California is home to 28 national parks and sites scattered throughout the state. From the iconic Half Dome in Yosemite, to the desolate in Death Valley and the big trees in the North at the Redwoods, there is no shortage of vast beauty in California’s parks.
One of the last few remaining parks that we had yet to visit in Southern California was the Channel Islands National Park off the Ventura County Coast. Being so remote, accessible only by boat or small plane, it is one of the least visited national parks in the state and country. As such, it has been left largely undisturbed for much of it’s history, showcasing a pristine coastal Mediterranean ecosystem.
Channel Islands National Park is comprised of 5 islands off the Southern California coast, all offering different views, landscapes and opportunities for adventurous families. Anacapa Island is the smallest island, but still offers camping and gentle hiking trails to Inspiration Point and near a 1932 lighthouse. It is best visited as a day trip as the island itself is quite small and can easily be covered in a day.
Santa Cruz Island is a larger island offering kayaking through sea caves, camping and miles of trails to explore the island with the adorable Island Fox wandering around nearby. This island is great for families who want to camp near the dock at Scorpion Ranch or in the backcountry with plenty of time to explore the various trails and beaches. Scorpion Beach, on the eastern part of the island, offers swimmable (cold) water and expansive kelp forests where snorkelers can spot an array of sea life.
Santa Rosa Island features rare Torrey pines with more remote camping and hiking opportunities for the more adventurous. There are also various remnants of its past from archeological remains of the Chumash Indians to old docks from it’s days in cattle ranching.
The remaining two islands, San Miguel and Santa Barbara, the most far flung of the islands offer sanctuary to seals and nesting birds as they are not as touched by human influences. Visits to San Miguel can be done as one-day or multi-day boat trips, as well as overnight camping. However, it is more challenging to get to with changing weather conditions throughout the year. Additionally a permit is required, but can be easily attained through your transportation operator.
Santa Barbara also offers day trips and camping opportunities, however it is even more difficult to reach than San Miguel due to it’s limited transportation schedule. Operators run from April – October on a limited schedule. This island is not recommended for small children as you need to climb a steep steel ladder off the boat dock and then up 100+ stairs to reach the top of the island.
Choosing which island to visit is often one of the most difficult decisions as only one island can be visited in a day. The park service often recommends Anacapa Island for first time visitors, however Santa Cruz Island offers even more opportunities for adventure. For families with a greater adventurous spirit, Santa Rosa Island is calling your name!
The main visitor center for the Channel Islands National Park is not even on the islands, rather at the Ventura Harbor Village. The Robert J. Lagomarsino Visitor Center is where visitors can learn more about the ecosystems present at the different islands, see sea life up close in a touch tank and speak with park rangers more about what the islands offer for visitors. While at the visitor center, make time for the beautiful 25 minute park film shown at various times throughout the day. This is also a great place for families to pick up a Junior Ranger booklet for your own ranger badge. Activities can be completed at this visitor center itself, providing a good overview of the islands even if you can’t make it out to them yourself.
While on the islands, there are unmanned visitor centers providing educational information, exhibits and information about each of the islands. These stations can be found on the islands of Santa Barbara and Anacapa Islands and at Scorpion Ranch on Santa Cruz Island.
When To Go
The Channel Islands are officially open year round, however practically speaking the easiest time of year to get to the islands to enjoy them at their fullest tends to be from April to October. Outside of these months, the weather is more erratic making departures by boat or plane tentative rather than confirmed. In the early spring, visitors can expect to see nesting birds, while during the summer you can see baby Island Foxes running around!
How to Get There
The most accessible way to visit the islands is through the only boat company taking visitors out, Island Packers. Island Packers is a family run company with a long history of providing access to the islands. Being the only boat option to access the islands means that boats fill up quickly. During the busy summer months, boats leave quite often, however they are often booked quite a bit in advance.
For detailed information on schedules, prices and packages, spend some time exploring the Island Packers website.
For those with bigger pocketbooks and less time there are also flight options to some of the islands by Channel Islands Aviation.
What To Do
The main activities at any of the islands center around becoming one with nature. Away from the hustle and bustle of mainland life and all that comes with it (aka cell phone service), visitors can hike, camp, snorkel and sea kayak.
Anacapa Island is fairly small with about 2 miles of loop trails on the entire island, so most families will have ample opportunity to explore them all. If you visit during May or early June, there could be thousands of Western Gulls hatching their young which could close one of the trails depending on where they nest. Either way, it’s a pretty amazing site to see in person. Note, getting out of the boat requires visitors navigate a few metal steps up and then several flights of stairs to the top of the island.
Santa Cruz Island is our preferred destination as it offers much more variety for a day trip, so much so that it’s difficult to fit it all in. Sea kayaking is a popular excursion here. Book ahead with Santa Barbara Adventure Company who will provide you with everything you need for your adventure including wet suits, life jackets, wind breakers and helmets. If you are a nervous nelly like myself, pay a little extra for a private guide who will take you out slowly and even tow you if you just can’t manage it yourself. Either way, it’s a magical way to experience the island.
If water sports is not your thing, there is a small visitor hut with information on the island as well as several trails leading off from the Scorpion Dock area. The easiest for families is the Cavern Point Loop clocking in around 2 miles. The NPS website has a great map on all the trails on Santa Cruz Island that you can print to take with you.
What To Bring
Once you step off your boat there is nothing to purchase, so you need to bring everything with you. All of the islands are totally and completely pack in/pack out.
Food & Water
On our recent trip to Santa Cruz we were excited to learn about the wonderful offerings of Channel Island Provisioners. This is a wonderful solution for families looking to spend a day on the islands but not sure what all to pack for meals. Neal, the owner/chef, has created an outstanding menu that travels well and packed small for lugging around the island. He will drop off your meals at the dock before you depart and pick up the empty sack when you get back. There are several options, but the best deal is one that includes a breakfast choice, lunch, fruit, snacks and water. Special meal eaters rejoice as there are options for vegetarians, vegans and those eating gluten free. If you are camping, he can also set you up with a multi-day package. Yes!
Order breakfast to have in the boat over and lunch to have later in the day. The food is delicious and plentiful. Definitely worth the added expense.
Also, load up on water for your visit. Often times it’s not as hot on the island but it is very dry which means you still need to keep up on your water intake.
Even though the water is quite cold to us, there are always plenty of people swimming and snorkeling in the alcoves. There are no services here to rent supplies from so make sure to bring it all over with you. Pack in your swim suits, wetsuits, snorkel equipment and even bring over your own kayak if you have one (book that in advance with the boat). The shore is quite rocky so water shoes or those that can get wet are be recommended.
Neither Anacapa nor Santa Cruz Island have much if any shade, therefore its important to bring hats, glasses, lots of sunscreen or long sleeve coverups to protect yourself from the sun. Bring or wear your hiking shoes for exploring on the trails once you have finished your fun in the water.
It must always be said in California, bring layers! The heat can be intense at times as there is very little shade on the islands, however if it’s cloudy or when the day begins to wind down, the chill comes out and you will need some layers. The boat ride back to Ventura/Oxnard is also often pretty chilly, so pack a light hoody or sweater regardless of the season.
[box]Note: Do not eat anything that falls on the ground at Santa Cruz Island. That means mustard flowers growing wild there too. Hantavirus, a rare disease present on several of the islands in the Channel Islands has been reported in the deer mouse population. Risk of infection is very low, however a basic safety precaution is to not eat any food that falls to the ground, nor any plants found on the islands. To find out more, go here.[/box]
No matter where you choose to go, or what adventures you decide to partake in during your visit to the Channel Islands, you will have a wonderful day away from the buzzing of your phone and traffic of Southern California. The boat ride to and from the islands is a highlight for many with the hiking and water activities on the islands an added bonus.
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All opinions and thoughts in this article are my own, however I would like to thank Ventura County for sponsoring our visit to the Channel Islands.