Just 29 miles away from the bustling beach city of Santa Barbara, California is one of the country’s most secluded National Parks. Comprising five exotic and diverse islands, the Anacapa Island, Santa Cruz Island, Santa Rosa Island, San Miguel Island, and the Santa Barbara Island, is collectively the paradise destination of Channel Islands National Park.
This National Park holds such uniqueness from other landlocked parks. In fact of the 249,354 acres that make up the entire park area, half of those acres are actually under the Pacific Ocean! This rare isolation has left the wilderness area virtually undeveloped and home to one hundred and forty-five plant and animal species that can be found nowhere else in the world. Yes, a visit to Channel Islands National Park is one you will not forget.
How to Get There
Getting from the California coast to Channel Islands National Park is an adventure in itself. There are no roads or bridges that connect the islands to the mainland, so access by sea is the quickest, easiest and most affordable option. The charter company Island Packers Cruises is the ‘Official Boat Concessionaire for the Channel Islands National Park’ and provides numerous shuttles to and from the islands.
Year round cruises are available to and from both Anacapa Island and Santa Cruz Island. Both boat treks are about an hour trip in total. Once reaching Anacapa Island you will need to climb up 157 stairs to reach the top of the island to begin your exploration. Santa Cruz Island requires using a steel-rung ladder that delivers you to a pier at Scorpion Anchorage and Prisoners Harbor. The piers do close occasionally which means landings are made via skiff boats that deliver you to the beach.
Santa Rosa Island, San Miguel Island, and Santa Barbara Island are the outer islands and can be reached only seasonally. Santa Rosa Island and San Miguel Island have boat trip options that run beginning in the month of April through the beginning of November. While Santa Barbara Island is reachable by boat from spring to fall as weather permits. Getting from boat to shore from each island varies slightly.
Santa Rosa Island requires going from the boat up a steel-rung ladder to a pier at Bechers Bay. When reaching San Miguel Island make sure you have waterproof gear and expect to get wet. All travelers must use skiff boats traveling through potential strong winds and rough seas to shore. Santa Barbara Island is another steel-rung ladder from a skiff. After reaching land, visitors need to be prepared to trek uphill a quarter mile with 131 long steps to the top of the island.
For those prone to sea sickness, you can opt to fly via Channel Islands Aviation. They offer charters to and from the islands on one of their CI Jets. You can even book flying lessons and flight training if taking to the sky is what you truly enjoy.
Things To Do
Channel Islands National Park has some of the most awe inspiring, jaw dropping, and pristine hiking. Almost every trail promises sweeping ocean views, steep cliffs, untouched white sandy beaches, and perhaps a deer friend or two. Here are the must do trails to check out:
- Smugglers’ Cove: At just shy of 8 miles and moderate in difficulty, this trail may be the most popular one on the islands. This beautiful, yet exposed trail starts at the sea shores and climbs and dips about 1,400 feet in elevation to the other side of Santa Cruz Island.
- Potato Harbor Trail: This easy, family friendly trail travels along the shores of Santa Cruz island. At five miles in length you can also opt to add on a trip up to Cavern Point for even better views.
- East Anacapa Island Trail: Just 2.5 miles in length with only 400 feet of elevation gain is this easy rated hike that brings you around the entire Anacapa Island. This trail promises view after view and a whole lot of seagulls!
- Black Mountain Trail: Located on Santa Rosa Island is this 6 mile moderate hike. Starting at the campground you climb about 1,300 feet often above the clouds of the marine layer. On clear days you are rewarded with panoramic views.
- El Montana Trail: This difficult almost 9 mile hike takes you up about 1,900 feet in elevation to the top of El Montana. The trail starts at Scorpion Campground on Santa Cruz Island and gives sweeping views of China Bay.
The islands can get hot and very exposed in the warmer summer months. Always be prepared with plenty of water and some good sunscreen.
Want to call the islands home for a few days? Each of the five islands have their own established campground to check out. Since the islands do not allow any motor vehicles, these campgrounds all require a bit of a hike, carrying all your gear, in order to enjoy.
Landing Cove campground located on Santa Barbara Island is a steep, uphill, quarter-mile hike to the ten campsites available. Each site can hold up to four campers. Located on the east islet of Anacapa is the 7 campsite campground. To access the campground each camper must climb up 157 stairs from the landing sight plus a half-mile hike inland.
Scorpion Canyon on Santa Cruz is the largest campground at 31 sites in total, each able to host 6-15 campers. This easy access campground is a nice flat half a mile trek from the pier. But beware! Crafty critters such as foxes and ravens are capable of opening zippers so securing your storage with safety pins, twist ties, paper clips, and small carabiners are recommended.
Located on Santa Rosa Island is the Water Canyon campground. It has 15 campsites and requires a 1.5 miles flat hike from the pier or a quarter mile east walk from the airstrip. Both Water Canyon and Scorpion Canyon campgrounds offer potable water. Other campgrounds on the islands require you to pack in your own water solutions.
Cuyler Harbor on San Miguel Island is the last established campground. The 9 sites holding 4 campers per site is a one-mile, uphill hike to reach. All of the campgrounds have picnic tables and pit toilets to enjoy. For those backcountry lovers, backcountry camping is available on Santa Cruz Island and Santa Rosa Island. The permits are limited so be sure to make your reservations online.
When visiting Channel Islands National Park you have to be prepared to get in the water. With half of the park under the sea how can you not? There are numerous activities available from relaxing to the more adventurous type.
Island Packers Cruises offer trips that bring you near the islands but not to shore. On these cruises you can get an up close view of all the marine wildlife and gorgeous island sights throughout the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. In summer and winter months be sure to book a whale watching trip to catch glimpses of the 27 species that call these waters home. You could have a close up encounter with gray whales, blue whales, humpback whales, minke whales, sperm whales, and pilot whales. Also orcas, Dall’s porpoise, Risso’s porpoise, Pacific white-sided porpoise, common dolphins, and bottlenose dolphins.
More adventurous sport enthusiasts can partake in snorkeling and diving off the shores of the island. Under the ocean’s surface lies a magical world full of green and slimy kelp forests, somewhat spooky sea caves, and lovely coves. Swimming, snorkeling, kayaking and diving are best done on Santa Barbara Island, Anacapa Island, and eastern Santa Cruz Islands. The strong winds that blow constantly on Santa Rosa Island and San Miguel Island make these activities dangerous for anyone who is not properly trained, conditioned, and equipped.
Surfing is another fun sport many choose to try out at Channel Islands National Park. There are several great spots to choose from on Santa Cruz Island, Santa Rosa Island, and San Miguel Island. Keep an eye on the swells to figure out which spot will deliver the best waves.
Before You Go
- On the mainland in the cities of Ventura and Santa Barbara are Channel Island National Park visitor centers. These are great to visit to acquire maps, plan transportation, and learn more about the islands.
- While on the islands there is no transportation available. Be prepared to hike, walk, kayak, or travel by boat between islands.
- Biking is not allowed on the islands.
- Like all other National Parks your furry friends are not allowed.
- Because of California’s extreme fire danger, no campfires or charcoal fires are permitted. But you can cook on enclosed gas camp stoves.
- Plastic grocery bags are banned on lands within Channel Islands National Park. This helps protect the marine and wildlife from harm if a bag was accidentally released. So make sure to bring reusable bags only!
As always practice Leave No Trace principles when visiting such a protected wilderness area such as the Channel Islands National Park. There really is no place so isolated and protected while still being simply an hour trip from the busy and urban communities of Southern California. With so many amazing things to see, do, and explore, Channel Islands National Park is a great place for everyone to enjoy!
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Kaitlin is a former ballerina who now travels around the country in an 18-foot converted school bus. Her and her husband have welcomed 34 sweet children into their home the past eleven years. Although they would not be a forever home for all of them, they adopted their daughter buckets and are legal guardians to their son monkey. Follow their crazy adventures on Instagram @runawaymusbus