Channel Islands National Park: The Complete Guide

Channel Islands National Park

Courtesy of Visit California

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Channel Islands National Park

Address
Ventura, CA 93001, USA
Phone +1 805-658-5730

Less than 100 miles away from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles’ freeways, dramatically jutting up from the Pacific Ocean and separated from the mainland by deep underwater channels, sit eight wild, rugged islands. The five that make up Channel Islands National Park—San Miguel. Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara—alongside 318 square miles of Marine Protected Areas are an invigorating glimpse into the California of yore with their rolling hills, sea caves, jagged cliffs, secluded coves, gorgeous vistas, kelp forests, and wildflower-covered rambles. Once the home of the Chumash Indians—remains found on Santa Rosa date back 13,000 years—and several ranching endeavors, it is now mostly untouched by man, save for a few rotating rangers, and instead inhabited by more than 2,000 species of plants and animals including 145 that aren’t found anywhere else on Earth. It is one of the easiest places in the world to act on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s directive to “live in the sunshine, swim the sea, [and] drink the wild air.”

This complete guide aims to help you achieve all three. It covers which island offers what, how to get to them, where to camp, when to go, the best hikes, what to see and do while visiting, animals you might see, and its complicated history.

Eastern End of Santa Cruz Island, California

Gary Kavanagh/Getty Images

Things To Do

All Channel Islands deliver a peaceful respite from the loud and busy modern world, recreational activities like hiking and swimming, and an abundance of wildlife. Individually though, each island has unique draws like a petrified forest, ancient Chumash sites (read more of their history here), a lighthouse, and a sea lion rookery.

A good place to start your CINP journey is at the beachfront Robert J. Lagomarsino Visitor Center on the mainland in Ventura. It features a 25-minutes film narrated by Kevin Costner, an aquarium with live animals, several exhibits, a third-floor viewing deck, a garden with native plants, and ranger programs.

Highlights for each island include:

  • Anacapa Island (Chumash name is ‘Anyapax which means “mirage”): The 737-acre island comprises a spiny main hunk and three islets. Features the largest brown pelican rookery in the US, the last permanent lighthouse built on the West Coast, a bevy of seabirds, Chumash middens, Cathedral Cove, sea caves, wildflowers (best in winter and early spring), kelp forests, tidepools, great kayaking, and Arch Rock. This is a good pick for first visits or if you are short on time.
  • Santa Cruz (Limuw): Split by a fault line, the park’s largest island (61,972 acres) is also the easiest to get to, has the best weather, and offers the most recreational activities, including hiking, swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking. Explore canyons, pristine beaches, sweeping hillsides, abandoned ranches, and one of the planet’s largest sea caves, Painted Cave.
  • Santa Rosa (Wima): At 53,051 acres, it is the second-largest island and beckons with picturesque dunes, gnarled driftwood, rolling hills, rare Torrey pines, good tide-pooling, deep canyons like Lobo, a coastal lagoon, great wildlife viewing, and pretty beaches like Water Canyon. It even boasts good surfing. (Typically, the north shore is best in winter/spring and the south shore is better for summer/fall.) This is also where the most complete pygmy mammoth specimen was uncovered in 1994.
  • San Miguel (Tuqan): The westernmost isle is battered by wind, fog, and severe weather and is the one island that requires a permit and liability waiver to come ashore as it is owned by the military and used to be a bombing range. The island is only open when park personnel is present. Reasons to visit include the calcified caliche forest, Lester Ranch ruins, interpretive programs in Cuyler Harbor, exceptional birding, Chumash sites, Cabrillo Monument, and Point Bennett, one of the largest congregations of wildlife (30,000 animals of five different species) in the world. 
  • Santa Barbara (Siwoth): Centuries of explorers, commercial fishing, ranchers, seal, and abalone hunters, and the military took a toll on the smallest island (644 acres), but animals and plants—many of which are quite rare or only found here including the island night lizard and the live-forever plant—are finally making a comeback on its rocky shores, grassy mesa, twin peaks, and craggy cliffs. There are five miles of trails, stunning coastal overlooks, great underwater visibility, and sea lion and seal rookeries.
Island fox in Channel Islands National Park

Blue Barron Photo/Getty Images

Animals

Nicknamed the U.S. Galapagos, CINP is home to more than 2,000 species of plants and animals, including 145 endemic ones like the island fox, the island deer mouse, the island spotted skunk, several lizards, some birds like the song sparrow and scrub-jay, and some plants and trees. The islands were never connected to the mainland, which affected the types of animals present. Each island has a unique complement of animals, and over time some species have evolved into new species and subspecies. For instance, there are different versions of the fox and the deer mouse on each island.

