A Guide to the Channel Islands

A Guide to the Channel Islands

By Rachael Medina June 25, 2020

As California mitigates health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic, some travel restrictions may remain in certain communities. Call the local and regional tourism offices to learn more about the restrictions in your intended destination. Thank you for reading, and stay safe.

Settled off the California coastline, the Channel Islands’ eight outcroppings offer endless adventures, and it’s hard to believe that this plethora of natural beauty exists merely dozens of miles from the mainland. This top California destination comprises the five islands and surrounding ocean of Channel Island National Park, two military-controlled islands, and the popular Santa Catalina Island. With so many things to do in the Channel Islands and such diverse landscapes to explore, a day trip simply isn’t enough. 

A Brief Guide to the Channel Islands

Traditionally, visitors think of the five islands of the California national park—Santa Cruz, San Miguel, Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa, and Anacapa Islands—when dreaming of a Channel Islands vacation. This is an understandable occurrence, considering that two of the other islands are owned by the military and that Santa Catalina Island is run independently by the Santa Catalina Conservancy. While Channel Islands National Park only stretches between Santa Barbara and Malibu, each island carries its own distinct personalities, ranging from remote destinations to tourist hot spots, so there’s an excursion for everyone. 

The Anacapa Island Lighthouse has helped guide sailors through the Channel waters since 1932.

When to Visit Channel Islands National Park

Summer

Summertime provides the perfect opportunity to take advantage of the islands’ water sports; with everything from sailing and kayaking to snorkeling and diving available, you can splash around from dawn to dusk. The warmer temperatures also offer a host of wildlife sightings, including fledging seabirds, sea lion pups, and humpback and blue whale migrations. Watch the blooming poppies and verbena before the season ends, and go backcountry beach camping on Santa Rosa Island once the crowds begin to thin in mid-August. 

Autumn

The park continues to experience its warmest temps through October, providing plenty of time to go snorkeling and kayaking in the Channel Islands’ 70º waters with nearly 100 feet of visibility. The whales continue their summer migrations through the first portion of fall, but the bird watching is what attracts nature enthusiasts during this season. 

Winter

Though the winds are heaviest between September and December and 45 percent of the park’s rainfall occurs between January and February, the winter season is ideal for those looking for a more solitary vacation. It’s not all treacherous during this time of the year, either; California brown pelicans are nesting, harbor seals are pupping, the wildflowers are sprouting, and the sunsets are so stunning they can make you forget about the inclimate weather. 

Spring

Springtime is a photographer’s dream on the Channel Islands. Falcons and gulls are nesting, birds are migrating, fox pups are born, and the wildflowers are in full bloom, brightening up the landscape with vibrant yellows and greens. The beautiful scenery, pleasant weather, and opportunities for outdoor recreation also make it an ideal spring break destination for adventurers.

To reach any of the eight outcroppings comprising the Channel Islands, visitors must arrive by boat or plane.

How to Get to the Channel Islands

It’s also important to note that there is no transportation on the islands themselves—aside from foot traffic on land and private kayaks and boats over water—and that all Channel Islands ferry rides require guests to climb steel-rung ladders upon arrival to any of the islands. 

Things to do in the Channel Islands

national park bucket list.

From kayaking and boating to snorkeling and surfing, there are endless opportunities for outdoor adventure in the Channel Islands.

1. Visit all the islands

While Channel Islands National Park is home to five of the nearby land masses, there’s an exclusive club—which has just a few hundred members—for individuals who have visited all eight islands. If you can’t make it to all of them, at least see all five in the national park islands along with Catalina Island.

2. Go Surfing in Channel Islands National Park

Pick up a board from Channel Islands Surfboards and head out to Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, or San Miguel Island on a private boat. Make your way to the south shore during the summer and fall to enjoy the south swells, or head toward the north shores to experience the north-west swells the rest of the year. Watch out for the rugged terrain if you venture onto land after your epic surf sesh—the islands’ best surf spots are nestled a good hiking distance from the ferry drop-off points.

3. Stop by Moonstone Beach

Located on Catalina Island, Moonstone Beach was a hot spot in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for tourists searching for agates, moonstones, and water opals. Today, the private beach is operated by the Newport Harbor Yacht Club and has moorings for dozens of boats, but it is still worth visiting for nostalgia and a quick search for semi-precious stones. About half a mile north of Moonstone Beach, on the other side of a rocky point, lies White’s Landing—a beach regarded by some as the best on the island. 

4. Take a hike

Many portions of the islands are rugged and remote, presenting a unique opportunity to trek solo in the untamed wilderness. Head to Santa Rosa Island for a less structured hike along the unsigned pathways, or visit Anacapa for an easier experience for the whole family. 

The beautifully rugged and remote terrain of the Channel Islands makes it a prime spot for hikers in need of a secluded escape.

5. Admire the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary

This sanctuary protects 1,470 square miles of the ocean surrounding the national park. It’s home to shipwrecks, endangered species, and sensitive habitats such as kelp forests and gardens of sea coral.

6. Go camping

Camping on the Channel Islands provides some of the most incredible views you’ll ever witness. With a campground established on each of the five islands, you can choose your own adventure; whether you are new to camping or are looking for an ideal place to go backcountry camping, new memories await.

7. Learn about the islands

There’s a lot to learn about this unique, remote destination that was designated as a National Monument in 1938, a Biosphere Reserve in 1976, and a national park in 1980. Between manmade structures such as the Anacapa lighthouse, the island trails, the sea caves, the Torrey pines, and the unique marine environments, there’s no end to education on the Channel Islands. No matter what you’re interested in, you’re likely to find something in this natural oasis that piques your curiosity.

Share your favorite Channel Islands destinations in the comments below

WRITTEN BY
Rachael Medina

WRITTEN BY Rachael Medina

Rachael Medina is the staff writer and content manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests of Humboldt C…

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