Here’s Your Travel Guide To Channel Islands National Park

The water is mesmerizing – a dreamy aquamarine hue accented by swirling whitecaps and framed by the golden tan cliffs of Channel Islands National Park, a wild, lonely place along the Pacific coast of southern California.

Channel Islands National Park
Photo by Priya Karkare on Unsplash

The national park consists of five California Channel Islands – Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara – and is one of the least visited national parks in the United States because of its remote location. Here is your guide to Channel Islands National Park, one of California’s loveliest stretches of coastline.

Channel Islands Rundown

Channel Islands
Channel Islands. Photo: Facebook: Visit California

Before starting your trip, keep in mind that the five Channel Islands do not have lodging, shops or restaurants, so please plan and pack accordingly. This is a remarkably remote part of California and just getting to the islands is challenging, but well worth the trip. Visitors must take a ferry or plane to get to the Islands. Ferries to Anacapa and Santa Cruz can be booked through Island Packers year-round; transportation to the remaining islands is seasonal. Channel Islands Aviation offers passage to the islands by air. This is not a trip to do on a whim; it requires quite a bit of planning ahead of time to ensure that you have the food, lodging and transportation necessary for a phenomenal vacation.

Whale Watching Cruise

Island Packers Cruise
Island Packers Cruise. Photo: Facebook: Island Packers

Once you arrive at Channel Islands National Park, start your trip with an Island Packers whale watching cruise aboard a stately two-level boat that glides through the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel with majestic poise. During the cruise, a pod of dolphins may appear, leaping through the water in a shower of sparkles. The dolphins’ gray bodies and white undersides suddenly flash and then disappear below the waves again, only to resurface with a high, soaring leap. The rippling blue water suddenly teems with foam when the whole pod bounds through the surf, an unforgettable sight for visitors aboard the boat.

Island Packers notes that while on whale and wildlife cruises, attendees may see gray and orca whales as well as bottlenose dolphins and Dall’s porpoises. In the winter, Pacific gray whales glide smoothly through the waters; in the summer, humpback and blue whales breach powerfully, each whale rising out of the water and exposing between 40 and 90 percent of its body before pivoting and crashing back into the water. According to the National Park Service, 27 species of whales have been spotted in the channel with minke, sperm and pilot species among them. Whales may spout occasionally, releasing warm breath into the cool sea air and sending up a column of steam with an accompanying “whoosh” that can be heard half a mile away.

Kayaking And Snorkeling

kayaking and snorkeling
Kayak. Photo: Facebook: California’s Central Coast

Explore the sparkling Santa Barbara Channel on the Adventure Sea Cave Kayak Tour, where the rocky outcroppings and sheer cliffs of the channel give way to gently rolling waves. The tour, which begins on Santa Cruz Island daily at 10:30 a.m., includes 2.5-3 hours of kayaking following an hour of orientation. Keep in mind that the 10:30 a.m. tour requires a ferry departure of 9 a.m. or prior from Ventura Harbor, and check-in is one hour before departure.

It is recommended to book tickets in advance since public tours sell out quickly. Public tours cost $186 per adult on top of a $63 ferry transportation fee, while the price for a child aged 12 and under is $174 on top of a $50 transportation fee. The cost of private tours is in the thousands, with the most expensive being $4,176 for 17-24 guests plus an unlisted ferry transportation fee.

Other excursions include the Discovery Sea Cave Kayak Tour, which is a 1-1.5 hour getaway through sea caves and kelp forests, and the Ultimate Sea Cave Kayak Tour, where intermediate and advanced kayakers paddle to the hidden Potato Harbor for a 5-mile total trip. If you are an experienced snorkeler, consider the Snorkel & Kayak Tour, which runs every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 9:30 a.m. during the summer. Between July 1 and Sept. 30, this tour operates whenever there is an 8 a.m. ferry departure.

