On the Road Again: Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park is one of America’s only parks that you can’t access by car, but that shouldn’t stop you from taking in its beauty. Commonly referred to as the “Galapagos Islands of North America,” here’s how to plan a trip to the park.

Park Overview

Channel Islands National Park consists of five small islands within a one- to four-hour boat ride off the coast of mainland southern California, with visitor centers located in Ventura and Santa Barbara. Santa Cruz Island is the most frequented island by day trippers and campers with hiking trails, camping facilities and stunning scenery along the way. Santa Rosa Island is more remote, requiring a lengthier boat ride, but offering the secluded, breathtaking Water Canyon Beach to spend the day. Bird lovers will flock to rocky Anacapa Island with a historic lighthouse and sea caves, while adventure campers will set their sights on the rugged islands of San Miguel and Santa Barbara with opportunities to see sea lions, harbor seals and escape civilization.


Islands are accessible via boat rides through Island Packers Cruises with harbor locations in Oxnard and Ventura, California. Onboard are refreshments and restrooms with chances to see whale sightings and dolphins along the way. However, not every island is accessible daily, so it is important to book your boat tickets well in advance (in some cases, months ahead) to ensure you get to visit each island you desire. Daily departures are available to popular Santa Cruz Island, but Santa Rosa Island only offers limited departures per week, varying depending on weather and season. San Miguel Island has very limited openings for day trippers, as it is a four-hour boat ride away and ideal for campers looking to spend more time in the right weather conditions. To avoid being stranded on an island overnight (or longer), it is extremely important to be back at the harbor on time before heading back to the mainland as boats leave promptly on schedule. To see pricing and trip schedules, visit islandpackers.com.

How to Prepare

The Channel Islands are popular among visitors who desire uninterrupted time in nature. There are no restaurants, shopping, lodging, etc. on the islands. It is crucial to pack more than enough food, water and gear to make it through a day of hiking and constant sun exposure as the islands don’t always offer tons of shade. There are pit toilets and drinking water found on the islands’ campgrounds, and ranger stations are also present. I highly recommend bringing a portable battery pack to recharge your phone or other mobile devices when needed.

Island Highlights

Popular hikes on Santa Cruz Island are trails to Potato Harbor Overlook, Smugglers Cove and Cavern Point from boats arriving at Scorpion Anchorage. For arrivals at Prisoners Harbor, most visitors embark on the Pelican Bay trail which requires signing a waiver due to its more strenuous nature than the rest of the island’s hikes. Keep an eye out for small, friendly island foxes which are only found on the Channel Islands.

Santa Rosa Island’s sandy Water Canyon Beach is great for a picnic and sunbathing, although the water is chillier than you would expect. A visit during the months of August through mid-October would be ideal for swimming and calm ocean conditions. Just a short hike away from where the Island Packers boat arrives and departs, this is the main draw to Santa Rosa.

It is possible to take organized sea cave kayaking tours around Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands. Visit the Island Packers website to learn more about options for kayaking Santa Cruz, or visit explorechannelislands.com for Anacapa kayaking options.


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