How to Visit One of California’s Least Visited—but Most Beautiful—National Parks

Here’s how to have an epic adventure at Channel Islands National Park.

Scrubby hills on an island in Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park encompasses five ecologically rich islands located off the Southern Californian coast.

Photo by Justin Fantl

Located off the coast of Southern California, the Channel Islands are known as the “Galápagos of North America.”

In 1980, five of the eight islands in the archipelago were declared Channel Islands National Park: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara. Development on them is minimal, with a few campsites, national park offices, and research stations. This makes them an Edenic retreat for hikers, bird-watchers, kayakers, divers, wildlife enthusiasts, and wildflower lovers.

The archipelago, and the extensive marine sanctuary surrounding it, is home to more than 2,000 species of flora and fauna. Visitors may catch a glimpse of some of the 145 endemic species of foxes, skunks, or birds that call the archipelago home. Tens of thousands of sea lions and elephant seals dot the shorelines, while dolphins and sperm whales swim through the waters, which are also home to kelp forests and deep-sea coral gardens.

The land and the surrounding waters hold immense cultural significance to the Chumash people, one of the archipelago’s original inhabitants. They believe the Earth Mother, Hutash, created their ancestors on Limuw, now known as Santa Cruz Island.

Here’s everything you need to know about visiting Channel Islands National Park:

How to get there

Channel Islands National Park can only be reached by ferry, private boat, or aerial helicopter tour. Island Packers Cruises is the park’s official boat concessionaire, with ports located about 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles in Oxnard and Ventura. The trips to Santa Cruz and Anacapa take about an hour each, while journeys to the farther islands take between two and four hours. In harsh weather, the crossing may get rough and, in some cases, the ferry might be unable to dock.

Once on the archipelago, the only transportation options are kayak, foot, or a visitor’s own private boat. This makes it one of the least accessible national parks for visitors with mobility issues.

What to do

The islands have dozens of marked trails that range in difficulty: Inspiration Point is an hour-long stroll (Anacapa Island), while a visit to Point Bennett is part of a strenuous 16-mile loop where hikers can also observe colonies of seals (San Miguel Island). One of photographer Justin Fantl’s favorites is a nine-mile round-trip hike to the striated Lobo Canyon, where the sandstone has been carved by wind, water, and time (Santa Rosa Island).

On ferries to the park, visitors may get lucky and see dolphins or whales. Ocean-life enthusiasts may also consider one of Island Packers Cruises’ whale-watching trips; from June to September, take a boat to the marine sanctuary to find humpback and blue whales, and from January to April, look for the gray whale. The company also runs boat tours to spot seals, sea lions, and birds.

Kayakers and snorkelers can rent gear from Channel Islands Adventure Company or Santa Barbara Adventure Company. Many kayak tours include visits to some of the islands’ cathedral-like sea caves, such as those near Scorpion Anchorage, a harbor on Santa Cruz Island. Back on the mainland, visitors can deepen their knowledge of the area’s Indigenous history with a visit to the Chumash Indian Museum in Thousand Oaks or the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

Left: People getting off a boat at Channel Islands National Park. Right: Shadows on a sand dune.

Humpback and gray whales often visit the waters surrounding the Channel Islands.

Photos by Justin Fantl

When to go

Most of the park’s 300,000 annual visitors enjoy the Channel Islands in the summer, but it’s never a bad time to travel to the park. Here are the best things about visiting the Channel Islands during each season.

  • Spring: Wildflower blooms.
  • Summer: Warm weather and calm water make it an ideal time to hike and kayak.
  • Fall: Water visibility (up to 100 feet) is at its maximum
  • Winter: Best time for whale spotting and for catching spectacular sunsets. (Note that there is limited transportation to the outer islands—Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara—during the winter months.)

Where to stay

There are primitive campsites located on each of the islands. Reservations are required. Each campsite offers pit toilets and picnic tables; all food must be carried in, and trash must be carried out. Campfires are not allowed. The most popular campgrounds are Scorpion Ranch on Santa Cruz Island and Water Canyon on Santa Rosa Island, both of which offer potable water (at the other campgrounds, water must be carried in). For travelers looking to level up their adventure even more, there are back country camping options on Santa Cruz or Santa Rosa islands.

But for those looking for less of a time commitment, it’s easy to day trip to the Channel Islands. Los Angeles, Ventura, and Santa Barbara are destinations in and of themselves and are located off the Pacific—all serve as natural entry ways to the park.

Tips for visiting

Given how remote and relatively inaccessible the islands are, and how little is available once you arrive, you’ll need to do some advance planning—as well as meticulous packing. “You have to be pretty self-sufficient, especially on islands like Santa Rosa or San Miguel,” says Fantl. “You get off the boat and that’s it, you’re alone. I’ve spent a whole day hiking and not seen anybody else.”

  • Crossing the channel can get a bit rocky, depending on weather. Packing motion sickness medicine is recommended.
  • Consider packing items like sunscreen, hiking boots, a lightweight jacket, a swimsuit, and a picnic blanket.
  • The only fires permitted in the park must be started by enclosed gas stoves.
  • Remember to follow “Leave No Trace” principles.
  • The Channel Islands National Park’s website offers regulations and guidelines for visitors to limit their impact and reduce the spread of invasive species.
Sarika Bansal is the editorial director of AFAR Magazine and editor of the book Tread Brightly: Notes on Ethical Travel.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR