Photo By: Ben Herndon
Channel Islands National Park sits 22 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara. Touted as the “Galapagos of North America,” the chain of five islands is home to 2,000+ plants and animals, many of which can only be found on the islands. Whether you enjoy watching wildlife, kayaking, SCUBA diving, camping or island-hopping by boat, there are many things to do and ways to explore the Channel Islands.
Things to Do
From day trips to overnight camping adventures, there’s always something fun to do, no matter the hour, at Channel Islands National Park. With more than 2,000 species of flora and fauna unique to the five volcanic, windswept isles, visitors are virtually guaranteed a memorable experience.
For nature enthusiasts, there’s much to be explored. The Channel Islands are filled with wildlife, including harbor seals, California sea lions, cormorants, gulls, and drive-bombing California brown pelicans. You can also observe the world’s fastest flying bird – the peregrine falcon – while keeping your eyes peeled for the endemic island fox.
For a wildlife experience found only on the Channel Islands, book a whale watching cruise. Off the coast of Santa Barbara, you will find 27 different species of whales and dolphins, including the blue whale, the largest animal on Earth. Condor Express offers daily whale watching trips. Their 75’ catamaran departs from Sea Landing dock at Santa Barbra Harbor. Then, it cruises around Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel Islands for the ultimate whale watching adventure.
You can experience the magic of the Channel Islands both by land and sea. Two of the area’s most popular watersports are kayaking and snorkeling. Channel Islands Expeditions and Santa Barbara Adventure Company bring these two activities together for a suite of robust tour offerings on the islands. No matter which outfitter you choose, you’ll be led by an expert through the kelp forests and sea caves as well as along the coastline to learn about marine ecology and the natural history of the islands.
Under the water, there’s much to be explored as well. Half of Channel Islands National Park is underwater. The waters of the Channel Islands National Park Marine Sanctuary are teeming with vibrant marine life that is waiting to be discovered, whether by snorkeling or SCUBA diving. For advanced SCUBA divers, Channel Islands Expeditions offers multi-day, world-class diving adventures.
If you’re a land lover, great hiking opportunities abound. Some of the most popular places to hike at the Channel Islands National Park are Inspiration Point on Anacapa, Potato Harbor on Santa Cruz and Torrey Pines Forest on Santa Rosa. Also, Santa Barbara Island is only one square mile and can be hiked in a couple of hours.
Another fantastic way to explore the islands by foot is to go camping in the backcountry. Through camping, you’re able to fully immerse yourself in the nature and wildlife found on the islands.
There are campgrounds on each of the five islands, each offering pristine views and easy access to island activities. It should be noted that camping on the Channel Islands requires diligent planning and some previous camping experience. Most campsites are primitive and require some walking from the drop-off locations, so come prepared with tents, hiking shoes, water, food and other camping supplies. Fires are prohibited on the islands, but you can use enclosed gas camping stoves.
The National Park Service operates these campgrounds. Reservations are required and cost $15 per day to rent. Prior to booking your site, you need to secure transportation to the islands. Keep scrolling to learn how to get to the Channel Islands.
How to Get to the Channel Islands
There are several ways to get to the Channel Islands, including by ferry, private charter and boat.
Hop on Island Packers Ferry
One of the islands’ most convenient transportation methods is via the Island Packers Ferry. They offer daily services to Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands. They also have seasonal ferry services to Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara Islands. The ferry trips depart from Ventura Harbor. Depending on your destination, the trips can take one to two hours each way.
Book a Private Charter
If you’re looking for transportation and adventure, consider booking a private charter with Santa Barbara Sailing Center or Channel Islands Expeditions. Each company offers multi-day excursions throughout the Channel Islands. The charters include a variety of activities, including surfing, kayaking, SCUBA diving, sea cave exploration and more. The private chargers range in both length and price. Please contact them for more detailed information.
Take Your Own Boat
For experienced boaters wanting more freedom to roam from island to island, feel free to take your own boat out to the Channel Islands. Some areas of the islands require boat permits, but many do not. We recommend contacting the Channel Islands National Park Service for more information.