Must See Things to Do in Channel Islands National Park, California

Channel Islands National Park is one of the least visited National Parks in the United States.

That’s surprising, because Channel Islands National Park is just a couple hours away from Los Angeles.

You can only get to the Channel Islands by ferry (or a friend with a boat). You can’t drive there.

Want to visit Channel Islands National Park in California? Looking for the best must see things to do in the Channel Islands? As a former resident of nearby Santa Barbara and Carpinteria, I can help!

The Basics

The most important things you need to know about the Channel Islands include:

  • You must take a ferry or boat to get to the Channel Islands. Unless you know a local with a boat, you’re taking an Island Packers ferry (a round trip ticket is around $85).
  • Island Packers is the only company that runs ferries to Channel Islands National Park. You get on the ferry in Ventura, then travel to Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, or Santa Barbara Island (yes, the ferries serve beer and other snacks)
  • Channel Islands National Park is more remote than other National Parks. After arriving on the Channel Islands, there are no stores or services. The islands are uninhabited.
  • You can do a day trip to the islands and hike or explore; or, you can camp overnight or spend multiple days on the islands
  • Technically, it’s free to enter Channel Islands National Park (aside from the fee you paid to take the boat over).  

That’s it! Those are the basics of visiting the Channel Islands.

Which Island to Visit

There are 8 islands in the Channel Islands archipelago.

However, only 5 of those islands are in Channel Islands National Park (the other three are further down the coast towards Los Angeles and include the very-much-inhabited Catalina Island).

Before getting on the ferry, you need to know which island you want to visit. Islands Packers stops at all 5, and one of the islands has multiple ferry landings:

  1. Santa Cruz Island: Santa Cruz Island is the biggest of the five islands. It’s probably the best one for first timers to visit. It has straightforward day hikes, multiple campgrounds, and multiple ferry drop-off points. You can spend multiple days hiking on Santa Cruz Island. Or, you can do a 2-4 hour hike and get a feel for the Channel Islands. We landed at Prisoner Harbor and did the Pelican Bay Trail with a park ranger, and I would recommend that option.  
  2. Anacapa Island: Anacapa Island is small. It’s roughly one square mile. It’s also the closet island to the southern California mainland, and the ferry ride takes around one hour. If you’re looking for more adventure, then Anacapa Island is a great choice. You get sea cliffs, sea arches, sea caves, rock formations like Arch Rock, and more straightforward hiking trails. You also get a 360-degree ocean view at every step. If you’re okay with climbing ladders to get out of the harbor, then Anacapa Island may be the right pick.
  3. Santa Rosa Island: Santa Rosa Island is the second largest island. It has rolling hills, steep canyons, and many miles of trails. It takes 2 hours to get there, and it’s a good “hard mode” version of the Channel Islands. However, there are campgrounds, accessible hiking trails, and even a rugged airstrip, if you brought your plane.
  4. San Miguel Island: San Miguel Island is covered by sea lions and birds. It takes a long time to get there, and it tends to have worse weather than the other islands. It also lacks the mountains and valleys of other Channel Islands. If you want a lot of sand and wildlife, then San Miguel Island is the place to be. It’s also a major research island, and a ranger lives on San Miguel Island to ensure nobody messes with the wildlife. 
  5. Santa Barbara Island: Santa Barbara Island is so far away from Ventura, it’s basically in Los Angeles. It’s closer to Catalina Island than any other part of Channel Islands National Park. It’s also quite small. However, there is a campground and a ferry “landing” (you step from the boat onto a ladder, then climb to a dock, then climb 0.5 miles to the top of the island – seriously, the island is almost completely encircled by steep cliffs). It’s 2.5 to 3 hours away from Ventura, although you can still book a trip through Island Packers.  

If you’re doing a day trip, make sure to check Islands Packers’ schedule to ensure they have two pick-up times. Otherwise, you’re stuck on the island overnight.

Top 5 Things to Do in Channel Islands National Park

You’ve learned the basics of the Channel Islands. Now, here’s my list of the best things to do on your first visit to Channel Islands National Park.

1) Take a Hike

No matter which Channel Island you pick, you can find a good hike. There are 2 to 3 hours hikes, day-long hikes, and even multi-day hikes. You can hike to remote campgrounds and sea lion colonies. You can hike to spectacular cliffside overlooks.

Hiking in the Channel Islands is easy: just get off the ferry and pick a trail. We did the Pelican Bay Trail on Santa Cruz Island, which is one of the most popular hikes. Smuggler’s Clove, the Scorpion Canyon Loop, the Black Mountain Trek, and Torrey Pines are other good options.