When ranchers set up operations in the mid-19th century, they introduced non-native species like pigs and sheep, which wreaked havoc on the ecosystem. They hunted the island’s bald eagle population almost to extinction, a job that was finished off by the extensive use of DDT in the 1950s. From 2002 to 2006, 61 pairs of bald eagles were reintroduced, and today they are thriving and breeding once again. The foxes, all listed as endangered in the early 2000s, have also become a conservation and breeding program success story. It also helps that the park made concerted efforts to remove non-native species over the last few decades.

Thousands of northern elephant seals, California sea lions, northern fur seals, and harbor seals all breed at varying times throughout the year at Point Bennett, on the west end of San Miguel Island. To see the rookery up close requires a six-mile hike.

In winter, gray whales migrate through the area, and whale-watching tours can be taken from harbors in Ventura, Oxnard, or Santa Barbara from December through April. Likely, you would also see dolphins, seals, and sea lions. Potentially, a pod or orcas. Summer’s ocean upwelling fills the channel with plumes of plankton, and hungry whales come to feast. Generally, there are also whale-watching tours that take advantage of this annual occurrence from July through September. 

Some areas of the park remain closed to humans or boat landings to protect the creatures that live, breed, or nest in them. To learn about all closures, check this link

Channel Islands National Park

FragmentOne/Getty Images

Best Hikes 

The park has many trails, which vary in difficulty, length, and maintenance levels. Maps are available at visitor centers and at island kiosks. Remember to stay on established trails when available. Bicycles are not allowed, and you must pack out all trash.  

Hiking highlights include:

  • All Anacapa paths are rated easy and range in length from .4 to 1.5 miles. Inspiration Point offers one of the park’s most breathtaking vistas while another hike leads to the lighthouse.
  • Santa Cruz has a fantastic variety, from an easy half-mile stroll to take in a ranch complex from the late-1800s to a strenuous 18-mile slog along an unmaintained trail to see Santa Cruz’s unique pine tree. Potato Harbor Overlook is also a stunning sight.
  • On Santa Rosa choose between an easy 2-mile ramble along blufftops (Becher’s Bay), walks along white sandy beaches or stream beds in walled canyons (Water Canyon), or long steep mountainous climbs (Black Mountain).
  • Owned by the Navy, San Miguel was a former bombing range and thus it’s critically important to stay on trail here as there might be undetonated ordnance. Observe seal and sea lion colonies after the strenuous 8-mile hike out to Point Bennett. A challenging 5 miles will land you at the Caliche Forest.
  • Santa Barbara has a little more than 5 miles of paths that transverse the island. One mile of moderate hiking is rewarded with fabulous sunsets, seasonal flowers, and a view of Arch Point. Elephant Seal Cover Overlook provides a glimpse of pinnipeds and towering volcanic cliffs. 
kayaking in Channel islands

Courtesy of Santa Barbara Adventure Company

Kayaking, Snorkeling, and Scuba

The park is one of the best places to kayak in California, thanks to its sizeable sea caves, thriving kelp forests, clear waters, and inquisitive marine life. Santa Barbara Adventure Company and Island Packers run organized kayaking tours of all skill levels from Santa Cruz Island’s Scorpion Anchorage. Some tours include a snorkeling portion. They also handle rentals, and IP can transport personal equipment for a fee. Several companies like the Spectre Dive Boat run diving trips for those who want to explore underwater. 

Where To Camp

Overnighting in on the Channel Islands is the definition of roughing it as there are no goods or services on the islands. All campgrounds are quite primitive, there are ticks and rodents that potentially carry hantavirus, and all food must be packed in and all trash packed out. Be smart as there are no remedies on the island for poor planning.

Travelers must carry all of their gear from the ferry/airstrip to the campsite. Distances vary from .25 to 1.5 miles, sometimes up steep hills or, in Anacapa’s case, 157 stairs. Most landing areas also require gear to be carried up and down a ladder. You may also get wet during landing and loading.

Camping is available year-round, with 72 sites spread across all five islands. Reservations are required for all of them at all times. Each site has a picnic table. None of the campgrounds have showers. All have vault toilets except Santa Rosa, which has flushing facilities. Eastern Santa Cruz is the only campground with shade and trees. Only two islands, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa, have potable water. Each site on San Miguel and Santa Rosa has a windbreak as 30-knot winds are not uncommon.  

Food and trash must be secured from birds and animals at all times in tamper-proof containers like sealing coolers. Food storage lockers are also available at the campgrounds. Single-use plastic bags are not allowed on the islands. Foxes and ravens can open zippers, so carabiners, paper clips, or twist ties are suggested to keep them out of your tent. Due to extreme fire danger, no campfires or charcoal fires are permitted. Use only enclosed gas camp stoves. Bring an extra day’s worth of food and water in case sea conditions prevent the boat shuttles from landing.

On Anacapa from April to Mid-August, nesting western gulls can cause adverse conditions (guano, strong odors, constant noise, and carcasses).

Limited backcountry camping is available. Available all year, Del Norte near Prisoners Harbor on Santa Cruz is nestled in a shaded oak grove 700 feet above sea level. Some secluded beaches on Santa Rosa are open for camping from Aug. 15 to Dec. 31. The closest site is nine miles from the boat/plane drop-off. These accommodations are not for the inexperienced or unfit as the hikes are along rugged beaches, dirt roads without signage, and unmaintained animal paths. You must also bring your own toilet paper and water.

Reserve spots on Recreation.gov. Individual sites are $15 per night, and group sites on Santa Cruz are $40 per night.

Backcountry campsite in Channel Islands

Courtesy of the National Park Service

Where To Stay

There is no lodging outside of the campgrounds within the park. Ventura, Oxnard, and Santa Barbara all have hotels and resorts at every budget level for the night before your boat ride to the islands or the night after you return to civilization. 

How To Get There

The park is only accessible by park concessionaire boats (Island Packers Cruises) and planes (Channel Islands Aviation). 

IPC is the official boat concessionaire and ferries visitors to Santa Cruz and Anacapa year-round while limited rides to the outer islands (Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara) only occur from March through November. IPC also offers a series of trips that do not go ashore, including seasonal whale-watching tours, general island and wildlife viewing, and birding cruises. Prices range from $29 to $195 depending on the tour and passenger age and type. Camper passage is more expensive than daytrippers. Boats leave from Oxnard and Ventura harbors. 

CIA has been the park’s official airline since the mid-1990s, although it has run charters to the islands aboard its Britten-Norman Islander (seats eight) since 1975. Flights leave from the Camarillo Airport, and prices start at $1,200 for exclusive plane use. CIA runs deluxe and half-day trips to Santa Rosa and San Miguel and can haul you and your gear out and back for multi-day camping trips.  

Personal boats can be used to get to the islands, but there are restrictions like personal watercraft such as jet skis are not allowed in park waters, and landing on offshore rocks or islets is not permitted. To learn more, go here

Accessibility

The main visitor center is fully accessible thanks to ramps, a captioned film, designated parking stalls, an elevator to the lookout, and other features. The Santa Barbara station is also accessible. But the park, due to its rugged terrain and isolated location, is a difficult place for people in wheelchairs or with limited mobility. Many islands require offloading from the boat to a dock ladder, climbing stairs, and navigating narrow trails. 

To determine the accessibility of boats and planes that go to and from the park, contact the concessioners directly.

Some campsites on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa are level and have wheelchair-accessible tables. Assistance is available on those two islands to get people who need an extra hand to campgrounds. This requires pre-planning through the visitor center. Ranger-led programs or hikes can be modified in some ways, like ASL interpretation, but requests should be made at least two weeks in advance. 

Service animals are allowed in the visitor center, but a health screening and proof of vaccination are required for them to go ashore on Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel islands. 

Arch rock in Channel Islands

Benedek/Getty Images

Tips For Your Visit

  • There is no general admission fee for the park, but there are costs associated with transportation to the islands, campsites, tours, and gear rental.
  • The park is open year-round, 24 hours a day but visitor centers have varying hours. Spring through Fall is the busiest season. If you plan to travel during that time, it would be wise to make transportation and campground reservations as far in advance as possible. The same goes for gear rentals.
  • The weather is unpredictable, so layers are recommended. The wind can be fierce and pop up unexpectantly. Most of the campgrounds and many of the trails have minimal shade, so definitely don’t forget hats, sunglasses, and reef-safe sunscreen.
  • Feeding wildlife is illegal and makes them dangerously dependent on humans. Fishing within the marine protected areas is also a no-no, as is collecting, damaging, or injuring animals, plant life, natural features, or cultural items. Pets are not allowed in the park as they could endanger wildlife.
  • Smoke only in designated areas.
  • Cell phone and internet access are almost non-existent. In case of emergency, locate park staff.
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Island Time: The Complete Guide to Channel Islands National Park