With so much unspoiled nature and so many coastal areas to explore on the five islands, visitors can choose from an array of activities. Santa Cruz Island attracts kayakers with its hundred-plus sea caves, some more than 200 feet long. Take the 3.8-mile route from Potato Harbor to Cavern Point, passing through the Surging T, a 354-foot-long tunnel (www.islandkayaking.com). Anacapa is great for scuba diving, whale watching, and snorkeling because of the kelp beds that are right offshore. Visit San Miguel’s Cuyler Harbor, a sand beach you’ll share with elephant seals. Each island has hiking trails, beaches to explore, fishing, and wildlife observation. You can also swim, bird-watch, kayak, camp, and explore tide pools, isolated beaches, and rugged canyons on the majority of the islands.
Scenic Boat Rides
Though the park doesn't allow vehicles, visitors can board scenic boat trips from ports in Ventura, Oxnard, and Santa Barbara. The most popular trip cruises around Anacapa’s Arch Rock, the national park’s main icon. Boat rides also offer an opportunity to view local marine creatures, so visitors should bring binoculars. Call the Island Packers office (1 805 642 1393) or Truth Aquatics (+1 805 962 1127) to get boat schedules and make reservations in advance.
Anacapa Island: Anacapa Island Loop Trail is a two-mile round-trip hike out to Inspiration Point, which affords one of the most dramatic views of the park. The trail starts from the visitors center and weaves in a figure eight around the island. Along the way you’ll pass a campground and several overlooks with dramatic coastal views that invite you to stop for a picnic.
Santa Barbara Island: Hike either Elephant Seal Cove, a two-and-a-half-mile strenuous hike with views of elephant seals from an overlook, or the moderate one-mile-long Arch Point trail, which has great views of the ocean and passes by fields of seasonal wildflowers. Portions of the trails are sometimes closed for nesting pelicans January through August; check with park headquarters before heading out.
Santa Cruz Island: Leaving from Scorpion Beach on Santa Cruz Island, take the seven-mile strenuous hike up Smugglers Road to the pristine, and usually empty, cobblestone beach at Smugglers Cove.
Most hikes on Santa Cruz Island are challenging and require you to be an experienced hiker, but the Scorpion Canyon Loop is a four-and-a-half-mile hike that can be moderate or strenuous depending on where you choose to start from. To avoid a steep climb, hike clockwise at Smugglers Road toward the oil well, then down into Scorpion Canyon and back to the beach. You may even spot the island's unique scrub-jay.
If you take the two-mile Smugglers Cove hike to Smugglers Canyon, be prepared for loose rocks and uneven terrain, but also for some magnificent off-trail hiking in a streambed surrounded by steep canyon walls and native vegetation.
Santa Rosa Island: When the wind isn’t too strong on Santa Rosa Island, go on an easy three-mile round-trip hike along a dirt road to Water Canyon Beach. Here you can explore the two-mile-long sand beach.
Another popular hike for a day trip is the 3.5-mile Cherry Canyon Trail loop, featuring rolling grasslands, oak forests, and magnificent views from the coastal bluffs above Bechers Bay.
San Miguel Island: Many parts of remote San Miguel, the westernmost island, are closed to protect local wildlife, plant life, and geology. However, there are several areas open to the public and some that are accessible if you are accompanied by a ranger. Don’t have a ranger with you? Take the Nidever Canyon trail, which meanders past a ranch and ranger station, then climbs along the east wall of the canyon. To arrange a hike with a ranger, call park headquarters, +1 805 658 5730.
Some 145 species of animals are unique to the Channel Islands. Marine life ranges from kelp forests to the endangered blue whale. More than 2,000 species of plants and animals live in and around the Islands. Common dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, and bottlenose dolphins are often spotted in the protected waters surrounding the Channel Islands. Pacific gray whales arrive during the winter as they pass through to Baja, Mexico, where they breed. San Miguel Island is the only place in the world with four species of seals and sea lions breeding in one place. California sea lions, northern fur seals, harbor seals, and northern elephant seals call these islands home. Other marine animals found around the islands include giant black sea bass, sunflower stars, garibaldi fish, and California’s spiny lobster.
Animals found on land include the island fox, island deer mouse, island spotted skunk, Townsend's big-eared bats, and the island night lizard. The fox and deer mouse have evolved into sub-species on the island; there are now eight unique species that can only be found on the Channel Islands.
The many bird species include the golden eagle, snowy plover, island scrub jay, Xantus’s murrelet, brown pelican, ashy storm-petrel, loggerhead shrike, and bald eagle.
The islands are also home to some of the rarest and most endangered plants in the world: 70 plants grow only here. Some of the threatened plant species are the soft-leaved paintbrush, Santa Rosa Island’s manzanita, the island rushrose, and Santa Cruz Island’s lace pod.
Booming waves have created towering sea cliffs and rock bridges that jut out into the ocean. Don't miss the 40-foot-high Arch Rock on Anacapa Island's far eastern end, which is especially striking as the sun sets.
Request a trip with a ranger to San Miguel Island and visit the caliche forest, made up of hollow, calcified sand castings that sit eerily on a plateau. For another beautiful shot, hike up the Black Mountain trail on Santa Rosa Island for views of the other islands and the mainland.
Smart Traveler Strategies
There are no stores, eateries, or hotels on any of the islands, so be sure to come prepared with food and water, and camping and hiking equipment. Stay away from cliff edges at all times, since they tend to be very unstable and dangerous. Also, be aware of ticks, scorpions, "jumping" cholla cactus, and poison oak when you are hiking. Make sure to pack food in animal-proof containers, and keep trash well secured at all times.
Excursions Outside the Park
The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area features rocky canyons, oak forests, and sandy beaches.
Take a boat ride on the Catalina Express to another Channel Island, Santa Catalina Island, off the coast of Los Angeles. Avalon, Catalina's waterfront town, has shops, restaurants, and golf carts you can rent to tour the island.
Joshua Tree National Park lies 140 miles east of Los Angeles. This 800,000-acre desert park has a rich cultural history and surreal geological features, such as granite monoliths and deep desert canyons. Visit in late February to see the ancient Joshua trees in full bloom.
Los Padres National Forest is a one-and-a-half-million-acre forest that stretches from the western edge of Los Angeles County to the Big Sur Coast in Monterey. The forest encompasses everything from marine habitats to redwood forests.
National Parks Photos
Yosemite National Park offers visitors an astonishing number of options within its approximately 1,200 square miles, including deep valleys, a grove of ancient sequoia trees, and waterfalls splashing into Yosemite Valley.
Subscribe to Nat Geo Traveler
Available in print and for iPad®! See destinations come alive with 360-degree photos, videos, and more!