Channel Islands National Park: The Complete Guide for 2021

Jody Vandergriff

Los Altos Hills, CA, USA

Channel Islands National Park is an archipelago just off the coast of Southern California. It’s a nature lover’s paradise, home to species of plants and animals found nowhere else on the planet. The islands attract eco-enthusiasts from across the globe, and its surrounding waters, aptly named the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary, are home to hundreds of species of marine life including California’s state fish (the Garibaldi), dozens of endangered species, and lush underwater kelp forests. And if that’s not enough to motivate you to take a PADI refresher course, there are dozens of shipwrecks to spot in the surrounding waters. Let’s dive in.

Where is Channel Islands National Park?

Channel Islands National Park, California, US.

California’s Channel Islands are located off the coast of Southern California, 26 nautical miles from the city of Santa Barbara and 36 miles from Ventura. The closest national parks are Joshua Tree, located 200 miles east of Ventura, and Pinnacles, 230 miles northwest.

Channel Islands National Park Facts

Channel Islands National Park, California, US.
  • The Channel Islands are an archipelago of 8 islands in the Santa Barbara Channel, 5 of which were designated the Channel Islands National Park in 1980. The surrounding waters make up the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary, one of only 14 protected waters in the US.
  • The park is an ecologically diverse archipelago. Its separation from the mainland has driven the rapid evolution of plants and animals, spawning new species found nowhere else in the world.
  • Nature buffs travel from all over the world to catch a glimpse of endemic species including the Island Fox and the Island Spotted Skunk, two of the only mammals found on the island (along with the deer mouse). The Island Scrub Jay, endemic to Santa Cruz Island, is the only species in North America found on one single island.
  • In 2006, the Channel Islands were the first location in 50 years where a bald eagle hatched unaided by humans. You can still see an active bald eagle nest on Santa Cruz island from the coastline. For the Bald Eagle groupies out there, there is even a live cam to watch the nest 24/7.
  • It’s not just the diverse and unique wildlife that make these islands interesting. They are thought to have been first inhabited by humans 13,000 years ago! The oldest human bones found in North America were found right here in the Channel Islands: Santa Rosa Island, to be exact.

Getting to Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park, California, US.

Although the visitor center is located in Ventura Harbor and is easily accessible by car, the only way to visit the Channel Islands National Park is by boat or plane. Ferry service is available from Ventura Harbor and takes you on an enjoyable 1-2 hour ride through the Santa Barbara Channel—a literal playground for schools of marine life including California sea lions, harbor seals, common and bottlenose dolphins and various species of whales such as humpbacks and blue and grey whales, depending on the season.

Channel Islands National Park by Ferry

Island Packers in the only company operating a ferry to and from the Channel Islands National Park, running a daily service to all 5 islands. Don’t let the term “ferry” fool you though. The ride is not cheap. It will set you back $59-$105 roundtrip per person depending on the distance you are traveling. Dolphins, whales and sea lions are common sightings, so you can check that off your bucket list along the way. Bring the dramamine. The sea can be choppy.

Channel Islands National Park by Plane

If you are feeling a bit more spendy and have seen your share of dolphins frolicking in the ocean, Channel Islands Aviation runs service to San Miguel and Santa Rosa islands, the furthest from the bunch. The flight will set you back $1200 but includes an adventure of a lifetime. Both islands offer nothing more than a dirt runway so brace yourself for the landing. Primitive camping is available nearby.

Channel Islands National Park by Private Boat

For the best of both worlds, charter a boat and choose your own adventure. There are a number of companies offering private charters to the Channel Islands running out of Oxnard and Ventura, California. Not the cheapest option but definitely the most luxurious, check out Channel Islands Charter or Sail Channel Islands.

When to visit Channel Islands National Park?

Channel Islands National Park, California, US.

The Channel Islands are open year-round and offer something different with every turn of the season. The winter months are your best bet for spotting Gray Whales and seals pupping on the beaches. Spring is another great season for catching seals lounging around or baby island foxes bouncing about. The colors can’t be beat in the spring as bright yellow wildflowers come into bloom. Summer brings Humpback and Blue Whale Season and ideal weather conditions for sailing. And finally, Fall is the best season for diving and snorkeling with visibility reaching 100 feet. Fall also brings the best weather and warmest waters, great conditions for kayaking around the islands.

Channel Islands National Park Hours

Channel Islands National Park, California, US.