The Snorkel & Kayak Tour is the most involved because it includes 1.5 hours of kayaking and 45 minutes of snorkeling; all guests must know how to swim and prior snorkeling experience is mandatory. The guides provide a snorkel and mask, fins, wetsuit, snorkel flotation device and ocean kayak and give visitors insight on the marine wildlife and ecology of the sea caves.

Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz Island. Photo: Facebook: Ventura

Santa Cruz Island, the most accessible of the Channel Islands, is surrounded by waters of a royal blue hue, as though the whole landmass were robed in the stately colors of a king. The island itself bursts with the bright, vibrant yellow of scores of wildflowers which decorate the tiny spaces between the cracks and crannies of whitish-gray rocks. Bright green foliage hugs the tan rock faces of expansive cliffsides, inviting hikers to roam along designated trails and encounter natural wonders up close, untouched by the confines of civilization.

Take a day trip via Island Packer Cruises to Santa Cruz’s Scorpion Anchorage where a narrow, horseshoe shaped curve looks like a U cut into the shoreline. White double-decker boats float through the deep blue water which fills the inlet while kayakers paddle beside the caves and volcanic cliffs whose tan rocks make up the jagged horseshoe. Visitors swim and snorkel through tangled forests of kelp along the shoreline or simply stand on the pebbly beach, gazing at the water as the sparkling sunlight shines a spotlight on the waves.

Then, check out the Smuggler’s Cove hike, a strenuous 7.5-mile roundtrip climb beginning at Scorpion Beach. Bring plenty of water as there is no water at Smuggler’s Cove and the walk is quite taxing. The views are beautiful, however. Survey the vast expanse of turquoise water from the top of grassy cliffs overlooking the beach, a thin stretch of sandy coastline chilled and saturated by white, foaming waves. There is a wild beauty to the jagged cliffs and coast, that gloriously untamed landscape of rugged remoteness that invites hikers into a world of beautiful isolation and an almost artful desolation.

Finish your time at Santa Cruz Island with a trip to Prisoner’s Harbor, a port of entry along the island’s north shore. The harbor has a cobblestone beach from which visitors can kayak out to the west and see a beautiful piece of the coastline. Keep in mind there is no lifeguard on duty and that the west side of the harbor has a rocky reef. The harbor is lovely, with calm teal water stretching to the far horizon and a long stretch of cliffs bursting with flowers and greenery.

Santa Rosa Island

Santa Rosa Island
Becher’s Bay Beach on Santa Rosa Island. Photo: Facebook: The National Parks: Our American Landscape

Continue exploring the park via Santa Rosa Island’s Black Mountain trek, a strenuous 8-mile trail which takes about three hours to complete. Walk through rolling green and gold hills while snowcapped peaks loom in the distance, a long unbroken expanse of bluish mountains covered by a thin, wispy layer of fog. Then, explore Santa Rosa’s extremely rare Torrey pines, which only exist naturally at Channel Islands and in San Diego, California. Take a 5-mile roundtrip trek to walk among these scraggly trees which grow in an arid, sandy region of the park. The hike is steep with moderate to strenuous difficulty, and if you take the loop trail down the eastern portion of the grove, the hike length stretches to 7.5 miles roundtrip.

Stay at the Water Canyon Campground on Santa Rosa Island, the second largest island in California where over 100 bird species make their home. The campground has 15 sites and can accommodate five people per site, each of which includes a picnic table, food storage box, windbreak, restroom and water. Visitors can hike along flat surfaces to reach Water Canyon Beach. Because of the harsh wind, only experienced adventurers should take advantage of the limited swimming, snorkeling, diving and kayaking opportunities available and remain cautious while engaging in these aquatic activities.

Make the most of your time at California’s inimitable Channel Islands National Park when you visit these scenic attractions.

Hannah Larson

Contributing Editor

A southern California native, Hannah is a traveler and thrill seeker whose love of writing is matched only by her passion for adventure. From ziplining alongside Niagara Falls to paddleboarding in Lake Itasca, she is always on the lookout for exciting experiences in beautiful places. Her favorite national parks include the Great Smokies, Sequoia and Glacier because of the spectacular mountain views.

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