Looking for an awesome Channel Islands itinerary? Well, you’ve come to the right place! I had no idea what to expect from a Channel Islands day trip, but I’m so glad I *finally* got a chance to visit.
If you haven’t made a visit to Channel Islands National Park either, you’re not alone. Would you believe that out of 63 national parks, Channel Islands National Park is only the 47th most visited? Now that I’ve been there, I can’t believe it. Channel Islands National Park is one of the most beautiful national parks in California!
Although I haven’t visited a ton of national parks (planning on changing that!), I’ve been wanting to see the Channel Islands for years. But it wasn’t until I boarded the ferry to Santa Cruz Island that I started to understand what I’d been missing. The islands are teeming with animals, plants, and birds you can’t see anywhere in the world. There’s a good chance you’ll see dolphins or seals or sea lions on the ferry ride. And the ocean views are beyond belief.
A Channel Islands itinerary is a must for anyone who loves to enjoy pristine, uncrowded nature. And if you’re wondering how to visit Channel Islands National Park and what to do there, you’re in the right place.
Table of Contents
About the Channel Islands
The history of the Channel Islands is super fascinating. Before becoming a park, the islands were privately owned and operated as ranches. The sheep and cattle they imported from the mainland changed the natural habitat of the island, and a lot of the old buildings are still there. It wasn’t officially established as a national park until 1980.
Before they were ranches though, the islands were home to the Chumash, the native population that lived there for thousands of years. It’s said that the Channel Islands were the birthplace of the tribe. They fished the local waters, manufactured tools and trade items, and traveled back and forth to the mainland in tomols – canoes they made from fallen redwood trees that drifted down the coast. You can learn more about the Chumash and Native Lands here.
The Channel Islands are also where archaeologists discovered the earliest evidence of humans in North America. The remains found in the excavation at Arlington Springs (on Santa Rosa island) are over 13,000 years old!
The Channel Islands became a National Park in 1980, and are home to over 100 species of plants and animals that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. The NPS is dedicated to protecting and restoring the natural resources of the Channel Islands. The park is also committed to honoring the islands’ history through archaeological excavations and hosts regular celebrations in collaboration with the Chumash people.
Eight islands make up the Channel Islands, but only five make up Channel Islands National Park.
Anacapa Island is a great place to visit if you’re interested in marine life. It’s actually three small islands, and its sea caves and surrounding kelp forest make it a great habitat for seals and sea lions. It is close to the California coast so it’s a good option for a Channel Islands day trip.
Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz Island is the best (and most popular) Channel Island to visit for first-time visitors. It has mountains, spectacular cliffs overlooking the ocean, tidepools, a fascinating visitor center, and gorgeous beaches. It’s basically everything you could ask for in an island!
If hiking is your thing, you’ve got tons of trails to choose from, and if you like the water, Santa Cruz is the best Channel Island for water activities like snorkeling and kayaking.
Santa Rosa Island
The best beach in the Channel Islands can be found on Santa Rosa Island. It can get pretty windy on Santa Rosa though, so water sports aren’t really recommended. It’s a better island to visit for hikers and overnight campers.
San Miguel Island
Another island that you’ll want to camp on, San Miguel is the furthest island to the west. It doesn’t see as many visitors as the others, so it’s perfect for spotting wildlife – both on land and in the water! It’s not always open, so be sure to check the ferry schedule for up-to-date information.
Santa Barbara Island
Santa Barbara Island has limited ferry service, but it’s worth planning a visit if you can. The trails have incredible views, the wildflower fields are stunning, and there are birds and elephant seals everywhere!
Where are the Channel Islands?
So just how far are the Channel Islands from Los Angeles? The answer isn’t super straightforward because it depends on what island you’re visiting and where in Los Angeles you’re leaving from.
However, if you’re in Los Angeles county, like me, I highly recommend spending a weekend (or long weekend) in Ventura, like I did! That way, you can have a good night’s sleep and save your energy for all the island activities.
The Channel Islands sit northwest of Los Angeles. It’s about 70 miles to Ventura from Los Angeles and the closest island is about 50 nautical miles from Ventura and 70 miles from Santa Barbara. It’s wild that more people don’t visit! The islands are so close and an easily accessible day trip from Ventura or weekend trip from Los Angeles.
How to Get to the Channel Islands
They may only be fifty miles from the mainland, but the only way of getting to the Channel Islands is by boat or chartered flight. Even though it can be really choppy (like, really choppy), I recommend taking a boat. Not only is it more economical, but you’ll also have a great chance to see marine life like dolphins and seals on the way.
The best way to get to the Channel Islands is to take a ferry from Ventura with Island Packers Cruises. They offer a wide variety of tour types to the various islands, which makes it easy to plan any Channel Islands itinerary.
You’ll need to book your trip in advance. I recommend at least 3 weeks – more if you’re going in spring or summer. You’ll also need to call on the morning of your departure to make sure the ferry is still running.
