The Ultimate Guide to Channel Islands National Park – Travel + Leisure


Evie Carrick is a writer and editor who’s lived in five countries and visited well over 50. She now splits her time between Colorado and Paris, ensuring she doesn't have to live without skiing or L'As du Fallafel.
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You don’t have to make the trek to the Galapagos Islands to see plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth. Right off the coast of California, in Channel Islands National Park, are five rugged islands that were isolated for thousands of years. Over time, the flora and fauna evolved, unhampered by outside forces — and today, over 2,000 species of plants and animals make their home on the islands and surrounding waters, including 145 endemic species.

In addition to unique flora and fauna, Channel Islands National Park provides visitors with a remote and rugged experience. The islands are void of restaurants, hotels, and even cars, and travelers have to bring their own food and water. The ferry journey from Ventura Harbor only adds to the experience.  

Here’s everything you need to know about Channel Islands National Park before you go.
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In all reality, you could visit Channel Islands National Park any time of year and be treated to a clear, warm, sunny day. The islands boast a moderate Mediterranean climate with average highs in the 60s and lows in the 50s. That said, in the summer months, the water warms, air temperatures rise, and calm seas improve underwater visibility. This weather tends to continue until October when the Santa Ana winds arrive. Winter and spring, while still temperate, often have rain, wind, and fog.
All five Channel Islands are accessible via ferries that run from Ventura Harbor. The park’s designated ferry company, Island Packers Cruises, travels to Santa Cruz and Anacapa Islands on a regular, year-round schedule. The journey takes around one hour. Ferries also run from Ventura Harbor to the outer islands of Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, and San Miguel between April and November, although the schedule is weather dependent. The journey to Santa Rosa and Santa Barbara takes around three hours while the trip to San Miguel Island tends to be around four hours. You can also travel to the islands by private boat.

All five islands are car free, so be prepared to walk or rent a kayak once you arrive at your destination. There is no entrance fee for Channel Islands National Park.
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The Channel Islands are a truly remote destination and the accommodations follow suit. Each island has a simple, primitive campground with picnic tables and pit toilets. Campers will need to bring their own water (except at Water Canyon on Santa Rosa and Scorpion Canyon on Santa Cruz) and food, and pack out their trash. There is also limited backcountry camping on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands. Campfires are not allowed in the park.

Advanced reservations are required for all Channel Islands campgrounds at the nightly rate of $15 per campsite. You can make campground reservations up to six months in advance at  Recreation.gov — just make sure you have secured your ferry trip before you book a campsite as the ferries tend to fill up quicker than the campgrounds.

If you prefer more traditional lodging, you’ll want to book a room in Ventura, Oxnard, or Santa Barbara and plan on a one-day journey to the Channel Islands.
Travelers to Channel Islands National Park must pack in their own food and water. There is a very limited amount of food and drink for purchase on the ferry to and from the islands.
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The island of Anacapa has great bird watching and plenty of hiking trails — including one that leads to a 1932 lighthouse. Wildflower season (typically late winter and spring) can be stunning, and there’s plenty of swimming, diving, snorkeling, and kayaking. Santa Cruz Island is the easiest island to get to and is home to the scrub jay, an endemic bird found nowhere else in the world. Santa Cruz also has some of the park’s best water access, with great beaches, clear waters, and several surf spots. There are plenty of snorkeling and diving opportunities, including a sea cave-studded shoreline. 
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Meanwhile, San Miguel Island shines in the wildlife department. One of the best ways to see wildlife is to hike the 16-mile round-trip route to Point Bennett, where thousands of seals gather. The waters surrounding Santa Barbara Island tend to be clear and full of wildlife, and a kayak journey toward Arch Point or the Sea Lion Rookery offers views of sea caves, wildlife, and rock arches. Meanwhile, at Santa Rosa Island, travelers will be treated to several good tidepooling spots and views of the rare Torrey pines.

The Channel Islands’ ferry company, Island Packers Cruises, offers whale-watching tours in the Santa Barbara Channel and the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, which are often home to gray, humpback, and blue whales. The ferry company also offers a water-bound wildlife tour with sightings of sea lions, seals, and rare island birds.
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