Off the coast of Ventura and Santa Barbara County in California lies five islands that take visitors back to an untamed coastal wilderness filled with flora and fauna unique to them. The Channel Islands National Park remains one of the most isolated national parks in the country, with the fewest visitors per year.
The Channel Islands are one of the most isolated national parks in the US. Isolating yourself in nature, visiting world-famous locations like the Painted Caves, learning about the history of ranching and invasive species on the islands, or relaxing on the beach make these islands so unique.
- Location: 1901 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura, CA 93001
- Entrance Fee: Free
- Getting There: The visitor’s center in Ventura is readily accessible by car or bus, but the park is only accessible by park concessionaire boats, private boats, or planes.
- How Long To Stay: Considering the lack of food on the islands, it would be wise to stay only a day or two, or you can stay in the nearby Ventura for longer, about a week.
- Best Time Of Year: The Channel Islands enjoy a Mediterranean-like climate year-round, so it’s always a good time to visit. However, you should check what the weather will be like when it’s closer to your departure date to plan for inconsistencies.
The Channel Islands are like stepping back to an entirely wild and isolated California. There’s nothing else in the national parks system. With over 2,000 species of flora and fauna, 145 are found nowhere else in the world. Coupled with fewer crowds, you can truly feel you’ve visited the edge of the Earth. It’s worth a visit!
Each of the park’s five islands has a unique landscape, wildlife, and attractions, not to mention the mile-wide ocean sanctuary surrounding the coast of each island. There’s always something to see and do, from hiking the wide mountain trails of Santa Cruz to viewing the rare birds breeding on the cliffs of Santa Barbara.
- Age: The Channel Islands National Park was founded in 1980, relatively recently by national park standards, but they returned to nature quickly due to their isolation.
- Size: The park consists of five islands of varying sizes and a mile of ocean off their coasts, totaling 390 sq mi, or 10.9 billion sq ft.
- Named After: The Channel Islands are named after their topography. They are islands that lay in the channel of California.
- Weather: The park boasts the Mediterranean climate, with highs in the mid-sixties and lows in the mid-fifties. Nevertheless, the weather can be somewhat unpredictable depending on the cost, so it’s best to dress in layers and come prepared.
Channel Island’s isolation means you can enjoy its solitude with fewer competing crowds. Activities like hiking, kayaking the coast, camping, snorkeling, diving, and sightseeing are all available to you alone.
From trying to spy wildlife exclusive to the islands to explore the kelp forests beyond the waves, you can enjoy the nature of the islands to its fullest.
- Visit the visitor centers on each island to learn more about the 13,000 years of human history with the islands, from the first settlement by the Chumash to more recent ranching conservancy efforts.
- See the largest rookery of northern elephant seals in California and how the species bounced back from near extinction.
- Hike the trails of Santa Cruz, the largest island, with several miles of trails of varying difficulties. The island has many other recreational activities, which are the largest and most popular.
- Snorkel or dive into one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems off the coast of the islands. Another great option is to explore the coast by kayak to view the unspoiled cliffs and beaches of the islands.
- In the spring and summer, take a whale-watching tour to see an astonishing assortment of aquatic mammals, including whales, dolphins, and seals.
Highlight: Bring your camera to photograph the fantastic sights and views from the cliffs of Anacapa.
Anacapa Island is perfect for a short one-day or overnight camping trip. While its hiking is limited, with only two miles of trails on East Anacapa, the views are some of the best in the park. And they’re even better if you visit during the wildflower season between January and March.
Taking the hike out to Inspiration Point or taking a boat ride to West Anacapa for the tidepools in Frenchy’s Cove is perfect for experiencing the island. However, be warned that Western Gulls nest on the island between April and mid-August, creating a less desirable atmosphere.
Highlight: The hiking and watersports on this island are perfect, making it the most famous island in the park.
Santa Cruz is the largest island and has the best hiking opportunities. In addition to the hilly terrain, the island boasts the largest campground with potable water and pit toilets available at Scorpion Rock Ranch. Besides the visitor’s center at the ranch, you’ll want to see Prisoner’s Beach, Scorpion’s Anchorage, and Smuggler’s Cove for wildlife viewing.
Watersports are one of the biggest draws to the island, with Scorpion’s Anchorage being a global destination for swimming, diving, snorkeling, and kayaking. The kelp forests in the marine sanctuary are perfect for exploration, and the sea caves that dot the shoreline are incredible for kayakers to explore.
Highlight: The Torrey pines on this island can be found anywhere else.
Santa Rosa has boats running to it spring through fall, and water sports are limited on the island due to high winds. Santa Rosa is the best island for surfing and walking along the gorgeous beaches. There’s also a tiny primitive campground with running water and many different difficulties of hikes.
Highlight: While it takes a little more effort to get here, it’s worth seeing a fossilized forest, with the bone-white trees jutting up from the ground.
You need a permit to visit San Miguel, but several tourism services offer that paperwork and a boat ride out to the island. Like Santa Rosa, the persistent wind on this island prevents most watersports. However, it still has some of the most scenic beaches in the park.
Highlight: Take a guided hike to learn about the island’s seabirds. Birders want to visit this island for all the unique varieties found here.
Santa Barbara sits far away from all the other islands in the park and is surrounded by cliffs, ideal for nesting seabirds and shorebirds, including rare and endangered varieties. Landing Cove is the only accessible beach on the island, but it is perfect for water sports like swimming, kayaking, and snorkeling.
If you only have one day to spare for this park, make sure it counts. It’s best to visit one of the more accessible islands like Santa Cruz or Anacapa, then take a guided hike around the island.
Hop on one of the park’s concessionaires and ride it to the island of your choice. The ride time varies from island to island, so keep the time in mind when choosing. On average, you’ll likely spend about two hours on the boat.
Once you arrive, it might be good to eat before continuing. While it depends on the island you choose and when you head out, you should arrive around lunchtime on the island, so it’s a good idea to eat something. Most islands have picnic areas around the docks, or you can choose to picnic on the beach.
After a short lunch, you can get started on your hike, watersports, guided hike, or whatever activity you choose to do on the island. Guided walks usually set out half an hour after the concessionaires arrive, giving you just enough time to eat if that’s your chosen activity.
Whatever you do, be back at the dock when the concessionaire leaves the island, or you’ll be left stranded without amenities.
Technically, the park is open all day, every day. However, boats only go to certain islands during the spring through fall, or, like the island of San Miguel, you need a special permit to visit.
- If you have your boat, you needn’t worry about the park or tourism boats and can directly dock on the islands.
- If you want to camp on the islands, there is a minimum three-day stay in the campgrounds.
No, the park is on many islands with no bridges running to mainland California, so you must take a boat to get there. Moreover, there are no roads on the island so cars would be useless anyway.
- To get to the Ventura Channel Islands Visitor’s Center, take highway 101 to Ventura.
- If you’re on the northbound, take the Victoria Ave exit, and turn left.
- Turn right onto Olivas Park Drive, then head straight to Harbor Boulevard.
- Olivas Park Drive turns into Spinnaker Drive, where the visitor center is located.
While the Channel Islands have primitive tent camping available, you can stay in the nearby Ventura for more comfortable lodgings.
Unlike most Southern California cities, Ventura prides itself on affordability. You can generally find cheap lodgings here, especially compared to Santa Barbara.
- The Pierpont Inn
- Inn on The Beach
- Clocktower Inn
Ventura is no slouch for luxury hotels either, with plenty of options available for any kind of budget.
- Waypoint Ventura
- Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach
- Ventura Beach Marriott
Primitive tent camping is available on all the islands, but they don’t all have potable water, so check your campground beforehand.
- Anacapa Island Campground
- Santa Cruz Scorpion Campground
- Waypoint Ventura (trailer camping)
Channel Islands National Park FAQs
The Channel Islands are one of the most isolated national parks in the US, surrounded by water, which presents unique challenges and opportunities to visitors.
What Are the Dangers in Channel Islands National Park?
The isolation of the park is the number one danger. If you come unprepared, there are no emergency services or amenities. The weather is unpredictable. Many islands experience high winds and no windbreaks, so plan your campsite accordingly.
Can You Drive Through Channel Islands National Park?
There are no roads, and they are islands surrounded by water.
Where Do You Fly Into For Channel Islands National Park?
The closest airport is in Santa Barbara, only 30 miles away, but you can also fly in from Los Angeles and Burbank, though they are farther.