Channel Islands National Park is one of Santa Barbara’s hidden gems—though it’s not exactly hidden from view. Sitting 22 miles off the coast, the islands are a constant backdrop when looking out to sea from Santa Barbara. Michael Cohen, founder of Santa Barbara Adventure Company, is a knowledgeable local expert who sums it up best: “It’s literally a national park in our own front yard.” The outdoor adventure outfitter holds one of the exclusive permits to lead kayaking trips around the islands. There are all sorts of adventures to be had on the ecologically rich islands, home to a remarkable diversity of wildlife and marine life. Here’s our local’s guide to all that there is to do and see out at the “Galapagos of North America.”
WHAT TO DO
When you visit the islands, it’s all about outdoor adventures on land and sea. You can do day trips or overnight camping trips, work with an adventure outfitter, or go solo.
Santa Barbara Adventure Company runs epic day trips that revolve around kayaking and snorkeling. As our local expert guide Michael Cohen reveals, people from all over the world rave about the extraordinary sea kayaking experiences available at the Channel Islands National Park.
Available year-round, experience an unforgettable kayaking excursion at Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island. Home to more sea caves than anywhere else on the Channel Islands, Scorpion Anchorage offers some of the best sea cave kayaking experiences in the world. (Note: Painted Cave tours will resume summer 2022.)
East Anacapa has two miles of trails offering sweeping ocean views and a lighthouse sighting. Santa Cruz Island offers a variety of trails suited to a range of skill levels but note that hiking isn’t permitted beyond the national park boundary. Santa Rosa’s trails and roads run the gamut from the relatively flat route to Water Canyon Beach to the rugged path to Black Mountain. Santa Barbara Island offers five miles of relatively mellow hiking trails. Be forewarned that you’ve got to scale a rugged cliff to reach them from the landing cove.
Many parts of San Miguel are closed to protect wildlife and you can only tour with a permit when National Park Service rangers are on the island. Be sure to stay on the designated trail system—the island used to be a bombing range and the trail system avoids areas where unexploded devices might be present!
SCUBA Diving & Snorkeling
The Channel Islands have earned a reputation as one of the world’s best SCUBA environments given the impressive display of marine life and sheer variety of underwater landscapes. SCUBA amongst giant kelp forests, spot giant 500-pound sea bass and keep your eyes peeled for moray eels, octopus and bat rays. Channel Islands Expeditions is the go-to outfitter for liveaboard SCUBA trips.
The National Park Service operates campgrounds on each of the five islands: above the Landing Cove on Santa Barbara, on the east islet of Anacapa, at Scorpion Canyon on Santa Cruz, at Water Canyon on Santa Rosa and above Cuyler Harbor on San Miguel. Note that camping isn’t permitted on the western side of Santa Cruz that’s Nature Conservancy land. That said, some backcountry camping is available on Santa Cruz as well as Santa Rosa. Reservations are required and the fee is $15 per day per site. You will need to secure your transportation before you can reserve a site.
Camping on the islands is not for the faint of heart but the reward of overnighting in such a remote, light pollution-free zone is well worth the planning and effort. You’ll have to carry all of your gear from the boat landing. Given the relatively primitive nature of campgrounds, with the exception of Water Canyon and Scorpion Canyon, there is no water, so you’ll have to carry that in along with other supplies. Animal-proof bins are a must for food storage. Also, be prepared to carry out all of your trash when you depart any of the islands to leave no footprint. Fires are not allowed on any of the islands, but you can use enclosed gas camping stoves.
There are a handful of different ways you can reach the islands, from private charters and whale watching cruises to kayaking expeditions and a ferry service.
Whale Watching Cruise
If you’re content to simply admire the islands from a boat, take one of the daily whale watching excursions operated by the Condor Express. The eco-friendly, high-speed catamaran departs Santa Barbara Harbor and cruises out into the nutrient-rich waters around Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel islands in search of the 27 different species of whales and dolphins that inhabit the Santa Barbara Channel.
Departing out of the Ventura Harbor, Island Packers is your go-to for guided ferry trips to the islands. Islands Packers offers daily ferry service to Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands, as well as seasonal services to Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara islands. Trips range from one to two hours each way depending on the island destination.
Santa Barbara Sailing Center arranges full-service Channel Islands getaway charters with a US Coast Guard certified captain at the helm of one of their cruising yachts. Trips range from between two and 10 days with prices starting at $2,200 and going upwards of $14,750 based on the trip duration and vessel size.
Captain Your Own “Ship”
If you are an experienced boater and take your own boat, you can land without a permit on the east side of Anacapa; anywhere around Santa Barbara island; the eastern edge of Santa Cruz between Prisoner’s Harbor and Valley Anchorage; Cuyler’s Landing at San Miguel; and Santa Rosa. Permits are required to land on the western portion of Santa Cruz.
Channel Islands Aviation can whisk you away to Santa Rosa and San Miguel islands in just 25-minutes. Their flights out of Camarillo Airport are in an 8-passenger aircraft. Prices start at $1,200 and include drop-off and pick-up for day trips and overnight camping excursions.
WHAT TO BRING
Food vending isn’t permitted on the islands, so you’ll want to plan ahead even if you’re just going for a day. Pack a lunch or pick up provisions from a local market, deli or café.
Layers are always recommended as the weather can vary throughout the day, and it’s chillier on the water. Windbreakers come in handy on the boat rides to and from the islands if you want to be out on deck watching for whales, dolphins and sea otters. Of course, a change of clothes will be needed if you plan to get in the water or cruise around on kayaks!