2) Go Kayaking

Channel Islands has some of the best kayaking in the country. Hardcore kayakers can book their own solo trip.

However, the oceans here are no joke, and non-experts should sign up for a guided kayaking tour. Companies like Channel Islands Adventure Company offer multiple tours.

3) Camp Overnight

We traveled to and from the Channel Islands in a day. However, you can camp overnight for an unforgettable experience. All 5 islands have primitive campsites. You’ll get some of the darkest possible skies in southern California.

When I say the campsites are primitive, I mean it: only two of the campsites have water, and you definitely need to bring your own supplies. You could literally die if you’re unprepared.

4) Look for Wildlife

We didn’t see an island fox on our visit, but many people do. It’s one of four native mammals on the Channel Islands (along with the deer mouse, the harvest mouse, and the spotted skunk).

The Channel Islands are also great for bird watching, reptiles (we almost stepped on a snake during our hike), and whale and dolphin watching.

5) Snorkel or Scuba Dive

The Channel Islands are a popular diving spot. Most of the islands are covered by the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary.

You can find local dive companies offering single-day trips, overnight excursions, and dives for beginners and experts. You can snorkel or scuba dive, depending on your experience.

Top 5 Must See Sights in Channel Islands National Park

We’ve covered the basics of Channel Islands and the general things to do. Now, here are some of the specific must see sights in and around Channel Islands National Park.

1) Pelican Bay Trail

If you’re going to do one day hike in Channel Islands National Park, then the Pelican Bay Trail is a good option. It’s the one we picked.

You land at Prisoners Harbor, then hike 2-3 hours to a bay. We hiked with a park ranger, which was a good way to learn more about everything. I recommend Pelican Bay Trail to other ordinary travelers looking for a solid introduction to the Channel Islands.

2) Arch Rock

Arch Rock is a highlight of Anacapa Island. Anacapa Island is surrounded by steep cliffs, but one cliff has partially fallen into the ocean to form Arch Rock. It’s a natural offshore bridge around 40 feet high.

There are two good ways to see Arch Rock:

  1. Hike the Cueva Valdez to Arch Rock trail, which is a 7.5 mile out and back trail with 1,600 feet of elevation gain
  2. Look for Arch Rock on your return trip to the mainland after leaving Anacapa Island.

3) The Lighthouse on East Anacapa Island

There’s a lighthouse on the highest point of East Anacapa Island. It’s still active. In fact, you can’t get too close to the island or you’ll lose your hearing when the lighthouse sounds.

Today, you cannot tour the lighthouse (again, it’s an active lighthouse). However, you can explore the areas surrounding the structure, and you can enjoy some of the best views in the Channel Islands from the hiking trails around the lighthouse.

4) Scorpion Bay to Cavern Point Loop Trail

The Scorpion Bay to Cavern Point Loop Trail is a short and popular trail on Santa Cruz Island. You can spot dolphins, otters, sea lions, seals, and whales off the coast. It’s also a popular place for sunset. If you visit in early February, you may even spot whales.

If you want maximum gains with minimal effort, then the Scorpion Bay to Cavern Point Loop Trail is a good pick. It’s just 2 miles long and has 288 feet of elevation gain. You start the hike from Scorpion Bay.

Scorpion Bay is also a good jumping off point for other Channel Island trails, including our final must see thing to do in Channel Island National Park.

5) El Montanon Trail

If you want a challenging, unforgettable trail in the Channel Islands, then hike El Montanaon Trail. From the summit of Santa Cruz Island, you’ll have a 360-degree view of the island and surrounding ocean. It’s a spectacular and unforgettable accomplishment – especially when you have the place to yourself.

Now the tough part: the El Montanon Trail is an 8-mile loop hike with 2,200 feet of elevation gain. It’s a serious hike, but it’s certainly do-able for ordinary hikers (and it’s well worth it). It’s tough to do on a day trip, but it’s easy-ish for overnight campers.

If you’re in decent shape, the hike takes around 5 hours. It’s a difficult hike with lots of exposure. Make sure to hike clockwise. Otherwise, it can be very steep.

Final Word

Channel Islands National Park is a cool, surprisingly undiscovered slice of America. It feels a world away from the greater Los Angeles area.

Some people call it the Galapagos of the United States.

I liked Channel Islands National Park because it feels like what California’s coastline must have looked like in prehistoric times – and it’s definitely worth a visit.

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