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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.
The Channel Islands are located between 22 and 75 miles from the shores of California and are surprisingly spread out, stretching from Santa Barbara in the north to Del Mar in the south. The Channel Islands’ northernmost land mass is San Miguel Island, followed by Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz Islands, Anacapa, San Nicolas, Santa Barbara, and Santa Catalina Islands, with San Clemente Island bringing up the south.
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.
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Thanks to the diverse landscapes scattered across the 249,354 acres of Channel Islands National Park, there’s never a bad time to visit. While peak season typically runs from June through August, the park’s various activities call for visits year-round, with the off-season providing a more intimate experience void of traditional crowds.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Channel Islands National Park visitor centers can be found in Ventura and Santa Barbara, where visitors can get acquainted with the islands. But the only way to reach the park itself is via plane or boat. Channel Islands Aviation offers the flights for all the islands, while Island Packers and private boats provide aquatic transportation to and from the mainland. Though most of the islands are accessible year-round with advanced planning, Santa Barbara Island is inaccessible during the winter months.
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.
Make the most of your day trips or weekend getaway in the Channel Islands by checking some of these activities off your national park bucket list.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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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