Most of the trips to the Channel Islands leave from Ventura Harbor, but there are a few that depart from the Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard so be sure to check your confirmation to make sure you’re headed to the right place.
From Santa Barbara
It’s possible to book a private boat out to the Channel Islands from Santa Barbara, but I still recommend driving to Ventura and using Island Packers. It’s only about a half-hour drive south on PCH (the Pacific Coast Highway) and it’s a gorgeous, scenic drive.
The Best Time to Visit the Channel Islands
There really isn’t a bad time to visit the Channel Islands. Picking the right time for your Channel Islands National Park itinerary really depends on what you want to see and do when you get there.
Summer and fall are the most popular times to visit. The park will be the most crowded then, but you’ll also have a lot more options for activities like snorkeling, kayaking, and guided tours.
If you want to see whales, the summer is when you can see blue whales and humpback whales. Winter is when the gray whales migrate into the area. It’s also when the seals pup.
I visited in the spring, and I think spring is probably the best time to visit the Channel Islands National Park. It wasn’t crowded at all and there is usually plenty of wildlife to see on the cruise out to the island. Plus, there were plenty of beautiful wildflower fields all around the island; they were like fields of sunshine!
Pro Tip: The islands aren’t all open year-round. If you have a particular island you want to see, be sure to check the Channel Islands National Park site to see the opening schedules.
Best Things to do on Santa Cruz Island
If you’re taking a day trip to Channel Islands National Park, you’re probably only going to have time to really explore one island. Of all of them, Santa Cruz Island is the best Channel Island to visit. It’s the biggest and it’s open year-round.
Take a Hike with an NPS Ranger
The free guided hike with the NPS ranger is one of the best things to do on Santa Cruz Island when you first arrive.
The hike leaves around 20-30 minutes after the ferry lands so you’ll have plenty of time to disembark, eat your breakfast (trust me, you want to wait to eat until you land), and meet up with the ranger.
The rangers know a ton about the history of the island. They also give great recommendations for more hikes to take based on everyone’s skill level and what we wanted to see.
The NPS hike is a perfect way to get oriented to everything Santa Cruz Island has to offer, and definitely made the rest of the day more enjoyable.
Hike, Hike, and Hike Some More
Hiking is one of the best things to do in the Channel Islands. The hiking trails on Santa Cruz island have something for everyone. There are trails of various lengths, viewpoints, and levels.
I took the Cavern Point Loop trail out to the Potato Harbor overlook. I wasn’t there at the right time of year, but in the right season, you can actually see whales from there! How cool is that? The views on this trail were incredible, and except for one steep section, it was pretty moderate. If you want to avoid climbing the steep slope, hike the trail clockwise – starting from near campsite 22.
Pro tip: The National Park Service offers a really great Channel Islands hiking trails app. There’s no cell service on the island so you need to download the app before you go and save Santa Cruz Island for offline use.
Check Out the Sea Life
If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see marine life like dolphins and seals during your ferry ride to and from the islands. Either way, it’s really fun to check out the sea caves and kelp forest around Santa Cruz Island.
The ferry can sometimes take you into Painted Cave Channel Islands on the way back to the mainland (yes, the ferry fits into the cave!). But seeing it from a kayak is one of the coolest things to do in the Channel Islands. It’s the second-largest sea cave in the United States and the rocks are all these different, brilliant colors. In the rainy season, there are waterfalls too!
Whether you want to kayak to the sea caves or snorkel through the kelp forests, I recommend booking a guided tour here or with Channel Islands Kayaking Tours if that tour isn’t available. The guides know the area and the water, and they can take you to the best things to see in the Channel Islands on the day you visit.
If you prefer to explore on your own, you can rent kayaks through the Channel Islands Kayak Center. You can also bring your own equipment. Just be sure that your kayak complies with all the regulations before you go.
Whatever option you choose, be sure to book your tour or equipment rental ahead of time.
Watch for Whales (Depending on the Season!)
If you visit Channel Islands in summer or winter, your day trip to Channel Islands National Park could include a truly spectacular whale sighting.
Blue whales and humpback whales swim the waters of the Channel Islands in the summer, and winter is the best time to spot gray whales. Island Packers offers whale watching cruises if you’d rather do that as your Channel Islands day trip.
There are also spots along the coastal hiking trails where you might be able to spot whales. The park ranger can point you to the best overlooks.
Explore the Scorpion Ranch Visitor Center
The Scorpion Ranch Visitor Center is a great place to explore on your day trip to Channel Islands National Park. The visitor center is located in the old Scorpion Ranch house and has several interactive exhibits on the history of the island.
You can also see old ranch buildings and read up on the island’s native species, and see conservation efforts that are underway (the bat roost was really cool, even if I didn’t get anywhere close to it!).
See the Foxes!
While you’re not guaranteed to see any wildlife while on the island, it’s hard to miss the Channel Island foxes. They’re super cute – only four pounds! – and can only be found on the Channel Islands. Just keep an eye on your bags. The foxes have learned to unzip bags and coolers in search of food.
I was also really entertained by the ravens. Apparently, a few of them have started stealing food from other animals, and they were marked with blue tags so the rangers could keep an eye on them. They didn’t seem too happy about it either because they were standing on a picnic table and squawking the whole time the ranger was talking about them.
If you’re interested in racking up a list of unusual wildlife, there are over 100 species of plants and animals that can only be found on the Channel Islands!
Should I Stay Overnight on Santa Cruz Island?
If you know anything about me, you know I’ll almost always opt out of camping unless necessary. I love me a glamp site though! My Channel Islands National Park day trip gave me plenty of time for hiking, but if you want to snorkel or kayak (it was a little too cold for those during my trip), you may wish you had a little more time to spend on the island.
Camping is the best thing to do if you want to visit more than one of the Channel Islands. Some of the smaller islands are farther away from the mainland, and wouldn’t be possible to visit in a day.
And for anyone who wants to spend more time hiking, sitting on the beach, exploring the water, or just watching the sun set over the ocean, camping Channel Islands National Park is a good option.
Camping in Channel Islands National Park
If you decide to camp Channel Islands, be sure to pre-book a spot at least 2 months in advance at the NPS reservation site. There are a limited number of spots and they book fast.
Camping Channel Islands is pretty close to wild camping. There are toilets but beyond that, you’ll need to bring everything you need with you.. You can’t have open flames so I recommend non-perishable items. There are also food lockers available so you can avoid foxes and ravens stealing your food.
Check the National Park Service site to see details on the available campsites. It also lists specific camping requirements you’ll need to check before you go. If you’re reading this and end up camping, leave me a comment. I’m curious what the experience is like!
Where to Stay in Ventura
If you don’t want to camp, I highly recommend staying at the hotel here I stayed: the Amanzi Hotel Ventura. I Not only is it really clean and ultra-comfortable, but the location is spectacular. It’s an easy 10-minute drive to Ventura Harbor, but if you’re staying in Ventura for a little longer, it’s walking distance both from the pier and Downtown Ventura. And it’s reasonably-priced to boot. Wins all around!
What to Know when Visiting Channel Islands: Tips for First Time Visitors
If you haven’t taken a day trip to Channel Islands National Park before, keep reading for tips on how to visit Channel Islands National Park.
- Book everything ahead of time: Purchase your tickets and any excursions ahead. They really do sell out, especially during spring break, summer, and fall.
- Ferry tip: Don’t eat before taking the ferry, especially if you get seasick (when they say the water can be choppy, they mean it!). There are seasickness chews if you get a queasy stomach (or you can bring these with you and be totally prepared). Trust me – you won’t regret being prepared on this front.
- There’s a Vons Deli right by the harbor. It opens early and it’s a great place to get food, snacks, and water for your day trip to Channel Islands. Harbor Cove Cafe also has a great breakfast and boxed lunch selection. Just be sure to order online the day before.
- The bathrooms on Santa Cruz island aren’t amazing, but they aren’t terrible either. There’s usually toilet paper, but better safe than sorry. Pack baby wipes.
- Pack plenty of water and stay hydrated! There’s minimal shade.
- Be prepared to spend the whole day on the island – the only evening ferries from Santa Cruz Island are 4-5 pm. I like to carry a day pack so I have plenty of room for food, water, and the layers I no longer need as the day warms up.
- Check the weather and sea conditions before you go. In the unlikely event the water is too choppy for the ferry, they’ll skip a day – meaning if you’re camping, you either have to go back a day early or be prepared to spend another night there.
What to Pack for the Channel Islands
There are no services on the Channel Islands, so you need to make sure you bring everything you need with you.
- Make sure you pack sunscreen – there isn’t much shade on the islands. I like to use water-resistant sunscreen so I’m prepared for whatever the day might bring. And don’t forget to protect your lips too.
- Bring plenty of water. The good news is that there’s potable water at Scorpion Anchorage campground, so while it’s a good idea to carry in what you think you’ll need, you can also bring a refillable bottle to use if you need more than you brought.
- Pack enough food and snacks for the day (these are currently my favorite easy-to-pack snacks). You’ll get hungrier than you think after all the activities on the Channel Islands, and the ferry won’t be back until late afternoon!
- There are NPS rangers on the island, but I still like to carry this first aid kit with me when visiting National Parks. It’s always better to be prepared when you’re heading out into nature.
- Dress in layers – it’s cold on the ferry but it will warm up quickly when you start hiking. And these spf pants and spf shirts are perfect for trips like these!
- Don’t forget your hat, sunglasses, and comfortable hiking shoes.
- Bring a trash bag! Leave no trace: there are no trash cans or services on the island so it’s crucial that you bring a bag for wrappers, trash, and any food remnants.
Tell me: Is a Channel Islands National Park itinerary on your California bucket list? What else would you do when you visit Channel Islands National Park?
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