Hiking at Channel Islands National Park

Day hiking the Channel Islands, Ventura’s most adventurous attraction, whether it be Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, or Anacapa, is a great way to get the best out of the National Park’s untouched wilderness without committing to an overnight stay.

While there are moderate and easy Channel Island hikes, including scheduled guided tours, be aware that some channel Islands hikes are strenuous and only appropriate for physically fit individuals and experienced hikers. Even for those who have hiked before, the buddy system is recommended on all trails. To get the most out of your adventure, bring plenty of water, snacks, and sunscreen (and be prepared to pack them all out again), and consider planning your hike in advance, taking into consideration your party’s experience and skill level.

Channel Islands Hiking 

On any of the Channel Islands hikes of any distance or difficulty, hikers are guaranteed encounter spectacular views only accessible in this unique National Park. Like a miniature, untouched California wildland, the cliffs, hills, mountains, grasslands, canyons, and valleys on each island will give hikers a tour through California as it once was–a land home to millions of years of native wildlife, the Chumash Native Americans, with settlements dating as far back as 13,000 years, and eventually Mexican and American ranchers and explorers.

Finally, encompassed on all sides, hikers will experience a view only possible on the Channel Islands: the open Pacific Ocean, a deep, pristine blue on clear afternoons, and a dramatic, moody grey on misty mornings. With untouched beaches, sheer cliffs, and hundreds of unique plant species and wildlife to spot, these world-class hikes are the best in Ventura and are not to be missed.

Santa Cruz Island

As the largest, closest, and one of the most geologically diverse islands, Santa Cruz is the Channel Island’s most popular stop for good reason. At 93 square miles in size, with two mountain ranges, a central valley, and miles of cliffs and rugged coastland, this island offers epic hikes from trailheads starting right at the drop-off point at Scorpion Beach, including multi-day backpacker trails for the adventurous spirit. This is also one of the most popular islands for kayaking tours, scuba diving, and camping.

Sweeping views of the channel islands hiking trails and the Pacific Ocean.

But for the day-hiker, with a round-trip ferry ticket and desire to explore the National Park in a pair of walking boots, there are plenty of options for all levels of experience.

Smuggler’s Cove – 7.5 – Strenuous (Optional: Yellowbacks – 3, Smuggler’s Canyon – 2)

This popular, world-class return hike fits perfectly into a full day’s trip between the morning drop off and late afternoon pick-up at Scorpion Beach. This channel islands hike will give you a little taste of everything the island has to offer: spectacular views of the Pacific, beaches, mountains, valleys, grasslands, and a very good chance at seeing native plants and wildlife, including island foxes, lizards, ravens, and wildflowers in springtime.

Island Foxes native to the Channel Islands hiking trails.

This hike climbs steeply right away, levels off for a time, and then drops steeply down before ending at a tree-covered picnic area and pristine, rocky beach. While plenty of food and water will need to be packed in and out, there are toilets and picnic benches at the Cove. Spend an hour or three relaxing at the beach, or keep on exploring via a rugged add-on trek (Yellowbacks, Smuggler’s Canyon, or San Pedro Point trails, check the map or with a park ranger for details), before heading back to Scorpion Beach.

The return hike mirrors the hike in a steep upward incline, followed by a flat walk, and bookended by a downhill trek. This is a rewarding but strenuous hike that should only be undertaken by those carrying the appropriate supplies (food, water, and sunscreen), with adequate experience or physical ability, and accompanied by at least one hiking partner.

Cavern Point Loop – 2 – Moderate

This shorter, moderate hike is perfect for most hikers and the relaxed day-tripper who still wants a brisk walk with breathtaking views. This hike’s intensity can be further moderated by selecting which direction to take the loop: hike clockwise from the campsite to avoid a steep upward incline or hike counterclockwise to include it. Be advised that the downward incline may still be strenuous for some hikers.

Breathtaking views on the channel Islands hiking trails.

This hike includes rolling grassland vistas, pristine ocean views over dramatic cliffs, and whale watching at certain times of the year–so be sure to bring binoculars! While potable water is available at the Scorpion Beach campsite near the trailhead, be sure to pack plenty of water for the hike, and be certain to pack in and out all food and trash, as no trash depositories are available anywhere on the island.

Scorpion Canyon Loop – 4.5 – Moderate/Strenuous

This is the perfect day-hike for those who crave a rugged Channel Islands trek but also enjoy taking their time. This medium-level trail with some difficult sections is a hilly, inland trek that fits easily into the time between morning drop-off and late afternoon pick-up at the dock, and has the added benefit of being a loop, so you won’t see the same thing twice. Hike clockwise to avoid a steep upward climb, and talk to a ranger about venturing off-trail in pursuit of the rare Channel Islands scrub jay.

Words cannot describe watching a sunset from the islands.

Historic Ranch – .5 – Easy

This short, flat walk allows you to explore the historic Scorpion Ranch and is perfect for little ones, the elderly, or hikers without the ability to undertake steep climbs and descents. This short loop is an adventure in itself, as it reviews the ranch complex dating back to the 1800s. Learn about the history and imagine what it was like to live both remotely and in a different age as you encounter a blacksmith shop, farm tools, the nature kiosk, and the historical visitor’s center while you stroll the miniature valley that is home to Scorpion Ranch.

Anacapa Island

At only one-hour boat ride from Ventura Harbor, this is an ideal day trip experience for hikers who will get the satisfaction of exploring an entire islet from tip to tip. This tiny, undeveloped island boasts truly stunning views and easy trails, making it ideal for day-hikers seeking an untamed wilderness experience combined with minimal physical exertion. Camping is available for those seeking an even longer stay at this remote location. Be advised that unlike Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands there is no potable water available anywhere on this island, so adequate amounts water, as well as food and sun protection, must be packed both in and out.

Camping on Santa Rosa Island

Photo by Josiah Roe.

Featuring a leisurely 2 miles of trails, the payback for effort expended on this hike’s isolated, dramatic views and idyllic, rolling slopes is unprecedented. In late winter and spring, the hills are painted with wildflowers, and wildlife viewings are common throughout the year both on the island and from the boat, including native birds, seals, and sea lions. Note that the two other islets that make up Anacapa Island, the Middle and East Islets, are not available for hiking, but their reservation as wildlife sanctuaries are what make wildlife viewing on West Anacapa so spectacular. As such, the diving opportunities at Anacapa are particularly pristine.

Anacapa Island Lighthouse overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Photo by Doug Mangum

The trails on Anacapa Island make a simple figure eight loop, with key sights along the way: the spectacular vista at Inspiration Point, sea lion sightings at Pinniped Point, the beautiful rock formations at Cathedral Cove, and the historic Lighthouse, the last built one on the West Coast. Along the way, stop for lunch or a snack, and be sure to take the time to observe the astounding quiet and expansive ocean all around. There’s nothing quite like it.

Santa Rosa Island

The second largest island in the Channel Islands, Santa Rosa Island offers much of the geological variation of Santa Cruz Island with some notable unique exceptions. Black Mountain, whose peak reaches over 1200ft above sea level, is one of the only true mountain treks on the all the islands, offering views of the rest of the archipelago and the mainland on clear days. In addition, this more remote and less populated island features pristine white sand beaches, water-filled canyons, natural sandstone walls, and is home to the rare Torrey pine, making it the last place on earth this once populous tree from the Pleistocene grows.

Rolling hills and valleys on Santa Rosa Island.

Photo by Josiah Roe

As the boat ride to Santa Rosa Island from Ventura Harbor is 2-2.5 hours each way, consider booking an overnight round-trip for a multi-day campout to really explore this island, or be sure to plan your hikes in advance to make the most of your day. As with all the islands, it’s vital to  bring enough water, food, sun protection, and other necessary gear as there is no way to

Camping under the stars on the Channel Islands hiking trails.

Black Mountain – 8 – Strenuous

This is a must-do trail for experienced hikers. While the hike up this loop trail is a rugged, strenuous climb, hikers are rewarded with breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean, the surrounding Channel Islands, and even Ventura on mainland California on clear days. Rolling scrublands and oak woodlands abut this unforgettable hike. As there is little shade and no potable water past the trailhead, be sure to bring sun protection and plenty to eat and drink.

Torrey Pines – 5 (along Coastal Road to base of pines) – Moderate – 7.5 (via the loop trail from Coastal Road) – Strenuous

For those who wish to admire the rare Torrey Pines, two options are available, scalable to different levels of hiking ability. The moderate version of the hike, accessible for most levels of hiker, follows the flat Coastal Road along the base of the pines. To add stunning views of the Torrey pines backed by the Pacific Ocean (and an increased level of length and difficulty to the trek), follow the loop trail to the west, hiking up over the top of the grove, and ending eastward back onto the Coastal Road.

Each island offers hiking for all experience levels.

Photo by Josiah Roe

Water Canyon – 3 (to canyon mouth) – Strenuous

Despite the short, 3 mile trail to the mouth of the canyon, this hike is longer than it appears, because the canyon itself continues for another 6 miles, exiting near Soledad peak. The hike into the canyon can be steep, and, once inside, hikers are off-trail, following natural animal paths and the streambed, so this trek is recommended for experienced hikers only. However, for the effort and adventure, hikers will be rewarded with a walk through a pristine sandstone canyon, with native vegetation growing along the steep walls, and water flowing in the streambed all year round. As this trail is rugged underfoot, be certain to bring a hiking partner in addition to food, sun protection, a map, and water.

Hidden gems found on every island.

Water Canyon Beach – 3 (to beach entrance) – Easy (if the wind is moderate)

Be sure to check the weather or talk with a ranger before heading down to this beach as strong winds can make the walk difficult. On still or moderately windy days, however, this pristine white sand beach is a once-in-a-lifetime stroll. A walk along Water Canyon beach makes a total of four miles from the entrance and back again, and on clear days bright blue water rolls alongside the white sand.

Lobo Canyon – 9 (to canyon mouth) – Strenuous

To experience a wonder of natural geology this lengthy hike into the island is well worth the effort. At 9 miles from the pier to the canyon mouth, the trek is recommended for experienced hikers who will be ready to get started early, bring plenty of supplies and water, and take a hiking partner. First trekking through the rolling hills and natural scrubland of Santa Rosa Island, the inbound trail ends at the mouth of Lobo Canyon, a natural canyon framed by grooved and pocketed sandstone walls, shaped by wind and water. Enjoy and explore the shade, peace, and beauty of the canyon before heading back.