The Robert J. Lagomarsino Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center is open from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm daily. The Outdoors Santa Barbara Visitor Center is open from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm daily. Channel Islands National Park is under limited operations due to COVID-19. For current status and frequent updates, check out the current conditions.

Channel Islands National Park Entrance Fee

Channel Islands National Park, California, US.

Although there are no park fees, getting there is expensive —anywhere from $56 to $1200 per person, the higher price being for a trip by air.

Hiking in Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park, California, US.

If you’re ready to stretch your legs (but not sure where to start), here’s a list of our favorite hiking trails in Channel Islands National Park:

Easy, great for beginners:

  1. Potato Harbor Trail; Santa Cruz Island (4.9 mile loop)
  2. Scorpion Bay to Cavern Point Loop; Santa Cruz Island (1.6 mile loop)
  3. East Anacapa Island Trail; Anacapa Island (2.4 mile loop)
  4. Torrey Pines Trail; Santa Rosa Island (1.4 mile loop)
  5. Skunk Point Loop; Santa Rose Island (6.1 mile loop)

Moderate, fairly strenuous:

  1. Smugglers Cove Trail; Santa Cruz Island (7.7 out-and-back)
  2. Pelican Bay Trail; Santa Cruz Island (4 mile out-and-back)
  3. Pier to Ford Point; Santa Rosa Island (19.4 mile out-and-back)
  4. Lobo Canyon Trail; Santa Barbara Island (4.8 mile out-and-back)
  5. Black Mountain Trail; Santa Rosa Island (6 mile out-and-back)

Hard, experience recommended:

  1. El Montañon Trail; Santa Cruz Island (8.5 mile loop)
  2. Montañon Ridge Loop; Santa Cruz Island (9.5 mile loops)
  3. Del Norte and Montañon Trail to Scorpion Campground Santa Cruz Island (12.5 mile out-and-back)

Which Island to Visit in Channel Islands National Park?

Channel Islands National Park, California, US.

Channel Islands National Park is comprised of 5 islands: Santa Barbara Island, San Miguel Island, Santa Rosa Island, Santa Cruz Island and Anacapa Island. Although close in proximity, each island is quite different from the others, offering a unique experience. All the islands are undeveloped and offer limited to no services, so preparation and planning is key.

Anacapa Island

Anacapa Island, Channel Islands National Park, California, US.

Anacapa Island is the closest of the Channel Islands National Park to the mainland. A short, 1-hour ferry ride will get you there. According to the National Park Service, Western Gulls nest on the island from April to August and can create quite a ruckus. You’ve been warned. Nonetheless, this island has some of the best weather and offers a multitude of activities such as primitive camping, fishing, fantastic wildlife spotting, diving and kayaking. Although the island only offers about 2 miles of trails, it is some of the best views around.

Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park, California, US.

The largest and most popular island in the national park, Santa Cruz Island is easily accessible via ferry, plane or tour operator. It is also the island with the best weather conditions, so if you aren’t quite ready to battle high cross winds whipping sand across your face, this may be the island for you. Popular activities include kayaking, diving, wildlife viewing (don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for the endemic Scrub Jay, found no where else in the world!), camping and a variety of trails for exploring on foot.

Santa Rosa Island

Santa Rosa Island, Channel Islands National Park, California, US.

The second largest island in Channel Islands National Park, Santa Rosa is a popular island and easily accessible by ferry. However, weather conditions can be challenging with the island often experiencing extremely high winds. Popular activities include: primitive camping, sandy beaches (although water sports should be left to the experts due to high winds), fishing and plenty of trails for all levels of fitness.

San Miguel Island

San Miguel Island, Channel Islands National Park, California, US.

This island is one the harshest to visit, but perhaps one of the most beautiful. On San Miguel, you should plan to experience strong winds year-round. Island access is by permit only. Popular activities include camping, fishing, exceptional wildlife viewing and an awe inspiring 16 mile round trip hike.

Santa Barbara Island

Santa Barbara Island, Channel Islands National Park, California, US.

If you are looking to go way off the beaten path, Santa Barbara Island may be the spot for you. The furthest island in the national park, this one is the most challenging to get to. Island Packers offers a ferry during the months of April – October and travel time is approximately 3 hours. Popular activities include camping, fishing, wildlife viewing (some of the best!), exploring 5 miles of trails, diving and kayaking.

Channel Islands National Park Lodging

Channel Islands National Park Camping

Channel Islands National Park, California, US.

