Channel Islands National Park - California Islands

Channel Islands National Park - Located off the coast of Ventura and an hour's bumpy boat ride away via Island Packers is the the spectacular treasure, Santa Cruz Island. One of eight visible islands off the Southern California Coast and one of five that you can actually comprise Channel Islands National Park, Santa Cruz is the largest island. The water around the five islands in the park is protected as part of the Channel Island National Marine Sanctuary. 

The Channel Islands occupy such a unique niche in the ecology of the United States that they're sometimes referred to as America's Galapagos. As you'd expect with such a label, the park's diversity of animal and plant life is amazing. More than 2,000 species crowd this small park, and of those 145 can be found nowhere else on earth. The isolation of the eight islands in the chain has played a big role in building that diversity, as has its location at the collision point between the cold, nutrient-rich waters moving south from northern California and warm water moving north from from Baja California.



Painted Cave on Santa Cruz Island is the largest and deepest sea cave in the world and is something you may not want to miss if you are a kayak enthusiast. Painted Cave earns its name from the colorful rocks and lichens that cover its surface. The cave reaches a quarter of a mile into the side of the island. The entrance ceiling is an immense 160 feet high. In the spring a waterfall curtains the mouth of the cave. Kayak tours are available on the island. Arrangements are made through Island Packers (805) 642-1393, for departing from Ventura and Channel Islands Harbors to all of the islands. Truth Aquatics (805) 962-1127, departing from Santa Barbara Harbor to all of the islands. Channel Islands Aviation (805) 987-1301, for air travel to Santa Rosa Island. Folding boats only or to meet up with others.

You can kayak with one of several outfitters that offer a variety of different kayak trips to the Channel Islands. The trips are moderate to strenuous in nature, but some do not require previous kayaking experience. Most kayak excursions are offered from May through October. Some of the outfitters also offer kayaks for rent. For a current listing of outfitters and rental sources for kayaks perform an internet search, consult local phone books or contact the Park Visitor Center.

Visitors with their own kayaks who would like to explore Channel Islands National Park can contact the park boat concessionaires, who will transport kayaks to the islands on their public trips for an extra fee. Concessionaires such as Island Packers and Truth Aquatics offer year-round transportation to the islands for day visits and camping trips.

A visual spectacle of unparalleled beauty features amazing critters in a transcendent environment, is part of the Channel Islands excursion experience. It is natural, it's raw and is stripped of the many artificial sights and sounds of the California mainland with its millions of people. Unaccustomed to this natural environment, some visitors find the experience a bit shocking. It doesn't take long, however, to embrace the natural beauty and become a champion for the need for fragile ecosystems reliant on human support to keep them flourishing. The Channel Islands are the most important nesting grounds for seabirds on the West Coast. Though damaged by decades of cattle and sheep ranching, the islands still sport an impressive array of native plant life. Whales, orcas, and dolphins pass offshore. Tide pools, a vanishing habitat on the mainland, are doing well on Channel Islands.

The national park occupies five of the eight islands in the chain, as well as much of its offshore waters. The islands are Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara. Each island has its own character. Anacapa is the entry point, tiny, popular, and closest to shore. Santa Cruz is the largest and most biologically diverse; it is largely owned by the nonprofit The Nature Conservancy. Santa Rosa is the most historically interesting, and the most wide open of the larger islands for those who want to do some independent exploring. San Miguel has (arguably) the best hiking as well as terrific wildlife. Tiny Santa Barbara is the most isolated, a place to go to be alone in a wild, windy ocean.


Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands are accessible by booking seats on chartered boats departing daily from Ventura and Santa Barbara or other coastal cities which offer scuba, fishing and excursion charters. If you are short on time, half-day non land excursions are also available in Ventura on the Whale Watching trips. But the good news is that if the whales are migrating, the captain of your day-trip charter will stop to watch and take photos. California's natural splendor is what you'll discover on a trip to the islands where you may view cormorants, seals, sea lions and endangered California brown pelicans near a giant kelp forests shelter with more than 1,000 species of ocean life.


Pack it in, take it out!  The rule when you visit these islands is that you must bring your own provisions, (fires are not permitted) and pack out everything you bring. There's no one around to collect trash so your imprint will remain.  Visitors must stay on marked hiking trails and are not allowed to disturb plants and animals. With no provisions on these rustic islands, you must bring your own water and food.  Overnight tent camping is permitted but reservations are required. Check out the Island Packers for information on reserving a trip to the Islands.


The information we gathered about the Channel Islands made us wonder if we could handle visiting a place that sounded so rustic as to lack the luxuries of bathrooms and water. Traveling from the greater Los Angeles area with its 12 million or so people, to Ventura where we'd depart for this imagined paradise, we questioned our ability to cope. What we didn't consider, surprised us to discover and what we worried about worked out just fine. 


Our first surprise came as the boat left Ventura Harbor with the Island Packers crew, and hit the open sea. Our group is not inclined toward motion sickness so it was a surprise that we did experience some queasy moments on the boat ride to the island. Our neighbors on the boat who took Dramamine before departure were doing just fine. 


We got over the uneasiness as we arrived at this beautiful spot seen above. Our second awakening came as we watched people depart the boat. The boat is docked closely to a set of stairs but the dock requires handing your personal items up to someone above and climbing a metal stair railing. We couldn't recommend this trip to anyone who is wheelchair bound or is not in good health. We didn't know this beforehand but we do now.


As for it being rustic, we were tipped off to the adventure trail as maps were issued to beginners. We began to hike around the first bend beyond the dock and discovered an outhouse (bathroom).  Wow! We thought this was completely natural but we actually discovered two facilities (with toilet paper, too. There was a beautifully, maintained house on the island for someone who apparently owned the island at one time, camping facilities for the rangers and some feral pigs that had gotten loose from the island owner's farm, long ago, and now ran wild, causing havoc with the native flora and fauna, we were told. The campsites were not far from the boat dock and looked fairly routine, unlike our imagined wild adventure style "camp in the tall grass" images. 


A few guests were bummed out that they couldn't have a fire and cook the steaks they brought. There are no phones, food, vending machines, water faucets or anything of the sort.  The rule here is, "Bring only what you can carry and if you see it and it doesn't belong, pick it up and take it off the island as you depart." 


So with all that in mind, our surprises were 1) that lots of people go to these islands to camp, scuba dive, spear fish, kayak and hike, and you are never far away from help or companionship. In fact, if you've not arranged camping like you are required to do, you'll probably be tracked down and removed. 2) The scenic beauty of these islands exists in the subtleties of nature. It's not like touring a botanical garden with well placed plants that create settings. There are rocks, dust, tall grasses and places where the path is not so worn. More real and more occupied than we previously envisioned, we found the experience enjoyable and easy for our day trip, ending perfectly with the boat stopping to watch orca whales feed on krill. 


ANACAPAThere are eight islands off the California coast which make up the Channel Islands but only five of them in the Channel Islands National Park. The water around these five islands is protected as part of the Channel Island National Marine Sanctuary.  Pictured left is Anacapa which lies 11 miles south of Ventura.  Composed of three small islets which are accessible to each other by boat, the island's length is five miles with one square mile of land area. 

Of interest is a 1.5 mile self guided nature trail, a beach and snorkeling area at West Anacapa's Frenchy Cove, tidepools and skin and scuba diving around the cove. There are many shipwrecks, including the Winfield Scott steamer which grounded and sank off Middle Anacapa in 1853.  You can take photographs but it is against the law to touch anything.  Also interesting but not for getting close and personal is the East Anacapa lighthouse. Severe hearing damage may result if you visit the lighthouse so visitors are warned to stay away from it. Camping is allowed free at the East Anacapa campground only if you obtain a permit. Fishing is permitted with a license. 


Channel Islands

Length X Width Travel Time (approx.)/ Distance Camping

Anacapa Island

5 miles X  55 min. to 1 hour / 12 miles 805-658-5730 

Santa Cruz Island

24 miles X  1 hour / 20 miles 800-365-2267

Santa Rosa Island

15 miles X 10 miles 2.5 to 3 hours / 46 miles 800-365-2267

San Miguel Island

8 miles X 4 miles 3.5 to 4 hours / 58 miles 800-365-2267

Santa Barbara Island

0.25 miles X 2.5 to 3 hours / 55 miles 805-658-5730

For information, write: Superintendent, Channel Islands National Park, 1901 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura, CA  93001-4354 or call, 805-658-5730. Request the brochure: Channel Islands National Park California, produced by National Park Service, U.S. Department of Interior

Rangers conduct walks on San Miguel, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands. Call (805) 658-5711 for tour information or (805) 964-7839 for Santa Cruz island. 

Visitor Center in Channel Island Harbor, 1901 Spinnaker Drive, contains the park headquarters, featuring exhibits, hands on displays and slide and film shows about the islands.  Mon.- Fri. 8:30 am - 4:30 pm, Sat.&Sun. 8 am - 5 pm (805) 658-5730

Getting there:

Ventura - Ventura Harbor 1691 Spinnaker Dr. Ventura, CA 93001 Phone: (805) 642-1393. Web:
Oxnard -
Channel Islands Harbor, 3600 S. Harbor, Oxnard Phone: (805) 642-1393. Web: 
Santa Barbara
- Truth Aquatics Channel Island Trips  Phone 805-962-1127
301 W. Cabrillo Blvd., Santa Barbara, CA 93101 Web:

channel islands photos

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Pictured above are images from the largest island, Santa Cruz, including Prisoners Harbor Beach, one of California's finest kayaking locations with the spectacular painted cave on Santa Cruz Island (see kayak information below)

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