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How to Explore the Channel Islands

Spend a day—or a week—in this idyllic national park off the Central Coast

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This chain of five islands—Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, and San Miguel—is rich with untouched natural beauty and a California destination worthy of your consideration. Whether you have half a day or more than a week to experience Channel Islands National Park, here are some of the best ways to explore the islands—by kayak, yacht, or just by foot.  

Embrace the Journey Itself

Just getting to the national park is a scenic experience—one to three hours by boat, or about half an hour by plane. Most boat trips depart from Ventura Harbor (home to the national park’s visitors center) via operator Island Packers, and the majority go to the two closest islands, Santa Cruz and Anacapa. You can also reach the islands from Santa Barbara, by way of a Santa Barbara Sailing yacht, helmed by a U.S. Coast Guard captain. On the way from either city, you might spot frolicking whales, dolphins, or even flying fish.

Paddle a Kayak     

Exploring the Channel Islands by kayak is the best way to see the islands’ wealth of sea caves and kelp forests up close. Book a kayaking trip with Santa Barbara Adventure Company—the main outfitter for activities on the Channel Islands—which includes your ferry ride from Ventura, kayaking gear, and a guide. Paddling time lasts from 90 minutes to a full day, and tours focus on areas like the 100-foot-wide Painted Cave, one of the largest sea caves in the world. 

Hike and Look for Wildlife

Each island offers its own scenic hikes, with pristine views and opportunities to see wildlife and birds. Santa Cruz Island has some 15 trails, Anacapa has a nice hike to a lighthouse (one of the few structures you’ll see around here), and Santa Rosa Island has Lobo Canyon, with sandstone formations, pygmy mammoth fossils, and a good chance of seeing local island foxes.

Go Whale-Watching

Depending on the time of year, several species of whales can be spotted diving, breaching, and spouting around the islands. Take a whale-watching tour with Island Packers between December and April to see gray whales on their annual migrations between the Bering Sea and Mexico, or come in summer to see humpbacks (and sometimes even giant blue whales) looking for a local buffet of krill. These tours don’t land on the islands, so they’re ideal if you only have part of a day.

Stay for Days

There’s nary a hotel on the Channel Islands, but that doesn’t mean you can’t stay for a night or longer. Each island has a campground: the biggest are Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz and Water Canyon Camp on Santa Rosa Island. For a full-service expedition, book a one- to 10-night trip with Santa Barbara Sailing, where you sleep on the boat and bring your own food (or let the crew cook for you) and spend your days stand-up paddleboarding, snorkeling, surfing, SCUBA diving, or just relaxing on a beach that you’ll have to yourself. 

Learn more about exploring the Channel Islands on the California Now Podcast.


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