If you really want to immerse yourself in 10,000 years of history, then camping the Channel Islands is definitely the way to go. Each of the 5 islands within the park have a single, year-round campground. Facilities are very limited, and once the last ferry leaves, there are no alternatives, so this option is not for the inexperienced. If you plan to take the ferry, there are a limited number of slots for overnight transportation so be sure to book your ferry ticket first. Although there is no entrance fee to enter Channel Islands National Park, the campgrounds require advanced reservation and an easy $15 reservation fee.

Your adventure begins as soon as you arrive at the ferry drop off point. There is no island transportation, so you have to carry all of your gear to the campground yourself. If you are headed to Anacapa Island, that means a walk up 157 stairs. On Santa Rosa Island, you will be hiking 1.5 miles to your humble abode for the evening. The campsites come complete with picnic tables, a primitive toilet, and food storage. Most of the islands do not provide water so campers should plan accordingly.

If that still feels like glamping to you and you are looking for a real adventure (respect), Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Island offer backcountry camping.

Channel Islands National Park Hotels

Cliff House Inn On the Ocean, Ventura, CA, US.

If roughin’ it isn’t your thing, there are plenty of resorts, hotels, hostels, inns, cabins and B&Bs back on the mainland. Here are some of our favorites:

  1. Ventura Beach Mariott
  2. Inn on the Beach
  3. The Pierpont Inn
  4. Waypoint Ventura Vintage Trailer Hotel & Campground
  5. Clocktower Inn Ventura
  6. Ojai Valley Inn
  7. Cliff House Inn on the Ocean
  8. Pepper Tree Retreat
  9. Caravan Outpost

Channel Islands National Park Tours

Channel Islands National Park, California, US.

If you’d rather leave your tour of the Channel Islands to the experts, there are a number of tour operators running outfits out of Ventura, Santa Barbara and Oxnard. The best tour operator will depend on the experiences you are most interested in. Channel Islands Adventure Company is the official outfitter for kayaking Santa Cruz Island.

Best Things to Do in Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands Adventure Company

Channel Islands Adventure Co., California, US. Credit: @chiefseeker

Looking to get a little closer to the marine life? Channel Islands Adventure Company offers up kayaking and snorkeling tours that include some of the best views (above and under water) in California.

Painted Caves

Painted Caves, Channel Islands National Park, California, US.

Santa Cruz Island is home to the world’s largest sea cave: Painted Cave. If you’re up for true adventure, kayak about two-thirds of the way into the cave, and as the walls start to narrow, you’ll find yourself in a huge, pitch-black chamber with sea lions yawning and barking around you.

Channel Islands Whale Watching

Whale Watching, Channel Islands National Park, California, US.

Channel Islands National Park is one of the best whale watching destinations in the entire world. Over the last decade, the population of Humpback whales and Blue whales in the Santa Barbara Channel has exploded— a hopeful sign for both marine life and tourists. Tours at Channel Islands Whale Watching run from December 26 – April 30 each year.

Channel Islands Sportfishing

Channel Islands Sportfishing, California, US.Credit: Channel Islands Sportfishing

Channel Islands Sportfishing provides daily deep sea fishing trips with knowledgable guides and captains. If you’re looking to get out for a day (but aren’t interested in chartering your own boat), this is the best way to to do it.

Black Mountain

Black Mountain, Channel Islands National Park, California, US.Credit: NPS; Tim Hauf

Black Mountain on Santa Rosa Island is one of the most strenuous hikes in the Channel Islands, taking you 1200 ft above sea level, culminating in sweeping views of the entire archipelago on a clear day.

Smugglers Cove

Smugglers Cove, Channel Islands National Park, California, US.

Smugglers Cove on Santa Cruz Island is another trail for the experienced hiker offering plenty of views and wildlife sightings – you might even be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the island fox, a species endemic to this island.

East Anacapa Island Trail

East Anacapa Island Trail, Channel Islands National Park, California, US.

Anacapa Island is a short 1 hour ferry ride from the mainland and offers a great option for an easy 2.4 mile loop that still delivers on magnificent views and the serenity of a remote island.

Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary

Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary, California, US.

Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary is a world-class diving destination. From massive kelp forests to endangered species and dozens of shipwrecks, dive enthusiasts can easily spend days exploring the diverse underwater world of this national marine sanctuary. There are a number of dive boat operators offering single day, multi day and live-aboard options for diving the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary.