If you can believe it, just off the coast of America's most populous state, one national park manages to escape widespread attention.
Among the national parks counted in the contiguous United States (that's the "lower 48"), Channel Islands National Park ranks around the eighth-least* visited. (If that isn't a siren's call to intrepid adventurers, we don't know what is!) The islands can thank their remoteness for their hidden-gem status, and also the rich biodiversity that thrives in their isolation.
Here's everything you need to know about catching some solitude in this offshore parkland paradise.
Channel Islands fast facts:
- There are five main islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara.
- The Islands are home to 145 endemic species of flora and fauna.
- North America’s oldest dated human remains were found here.
- This is the location of one of the world’s largest sea caves (Painted Cave, 370 metres long).
- Channel Islands' native fox is North America’s smallest canid.
- California's largest breeding colonies of seabirds can be found here.
- About 10% of Earth’s blue whales aggregate here in the summer.
- More endangered species exist on the Channel Islands than in any other American national park.
How to get to Channel Islands National Park
Getting around: The Islands are a wilderness setting, so once on an island, visitors must travel by foot, boat or kayak. You'll have to leave your mountain bike at home.
Ventura County and its harbours can be considered the gateway to Channel Islands National Park. Tip: book-end your trip in the city of Camarillo with its affordable lodging options. Santa Barbara airport is 30 miles away; LAX is 54 miles.
Camping on the Channel Islands requires a reservation and is quite primitive. Sites don't offer potable water or much in the way of shade; it's carry-in-carry-out camping for all supplies and trash. Camping essentials include drinking water, a camp stove (campfires are not permitted) and toilet paper. Sites do include picnic tables, pit toilets and locking food caches. It costs $15 USD per site, per night.
Anacapa - 7 campsites
Santa Cruz - 31 sites
Santa Rosa - 15 sites
San Miguel - 9 sites
Santa Barbara - 10 sites
Which Channel Island(s) to visit?
Located 12 miles from the coast, Anacapa is closest to the Californian mainland, a distance that takes only 60 minutes to transit by boat. Anacapa measures just under five miles long and is actually comprised of three islets. Due to its small size and boat/kayak required to travel between islets, Anacapa is well-suited to a day trip or a single-night stay. Thanks to its volcanic composition, natural features include sea cliffs, sea caves, and rock bridges. You can’t miss Anacapa’s iconic 40-ft Arch Rock.
Flickr/Chetan Kolluri (CC BY-ND 2.0)
Do: Hike the island’s two-mile trail system (stopping to view marine life off Cathedral Cove and Pinniped Point viewpoints), and explore Anacapa’s kelp forests by boat or kayak. Better yet, dive right in and snorkel this enchanting marine environment. There’s also a light station with keeper’s quarters on East Anacapa and a few shell middens that give nod to the Chumash people who camped here thousands of years ago.
See: California brown pelicans, western gulls, California sea lions, habour seals, and whales and dolphins can be spotted around the island. Sea stars and sea urchins live in tide pools, and bright orange Garibaldi fish can be found in the shallows.
Flora: February through April, winter rain brings about bright yellow sunflower blooms, red paintbrush, island morning glory, and buckwheat.
Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz is California’s largest island (96 sq. miles). Marked by two mountain ranges with peaks soaring 2,000-plus feet, there are canyons, 77 miles of rugged coastal cliffs, beaches, and gaping sea caves to explore. Its most remarkable natural feature is Painted Cave. Measuring almost a quarter-mile long and 100 feet across, it is counted among the deepest, largest sea caves in the world.
Do: Hike the island’s eastern side, taking special note of adobe ranch houses and workshops dating back to the European ranching settlements of the 1800s and 1900s. Well before then, Santa Cruz Island was inhabited by the Chumash people. Cultural sites hail back to the ten villages that once supported a population of 1,200.
Next, take to the water and explore those famous sea caves and kelp beds. Kayak east toward Scorpion Bay or west towards Cavern Point for sea caves. Scorpion Beach offers a mixed sand and pebble strand well suited for swimming and launching kayaks.
See: 140 landbirds make this a birder’s paradise. Keep your eyes peeled for island foxes and bald eagles. Offshore, spy seals and sea lions playing in the waves.
Flora: Santa Cruz boasts more than 600 plant species that span grasslands, pine forest, and marshes. Due to the island’s isolation, eight of these native plant species are only found here.
The outer islands
Flickr/Shanthanu Bhardwaj (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Santa Rosa Island
If you're willing to travel three hours by boat—40 miles offshore—you'll reach Santa Rosa, the second-largest island in California. It is rich with natural beauty and history: rare Torrey Pines grow here, and the remains of the pygmy mammoth were unearthed on this island. Visitors can relish in relatively flat hiking and "backcountry" surfing. Strong ocean currents mean kayakers should be experienced paddlers.
Santa Barbara Island
A limited transportation schedule makes Santa Barbara less accessible than her neighbouring islands. Five miles of hiking trails await, and the coastline offers good kayaking, swimming, snorkeling and wildlife viewing.
San Miguel Island
This island takes about four hours to reach by boat. It was formerly used to test explosive ordinances. Thus, no off-trail hiking is permitted. Watersports are limited, but hiking opportunities exist and wildlife viewing is excellent. Permits are required and self-sufficiency is a must.
Let Camarillo be your affordable
gateway to the Channel Islands
More Central California adventure on Explore: