Visiting Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park is one of the most unique national parks in the country. Although the park is located near the central coast of California, it split off from the mainland so long ago that its ecosystem is very different from that of California. In fact, there are plants, animals, and archaeological resources living on the Channel Islands that cannot be found anywhere else on earth. Thousands of years of isolation have created a unique environment where diverse species thrive in a place that almost seems like paradise. Visiting the Channel Islands offers the experience to view southern California as it likely once was years ago. Continue on to learn all about the Channel Islands, how to visit them, what to experience there, and where to camp.

1. Planning your trip

Because the Channel Islands span five individual islands off of the coast of Southern California, getting there takes some planning. While the visitor centers in Ventura and Santa Barbara are accessible by car, the rest of the park is located on the islands. These islands are only accessible by plane, concessionaire boat, or private boat.

Once you have reached the islands, all areas must be accessed by foot, private boat, or kayak. This requires quite a bit of planning because you will need a plan for getting to the islands, as well as a plan for what to do once you reach the islands. Be sure to research everything ahead of time so that you know exactly what you want to see and do, and which islands you wish to visit.

2. The islands and what to do on each of them

The first thing you will need to choose is which islands you wish to visit. Below, you can find a description of each of the unique islands, as well as a list of enjoyable activities in each beautiful place.

Anacapa Island

Just about an hour from the mainland, Anacapa Island is the perfect place for a half-day or whole day trip. There are two miles of hiking trails available on the east end of the island. The middle and west end of the islands are closed to protect the wildlife that lives there. The hike wanders past cliffside overlooks and dramatic vistas, eventually climbing to the last permanent lighthouse built on the West Coast. Visitors can also enjoy a variety of watersports, including swimming, snorkeling, diving, and kayaking. Keep in mind that there are no lifeguards on the island, and the only water access is on the Landing Cove dock on east side. 

Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz Island is about an hour away by boat ride, and it is one of the most popular islands to visit. There is a visitor center on the island, as well as many hiking opportunities. Scorpion Beach is very popular for a variety of water activities, and there are also wildflowers scattered all over the island. Clear waters and diverse kelp forests make it a popular location for snorkeling and diving, while stunning sea caves and wildlife viewing opportunities make it popular for kayakers. Visitors can take one of several guided kayaking trips offered, and these guided trips are highly recommended for those who are less experienced. 

San Miguel Island

A permit is required to visit San Miguel Island, and the boat ride there is four hours each way. Visits are limited, and, once on the island, most activities require ranger guidance. There are several excellent hikes on the island, and most require guidance to reach them. However, because of the strong winds, the National Park Service discourages water sports here.

Santa Barbara Island

At three hours away from the mainland, Santa Barbara Island is one of the furthest islands, and limited trips to the island make it one of the less frequented areas of the park. There are five miles of hiking trails available, as well as lots of opportunities for water sports. Swimming, diving, snorkeling, and kayaking are all popular here. The excellent underwater visibility makes it an awesome place for snorkeling and diving, and the reefs here are teeming with life. Kayaking trips towards Arch Point allow for visibility of sea caves, arches, and other geological features.

 

Santa Rosa Island

Santa Rosa Island is also three hours from the mainland, with more hiking trails available than many of the other islands. An easier trail leads to Water Canyon Beach, while a more difficult trail leads to the top of Black Mountain. The National Park Service discourages water sports here, as strong winds can make the water very unsafe and very unforgiving. However, some folks surf off of Water Canyon Beach and a few other locations at various times of the year.

3. Getting there

After choosing which islands you intend to visit, you will want to plan transportation to the islands themselves. The most popular and affordable option for accessing the islands is via the Island Packers cruise ships. Leaving from coastal Ventura, these ships offer a variety of pickup and dropoff times to and from each of the islands. Each planned trip is customizable, with some offering a “two-island trip,” where visitors can visit two different islands in the same day. Trips are continuing to operate with safety precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to offering boat rides to and from the islands, Island Packers offers whale watching tours, kayak rentals, and other customizable trips. Be sure to check out their website to see the full selection.

In addition to arriving on the island by boat, visitors can also take a private plane. Flying to the park is pricier than taking a boat, but it offers more of a unique and individual experience, allowing visitors to gain an aerial view of the islands and the beautiful ocean surrounding them. It can also allow visitors to reach some of the farther islands much faster. Check out the Channel Islands Aviation website to learn more about the flights offered.

4. Finding nearby RV Camping

Hikers may camp on the islands’ backcountry by permit only. There is also a frontcountry campground on each island, as well. Campers must make reservations to stay at each of these campgrounds, and there are only a few campsites on each island. Each campsite is hike-in and tent-use only.

Those who wish to camp in their RV must camp on the mainland and commute to the park via boat or plane. There are several excellent campgrounds in Ventura, nearby the cruise ship take-off. The most popular campground is Ventura Beach RV Resort. This campground is the closest to Island Packers cruise ships, while also providing an array of deluxe amenities and beachfront access. 

Rincon Parkway is another popular choice, providing a less expensive and “less frills” alternative to the resort. There are no hookups available, but the camping is located right along the beach. This offers a safe place to leave your RV parked while you spend the day on the island(s). Both options provide quick access to the cruise ships, allowing travelers to camp and visit the national park on day trips.

Channel Islands is a truly special place that many people return to over and over again. Those who prefer to camp off the island have several camping options and can spend day trips exploring the park. Each of the islands offers a different, yet wonderful experience. Consider a trip to Channel Islands National Park at any time of year for an experience you are sure to never forget.

Have you been to Channel Islands National Park before? Which island(s) did you visit? How was your experience? Feel free to share in the comments below!

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