NPS Spotlight – Channel Islands National Park

As every travel junkie knows, you will never go to all the places that you want to. Channel Islands is a National Park I learned about specifically because I was looking up all the parks. I had a, “looks cool, might never go,” kind of moment. Not because I wasn’t interested (let’s be real, I’m interested in them all) but because knowing how many places in the world there are to go to, I could just see Channel Islands being one of the places that I just never got around to.

Then Scott’s Cheap Flights sent a flight deal to LAX and I all of a sudden had a relatively last minute trip to plan. I started perusing my regular travel books, blogs, and feeds to get some concrete ideas of what might work out. And Channel Islands became one of the top things that I wanted to do. Often, when I stumble across a travel destination, there’s always somewhere in my head which of my usual travel buddies would be my likely companion. I realized that my original thought that I might never make it to Channel Islands was partially because I couldn’t see myself going there with anyone. But now I was taking a solo trip to the area and I just thought, “I gotta go.”

Fast Facts

  • There are eight Channel Islands, five of which are part of the National Park.
  • Two of the Islands, Anacapa and Santa Barbara, were made a National Monument in 1938.
  • The full park was established on March 5, 1980 of the five islands that are part of the park today: Anacapa, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, San Miguel, and Santa Rosa.
  • 76% of Santa Cruz Island is owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy.
  • Anacapa Island is in a different county than the other four that are part of the park.

Things to Know

1.) The main visitor center is The Robert J. Lagomarsino Visitor Center on the mainland in Ventura Harbor. This is about a quarter mile from Island Packers, the ferry service that will get you to the islands. This will be a fully accessible center with a store and exhibits. Additionally, Island Packers will have a small shop as well if you’re looking for souvenirs.

2.) A couple of the islands will also have small visitor centers but they are very limited. They are really just small rooms with photos and displays.

3.) None of the islands have any food or water. You will need to pack your own for the day. As there is no running water, all the bathrooms on the islands will be wood outhouses.

The Islands

Anacapa

This is the second smallest at just 1.14 square miles. It’s also one of the most popular to visit and home of the iconic Channel Islands photo. There’s roughly two miles of hiking on the island. It’s a very easy stroll with gorgeous views al around. I felt like I was hiking in another country.

inspiration Point

Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is the largest of the islands and another popular one to visit. There are a couple of different places that the ferry can dock so look into it before you buy your ticket which part of the island you want to go to. If you’re just going to this island you have a couple of options. You can take the ferry to Scorpion Ranch where there is a ton of trails and you can get to Smuggler’s Cove. This was my plan for my first day visiting the island but, due to winds, the ferry got cancelled. You can also choose a ferry ticket that will take you to Prisoner’s Harbor. This is right on the cusp of National Park land and the land managed by The Nature Conservancy. If you want to hike on Nature Conservancy land you will have to fill out a release form, which they will provide for you.

Another amazing option for Santa Cruz Island is the Painted Cave. It is one of the world’s largest sea caves located on the Western side of the island. You can set up a kayak tour to explore the cave.

This island is also home of The Channel Islands Fox, a once almost extinct fox that recently has had much success in repopulating. I was lucky enough to spot a couple right after we docked, before another passenger annoyingly got too close and scared them away.

Hiking on Santa Cruz

Santa Rosa

This is the second largest of the Channel Islands and sits West of Santa Cruz. The ferry ride to get there is long: three hours in each direction. This makes Santa Rosa an option to consider if you’re interested in camping on the island. Santa Rosa also has Channel Island Fox, as well as the spotted skunk, and six different species of plants found only on this island.

San Miguel

San Miguel is the Western most Channel Island and will have the harshest wether receiving the brunt of the Northwest winds. A ferry trip here is four hours each way. Additionally, ferry service is only offered to this island between 4-8 days a month.

In total honesty, I didn’t look into visiting this island at all. Given the parameters of my trip I knew immediately that this was not on option for me on this trip. I suspect this island is most frequently visited by campers and locals.

Santa Barbara

The smallest of the islands, Santa Barbara Island is located further South than the other four which are clumped together. A ferry ride to Santa Barbara is three hours in each direction and the ferry only goes to this island between 2-4 days each month. Santa Barbara is also home to the Santa Barbara Island live-forever – a rare plant species found only here.

Getting There

To get to the islands you will have to take a Ferry. Island Packers is the ferry service to get you there and my experience with them was truly exceptional.

East Anacapa Island

They offer multiple ferry options for each island. They will offer round trip tickets for both day trips and overnight options if you want to camp. They have multiple options to Santa Cruz Island depending which part of the island you want to explore. Additionally, they have a two island option which will include both Santa Cruz Island and Anacapa Island. This is a great option if you want to see two islands but don’t have enough time to go back to the islands a second day. The downside is that you do not get to pick where on Santa Cruz you go: the two island ferry goes to Prisoner’s Harbor and eliminates Scorpion Ranch as an option.

The ferry ticket price seemed a little steep at first but I found it well worth it. You are not just buying a boat ride to get to a destination but a full tour. They were so informative and I learned so much. The main goal of the ferry is to get you to the islands but they tailor each trip based on what comes up such as interesting birds or activity that they will then explain. On my trip out boat went through a dolphin pod and the ferry slowed down so we could all enjoy the hundreds of dolphins swimming along our boat.

Noteworthy – Ferry cancellations are possible on any given day based on the weather. Be prepared to be flexible when planning this into your trip. You will have to call a number the morning of which will give you a pre-recorded message if the ferries are running that day. If your trip is cancelled they give you the option of full refund or to reschedule which was very hassle free.

I slotted out two days for this park. My plan was on the first day, take the ferry to Scorpion Ranch on Santa Cruz Island and do as much hiking as I could possibly fit in. The second day was the two island tour which would bring me to Prisoner’s Harbor on Santa Cruz, an entirely different part of the park, and then to Anacapa Island. Because of high winds my ferry to Scorpion Cove was cancelled. After day two exploring Prisoner’s Harbor and East Anacapa, I chose to take the refund for the cancellation because I felt satisfied with my visit to the islands.

That being said, I would not rule out going back. I fully enjoyed my time there and found it to be such a peaceful place.

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