Channel Islands National Park offers visitors a rare opportunity to see unique species of plants and animals. Like South America’s Galapagos Island, these five islands and the water that surround them have species that have evolved in isolation. With 13,000 years of human history behind it, the park offers has known civilizations like the Chumash, European explorers, and early California ranchers. You’ll find opportunities for snorkeling, diving, hiking, camping and stand-up paddle boarding. Why, with all of this going for it is Channel Islands the least visited national park? Accessibility. Travelers who wish to enjoy the unspoiled beauty of the Channel Islands need to plan ahead to have the best experience.

By definition, an island is surrounded by water. So, driving to this park is out. Instead you’ll want to make arrangements to take a ferry or an airplane to the island. For families and those interested in camping and/or hiking, Island Packers offers a variety of tours, equipment rental and even guides. Scuba divers may want to contact CalBoat Diving which offers diving focused trips. Either way, you’ll likely be treated to multiple whale and dolphin sightings on your trip to the park. If you prefer to fly, Channel Islands Aviation offers excursions to Santa Rosa Island.

channel island map

There are five Channel Islands: Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara. Each has its own unique personality and attractions. Except for the park ranger, each island is uninhabited. There are no shops, restaurants, electricity or cell phone service on the islands so plan to bring your own supplies. (Most islands do, however, have port-o-potties.) With prior reservations, there are primitive campgrounds available. Finally, weather on the islands can change quickly and dramatically. Dressing in layers is your best bet – be sure to include a layer of sunscreen. Skip the flip-flops and wear sturdy hiking footwear.

If you haven’t picked up on it yet, people who are moderately fit will enjoy these islands the most. You will be walking and the terrain can be a bit rough. Who’s still with me? Let’s take a quick look at what you can expect from each island?

kelp

Santa Cruz Island – At 96 square miles, Santa Cruz is the largest channel island and boasts the most colorful history. The island is known to have been inhabited for the past 10,000 years. It has been home to Native Americans, Europeans, California ranchers, smugglers and bootleggers. As you explore the national park you will see traces of all who have come before. The national park system controls the eastern 24% of the island with the rest belonging to The Nature Conservancy. On your visit to Santa Cruz, you can kayak through the Sea Caves, snorkel in a kelp forest, hike and camp. If you get lucky you may spot one of the island’s unique species – an island scrub jay or the cat-sized Santa Cruz island fox.

ocean kayak
Santa Rosa Island
– Like Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa has a long history of human habitation. Additionally, there are protected archeological and paleontological sites on the island. Santa Rosa was once home to miniature wooly mammoths. Today, visitors can explore the islands, hike the center mountain range and see Torrey Pines, considered one of the rarest plants in the world. The island is known for its windiness – it can get cold in high winds, dress accordingly. Due to the high winds, water sports are recommended only for the most experienced visitors.

channel rocks
San Miguel Island
– The remotest of the islands, San Miguel is also the most challenging. If you’re ready for a four-hour boat ride and a sixteen mile hike around the island, you will be one of the lucky few to see as many as 30,000 seals and sea lions basking in their natural habitat. If you snorkel or scuba dive, you can explore the vast kelp forests these creatures feed on.

sealions
Anacapa Island
– Rangers argue that the view from Inspiration Point is the most stunning in the park. You can visit the last light house built by the US Lighthouse Service (1932). Anacapa, which means “mirage island” in Chumash, is home to the largest breeding grounds of the once endangered brown California pelican. You can sometimes spot great white sharks (who feed on the sea lions and seals) in the water off the coast. Anacapa is perfect for a half or full-day trip or a short camping trip.

channal hike
Santa Barbara Island
– At one square mile, Santa Barbara is the smallest island. The boat ride to Santa Barbara is about 2.5-3 hours long and tours are limited. While small the island offers over five miles of hiking trails and, because it is so small, at its highest point you have a clear 360-degree view of the Pacific Ocean. There is only grass on the island, no trees. You will see sea elephants and a terrific variety of birds. Santa Barbara is an ideal location for snorkeling, paddle-boarding and kayaking.

channel cliff