Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary is comprised of five Channel Islands along the Santa Barbara Channel and their ocean environment. From north to south, the islands are San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara. Close to the California mainland and only a short trip away from Los Angeles, the park’s five islands provide a delightful break from the hustle and bustle of urban life.
The Channel Islands are home to over 2,000 plant and animal species of which 150 are found nowhere else in the world, earning these islands their nickname as North America’s Galapagos. Santa Barbara Channel is home to over 30 marine mammal species including whales, dolphins, and elephant seals, as well as marine life ranging from sea stars and anemones to blue whales, the largest animals in the world.
The Channel Islands are also the site of the oldest known human remains in North America, and provide the opportunity to experience coastal southern California as it once was. Archeologists have discovered that dwarf wooly mammoths thrived on the island until the last Ice Age ended 11,000 years ago. The islands are also known for being settled by maritime Paleo Indian peoples at least 13,000 years ago. Many archeological sites on the island serve as an invaluable record of those times. Archeologists have discovered approximately 148 historic village sites, including 11 on Santa Cruz Island, eight on Santa Rosa Island, and two on San Miguel Island.
WHEN TO VISIT
Each season has something special to offer, and because the park is in Southern California, it is sunny, warm, and open year-round. Inspiration Point on Anacapa Island boasts spectacular views, and the majestic rock formations at Cathedral Point are often embellished by posing sea lions. Summer is the most popular season to visit the islands with perfect weather and blue and humpback whale watching opportunities as the whales migrate north. Early fall is considered the best time for snorkeling, diving, kayaking, and swimming with ocean temperatures averaging 70 degrees and underwater visibility reaching up to 100 feet. The most stunning sunsets of the year occur in winter as elephant seals, harbor seal pups, and gray whales pass by while traveling south. And spring is especially magical on the islands when they flaunt fresh green grasses adorned with blooming wildflowers, nesting seabirds, and western gulls. There’s also brand new chicks and island fox pups discovering the islands for the first time themselves.
Each island offers unique experiences to visitors. Anacapa Island is great for wildflower enthusiasts, birders, picnics, and short hikes. Santa Cruz Island is great for adventure seekers who want to try sea cave kayaking or snorkeling, long hikes, birding, or camping. Santa Rosa Island is great for secluded white sand beaches, hiking, and backcountry camping. Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands are easily accessible year-round while Santa Rosa Island is accessible March through October. Trips to Santa Barbara Island and San Miguel Island are temporarily closed to the public due to conservation and rehabilitation efforts but are scheduled to reopen soon.
THINGS TO DO
Miles of trails and sea cliffs weave in and around the Channel Islands just 14 miles off Ventura’s coast, making Ventura a well-appointed base for hiking, kayaking, backcountry camping, and wildlife viewing. Hiking in the Channel Islands National Park is unlike anywhere else with breathtaking 360-degree views of the ocean. Extraordinary views are the reason Inspiration Point earned its name, just as majestic rock formations are the reason sea lions choose to make their home in Cathedral Point. There are many trails to explore the islands, from the maintained, relatively flat, signed trails of Scorpion Valley to the dramatic overlooks and magnificent coastal views on Anacapa Island. Adventurous hikers may also choose to explore the unmaintained, rugged, mountainous paths of Montañon Ridge. Trails are anywhere from 2 to 21 miles long.
The grandeur of the Channel Islands is most obvious while backcountry camping. Backcountry camping allows you to immerse yourself in the beauty and challenge of the Channel Islands’ wild side. By carrying everything you need to survive on your back, up over sea cliffs, and down through fields of wildflowers, you can discover a world beyond where the trails end. January through March is gray whale season and migrating whales can be seen swimming along their 10,000-mile migration route.
The marine sanctuary surrounding the Channel Islands is sought out for world class diving and snorkeling with visibility reaching 100 feet, underwater arches, and WWII shipwrecks to explore. The ocean has also carved out amazing opportunities for sea cave kayaking. Painted Cave on Santa Cruz Island, one of the largest and deepest sea caves in the world, is nearly a quarter mile long and 100 feet wide, with an entrance ceiling of 160 feet and a waterfall over the entrance in the spring. The islands also provide important breeding habitats for colonies of nesting seabirds and diverse plants and animals. The park has something to offer for a variety of ages and interests including families, outdoor enthusiasts, history buffs and wildlife lovers.
PLAN YOUR VISIT
Visitors to Channel Islands National Park should prepare for their trip in order to get the most out of their visit. The first step to planning a visit is to choose an island to visit and make transportation arrangements. Channel Islands National Park is accessible via boat or plane with prior reservations. Island Packers is the sole concessionaire for boat transportation to the Channel Islands. To make reservations, visit their website for a calendar of upcoming trips. Island Packers also offers whale watching trips in Santa Barbara Channel. They operate out of Ventura Harbor and are happy to be your boat transportation for a day trip or a multi-day camping trip. Learn more about other transportation options here.
Basic items to pack include light layers for weather changes, dramamine for seasickness, sunscreen, a hat, food and water, hiking shoes, and a camera to snap beautiful pictures of the scenery. For a complete list of suggested items to pack, especially if you are camping, visit the National Parks Service’s website.
Channel Islands National Park, like many other national parks, is a wonderful place to relax and admire nature at its best. As such, the park has only few comfort amenities in order to limit human impact. The park does not have cellular or wireless network signal, forcing you to put your phone away and enjoy the moment. There is also no running water available, so visitors should plan to bring enough for their stay at the park. Outhouses are available by Visitors Centers on the islands and around campgrounds. Rangers are also available to answer questions or assist in case of emergency. Naturalists from the National Parks Service or Island Packers guides are also commonly available to give guided hikes around the islands. No services such as food or equipment rental shops are available on the islands, so all meals should be planned and all activities should be reserved in advance. An important thing to remember is that there are also no trash services on the island, so everyone must join in the effort of minimizing their footprint by packing out everything they brought with them.
Step off the beaten path and explore Channel Islands National Park for yourself! Begin planning your trip by discovering what the individual islands of Anacapa, Santa Cruz, and Santa Rosa have to offer.