for more fun in the water? Check out San Onofre in San Diego County for some gorgeous cliffside camping.
Looking for some greenery? Sequoia National Park is the place to be to experience the stunning California forests!
And of course make sure you download the complete California packing list to ensure you have everything you need for your California adventure.