Photo credit: Benjamin Herndon, Courtesy of Santa Barbara Adventure Company
The Channel Islands National Park is known as “The Galapagos Islands of the North” for its unique flora and fauna, which is found nowhere else on the planet. An excursion to this remote, volcanic chain of islands is an unforgettable experience and should be at the top of everyone’s to-do list when visiting Santa Barbara. Hop on a boat at Island Packers Cruises, or book a guided tour to explore a piece of “Old California,” as it looked 200 years ago. For those seeking a guide, you can’t go wrong booking through Channel Islands Expeditions, the only company that leaves directly from the Santa Barbara Harbor, or Santa Barbara Adventure Company.
Spring through fall, it is possible to island-hop. Here’s inspiration for each of the islands waiting to be discovered.
The narrowest island in the chain is a fantastic kayaking destination with more than 100 sea grottos honeycombed inside its craggy, 300-foot-tall cliffs. Anacapa is actually three small islets, visible only at low tide. On West, Middle and East Anacapa Islands, visitors will find no beaches, so be prepared to climb a ladder onto a dock and climb up 150 stairs to reach the top. East Anacapa is the only islet open to visitors. Middle and West Anacapa are closed to the public, to protect sensitive seabird breeding and nesting habitats.
For the hardy, a campground awaits. Bring all your own food and water, to enjoy the birds and California sea lions that frequent Anacapa Island. Take an easy stroll out to Inspiration Point for one of the most breathtaking views across the entire windswept archipelago.
A comfortable walk takes visitors to the lighthouse overlooking the iconic 40-foot-tall rock arch that’s been sanded into shape by the surf. Down at Landing Cove, step off the ladder and explore the underwater world of the park. Grab a snorkel and mask and take in the natural wonders; half of this National Park is located in the ocean.
SANTA CRUZ ISLAND
The largest island off the California coast is also the most bio-diverse, with 60 animal and plant species, the most of any of California’s Channel Islands. With 96 square miles and 77 miles of coastline, there’s much to explore on Santa Cruz. There are two campgrounds, one at Scorpion Anchorage and another near Prisoners Harbor.
However, only 24 percent of the island is open to the public. The southeast end, from Prisoners Harbor east to San Pedro Point, is part of the park. The other 76 percent is owned by The Nature Conservancy. Most visitors to this National Park set foot at Scorpion Anchorage, the easiest access to any of the islands. This is also a world-class kayaking destination, and it’s best to go on a guided trip to explore the sea caves before venturing out on your own.
There is also terrific hiking in the vicinity. You can get dropped at Prisoners Harbor and backpack to the Del Norte Campground three miles east, and then walk the next morning to Scorpion Anchorage another 11 miles away. With enough water and food it can be hiked within a day.
Around Scorpion Anchorage you can access hiking trails to Montanon Ridge, the breathtaking overlooks at Potato Harbor and Cavern Point, or you can head southeast to Smugglers Cove. Along the way keep an eye out for the island fox, one of the rarest foxes in the world, and found only here on the Channel Islands. Take a walk up Scorpion Canyon or on the Pelican Harbor trail via Prisoners Harbor for the best chance of spotting the island scrub jay. Birders from around the world flock to Santa Cruz Island to add this rare bird to their life lists.
After all that hiking, cool off by snorkeling in the kelp forests at Scorpion Anchorage, and look for California’s state fish, the garibaldi. Also keep an eye out for a bevy of other fish species like the bat ray, sheepshead and opaleye.
Another alternative is a kayaking trip to Painted Cave, one of the largest sea caves in the world. Guided kayak trips are available during certain months of the year, and boat transportation is available through Channel Islands Expeditions, Santa Barbara Adventure Company and Santa Barbara Sailing Center.
SANTA ROSA ISLAND
The second largest isle is steeped in natural history, and Channel Islands Expeditions can take you there for a liveaboard excursions during its five-day overnight trip, which also visits San Miguel, Santa Cruz and Anacapa Island. On this trip, you’re able to kayak, hike and snorkel.
Fifteen campsites are fortified with windbreaks and flushing toilets. Some of the best hiking in this National Park awaits on Santa Rosa Island. The Torrey Pines forest is just east of the campground, and there is only one other forest like it in the world. The Cherry Canyon Trail is accessible right out of the campground and boasts many plant and wildflower species. One of the longer, more popular hikes leads down Lobo Canyon, exploring unique sandstone formations before reaching a secluded cove and the ocean.
The old Vail & Vickers cattle ranch still stands and is preserved for those want to learn the rich cattle-ranching history on the isle. Santa Rosa Island is also home to Arlington Man, the oldest human remains discovered in North America, dating back more than 13,000 years ago. Mammoths also roamed Santa Rosa Island, and a complete skeleton of one was discovered there in 1994. It can be seen at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.
SAN MIGUEL ISLAND
Just reopened in May 2016 after a two-year closure, San Miguel Island is ready for visitors to camp, hike and view the wildlife.
Cuyler Harbor is jaw-dropping gorgeous, and hiking across the scenic isle to the northwest shouldn’t be missed. Hikes are led by a park service ranger. During a 3-day trip, make sure you walk out to Point Bennett, a 14-mile round-trip hike to the largest seal and sea lion rookery in North America. Along the way make a pit stop at Caliche Forest, a sort of petrified forest proving the claim that many trees once stood on San Miguel Island.
Other phenomenal hikes include Cardwell Point and Harris Point. The island fox population on this islet is brimming, so chances of spotting one are good.
SANTA BARBARA ISLAND
Don’t forget about this tiny islet. This one-square mile sits off by itself to the south, far from the other islands comprising the northern chain, but during a 3-day trip to this treeless island you can see a lot.
We recommend a guided kayaking trip around the entire island, weather permitting of course. You can paddle into many sea caves and beneath rocky, wave-battered archways. Birdlife is prolific here with potential sightings of elegant terns, brown boobies and Scripp’s murrelets. Thousands of California sea lions haul out and frolic around the island amid heaving surf and geologically rare spouting blowholes in the sea caves.
Hiking is easy to moderate around the island and can be done in a half-day. There are great views of seals and sea lions, Shag Rock, Sutil Island, and on a clear day Catalina and San Nicholas Islands can be seen.