The Channel Islands off the California coast seem trapped in time, not unlike the Galapagos farther south, and these special biospheres are precisely why we protect them. The Islands and the surrounding waters are teeming with plants and wildlife not found anywhere else.
In addition to the incredible biodiversity, there are lots of opportunities for recreation that draw people here as well. Paddling through sea caves, diving, fishing, and even whale watching right from your campsite are what make this National Park one to definitely put on your list to visit. The list of things to do in Channel Islands is pretty endless!
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Like all of our National Park visits, we couldn’t explore everything, but our trip to Anacapa Island was incredible. If you’re interested in planning a trip to visit Channel Islands National Park, this guide will hopefully give you a little insight on how to make the most of it.
Things to do in Channel Islands California
Hiking in Channel Islands
No matter which islands you visit, you’ll have the opportunity for some awesome hiking. East Anacapa has about 2 miles of trails that meander around the island, where you can see stunning views of the ocean and the other islands, as well as sea lions, birds, and even a cool lighthouse.
Visitors to the Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, San Miguel, and Santa Rosa can expect equally awesome views. If you can, try to attend a hike with your Ranger or Park volunteer who are always full of interesting facts and can answer any questions.
Viewing Seals and Sea Lions in Channel Islands
One of our favorite things to do at Channel Islands was to watch the seals and sea lions frolic around and bark at each other. Since the park is a marine sanctuary, California sea lions, northern fur seals, harbor seals and northern elephant seals all call the park home and can be seen at one time or another.
If you have a favorite, here is where you can find them:
– Anacapa Island: California sea lions and harbor seals
– Santa Barbara Island: California sea lions, northern elephant seals and harbor seals
– Santa Cruz Island: California sea lions and harbor seals
– Santa Rosa Island: California sea lions, harbor seals and northern elephant seals
– San Miguel Island: California sea lions, harbor seals, northern elephant seals, northern fur seals, and – if you’re lucky – Guadalupe fur seals and Stellar sea lions.
Kayaking at Channel Islands
Kayaking in the California Channel Islands is very popular and offers some of the very best sea kayaking anywhere. Outfitters and park concessioners provide kayaking trips and kayak transportation if you’re interested, and no previous experience is required. We didn’t have time to do this during our visit, but were totally jealous and will be sure to do it during our next visit.
Scorpion Beach on East Santa Cruz Island is the most popular place for kayakers to visit, and offers nearby camping, easy beach access, and proximity to sea caves and scenic cliffs. If you book with a concessioner, this is where you will most likely be visiting.
Be sure to read about kayaking in Channel Islands here to learn more.
Don’t forget the sunscreen!
There is no shade on most of the islands, so sunscreen and a hat are important. Be sure to use one that’s safe for animals and the ocean – especially if you’re going to be kayaking or in the water. We like Sun Bum.
Whale Watching in Channel Islands
Our visit in late November was a bit early to see whales, but in winter and summer, a remarkable number of whale, dolphin, and porpoise species can be spotted in the waters around the park. In December through mid-March, grey whales are a common sight. Blue and humpback whales can be found here in the summer.
Although we didn’t see any whales, our boat ride was full of dolphin sightings, including a “super pod” that followed our boat for several minutes. It was pretty awesome to see hundreds of dolphins all in the same place at the same time.
Island Packers offers whale watching tours in combination with visits to the islands themselves.
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Other wildlife viewing at Channel Islands
We loved how easy it was to watch the wildlife at Channel Islands National Park. We can assure you that it’s not always this easy! Besides the whales, dolphins, and sea lions, there are many other ways to see wildlife in the park, including tide pooling, bird watching, and even just hiking around.
There are some amazing tide pools around the islands where you can see things like anemones, barnacles, mussels, sea stars, urchins, and many others.
Here are the best places for tide pooling:
– Frenchy’s Cove on Anacapa Island
– Smuggler’s Cove on Santa Cruz Island
– Becher’s Bay at the pier, Southeast Anchorage, East Point on Santa Rosa Island
– Eastern end of Cuyler Harbor on San Miguel Island.
Bird watching is also very popular, and the park provides an undisturbed nesting grounds for many species. The island scrub-jay is one of 10 species that are endemic to the islands and aren’t found anywhere else.
Diving and Snorkeling at Channel Islands
With so much pristine water around the islands, it’s no wonder that Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary has some of the best diving and snorkeling in the world. The kelp forests and sea caves set the stage for an underwater adventure like nowhere else.
Park concessioners can help you book your snorkel trip with everything you need for a great day on the water. Read more about diving and snorkeling in Channel Islands here.
Camping on the Channel Islands
Five of the Channel Islands offer camping opportunities. Campgrounds vary in size, but the facilities are mostly primitive with pit toilets and no water. Any gear you bring with you must be carried to the site and any trash you generate must be packed back out. For adventurous backpackers, there are wilderness areas available for backcountry camping in Channel Islands.
Keep in mind that all food must be stored securely. There are many scavenging animals in the park, and some are capable of opening zippers (looking at you, ravens and foxes). Also, Western Gulls nest on Anacapa Island from April through mid-August.
They are noisy and smelly!
If you don’t want this to be part of your camping experience, then you’ll want to choose a different island or time of year to camp.
All Channel Islands camping reservations can be made at Recreation.gov up to six months in advance of your trip. Click here for more information about camping at Channel Islands National Park.
How to get to Channel Islands National Park
One of the most important parts of planning a trip to visit Channel Islands is making certain you book your transportation well in advance. The Channel Islands are only accessible by boat or plane, and there is limited space available, so make sure you book as soon as you can.
Island Packers and Channel Islands Aviation are the current park concessioners offering ferries to the Channel Islands. Private boats may also visit but will need a permit to do so.
Book with Island Packers directly for your trip and remember to decide what you would like to do before booking your trip. Some activities are available on some islands, but not all of them.
Most boat rides are about an hour. For our trip, we had a windy day with pretty rough seas, but still were able to visit. Be advised though, that if the weather had been any worse, they may have had to cancel. If you are prone to sea sickness, get yourself some Dramamine or ginger drops before leaving.
Things to bring on your trip
For our visit in November, and for most trips, we recommend bringing the following:
– Water (there is no potable water available)
– Lightweight windbreaker
– Glove liners or gloves (if it’s cooler and windy)
– Clothing layers you can peel off
– Good hiking shoes
– Sunscreen (we like ocean-friendly Sun Bum)
– Snacks or a picnic lunch
– Small backpack
– National Park Passport Stamp Book!
If you plan on being out on the water, make sure you check with your concessioner about appropriate gear like swimwear, goggles, etc.
Sample Itinerary – What to expect on your trip to Channel Islands National Park
Arrive early at the marina. For our trip, we left from Oxnard which is also where the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center is located. Spend some time looking around and learning more about the park.
Check in with Island Packers for your boat ride. The ride takes about an hour and the seas in the channel can be rough. Take some Dramamine or suck on some ginger drops to help out.
Once at Channel Islands, decide on whether you’d like to join any sort of tour or Ranger talk during the day and make note of the time. You’re free to set off and explore on your own at this point. We hiked around the island taking picture and enjoying the awesome views. We also spent some time being mesmerized by the sea lions sun bathing on the rocks. Very cool.
Pull up a picnic table and enjoy some snacks or lunch. After lunch, join your guide for a tour. We really enjoyed our tour, and even though we covered the same ground, we learned a lot about the park and its wildlife and also a little about the history of the park and the islands.
Hike back down to the loading dock for the ride home. Pay attention because we had a pod of dolphins escort us for part of the way! Once you arrive back on land, you’ll have a few minutes to pop back in to the Visitor Center to pick up any last-minute souvenirs.
If you like Mexican food, grab some dinner at Cabo Seafood Grill and Cantina in Oxnard and then enjoy a nice SoCal sunset on the beach.
Where to stay when visiting Channel Islands National Park
Since the ferries to Channel Islands leave from either Oxnard or Ventura, staying nearby is recommended. Fortunately there are some really great hotels and resorts nearby.
We stayed at the Embassy Suites Mandalay Beach resort, which is a large resort right on the beach and just down the street from the marina. The rooms were clean and spacious (Embassy Suites after all), and access to the beach was nice.
There are plenty of options around either Oxnard or Ventura. We recommend something close to the marina and/or visitor center so that you don’t have to get up too early to make it to your boat. Check out these options for Channel Islands hotels.
Channel Islands National Park is as unique as they come
Although we only got to spend one day in the park, Channel Islands really warrants another day or two to be able to really experience all it has to offer. We would have liked to have visited some of the other islands, especially ones that had beach access or kayaking.
Being lovers of wildlife, we really would have liked to have visited during whale-watching season or been able to hike at San Miguel Island to see the noisy elephant seals claim their territory on the beach. Even so, it gives us some good reasons to go back for another visit.
After all, who doesn’t love some warm California sun?
Channel Islands National Park is amazing! Have you visited?
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