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Channel Islands National Park – A complete guide

Potatoe Harbour is shown at Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park is not your average park. For starters, it takes a little bit more effort to get to, but also, its beauty and adventure are unlike any other. The national park protects five islands off the coast of California near the Los Angeles metropolitan area. These islands are a great way to experience coastal Southern California as it was before Europeans settled the area.

The park’s website helps you plan like a park ranger. I also like to use National Geographic topographical maps when planning national park trips.

Island Hopping

Formed millions of years ago, the islands have never been connected to the mainland. Because of their isolation, they are home to cultural history, unique plants and animals – some found nowhere else on Earth. Channel Islands National Park protects five of the Channel Islands that inhabit the Santa Barbara Channel off the coast of Southern California. The islands lie on the continental shelf between the mainland and the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean.

San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and Anacapa Islands form an east-to-west line, while Santa Barbara lies further to the south. These are the islands that makeup Channel Islands National Park. San Nicolas, San Clemente, and Santa Catalina are farther south, but not a part of the park.

The park also is home to Marine Protected Areas, where you can enjoy the ocean in its completely natural state. These are sanctuaries for wildlife, which help for wildlife viewing.

Santa Cruz Island is shown with cliffs and the sea

Getting to Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands can only be reached by concessionaire boats or private boats. Island Packers is the exclusive transport to the islands. They have offices in Ventura, California, with a satellite office in Oxnard, California.

A dolphin swims along the boat

They offer a wide variety of trips to the islands, as well as whale, wildlife, birding, and harbor cruises. They are very reasonably priced as well. When I went, I booked a camping trip. A round-trip ferry cost me $84. They also offer day trips if you do not want or have the time to spend the night.

the dock is show on Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park


Although Channel Islands National Park has no services or lodging on the islands, there is plenty of camping. But don’t forget that there are no services. Campers must bring all their supplies, food, and water. However, Scorpion Canyon Campground on Santa Cruz Island and Water Canyon Campground on Santa Rosa Island do have potable water available. But all the other campgrounds, do not and you must bring your own.

a tent is shown on Channel Islands National Park

There is one established campground on each island. And limited backcountry camping is available on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands.

All campgrounds require a reservation that must be made in advance. Because Island Packers transportation fills up quicker, the park advises you to secure your transportation to the island before making a campsite reservation. When I made my reservations, Island Packers made it easy with a link to recreation.gov and instructions.

A campground at Channel Islands National Park

The boats do not take you directly to your campground. So you’ll want to pack your gear where you can comfortably carry it from 0.25 miles to 1.5 miles from the pier.

During my trip to Channel Islands National Park, I camped at Scorpion Canyon Campground on Santa Cruz Island. With a 0.5-mile flat walk, it was not bad at all. However, some campgrounds are not an easy flat walk.

All the campgrounds are primitive with picnic tables and pit toilets. Campfires and charcoal fires are not permitted. The park only allows enclosed, gas camp stoves. Food and trash storage containers are provided as well.

Ways to explore Channel Islands National Park

Like I stated above, Channel Islands is not your average national park. There are so many fun ways to explore this unique area.

Channel Islands National park is shown


There are many miles of hiking trails on all five of the islands within Channel Islands National Park. Hiking in the park is a great way to experience its natural beauty. Trails consist of single-track, dirt roads, and unmaintained paths. They can be flat and easy or rugged and steep.

One thing to keep in mind if you only go for a day trip is you don’t want to take on a trail that is too hard or long, so you don’t miss your boat back to the mainland.


Sea kayaking is a great way to explore Channel Islands National Park. You can explore the pristine marine environments the park protects. The park strongly encourages to use a park-authorized guide or outfitter because sea kayaking can be dangerous.

Kayakers pladdle around Channel Islands National Park

Diving and snorkeling

Diving and snorkeling allow you to explore a unique forest – an underwater kelp forest. By exploring Channel Islands underwater, you are exposed to another world. Some of the best diving and snorkeling on Earth are within the boundaries of the park. With many sea caves and coves along the shoreline of the islands, there are ample places to explore.

the sea is shown on Channel Islands National Park

Wildlife watching

Of course with the diverse and natural beauty of Channel Islands National Park, you have ample opportunities for wildlife watching. From whales and dolphins to seals and sea lions, the marine wildlife is amazing. And of course, there are many kinds of fish under the water.

A channel islands fox is shown

On the land, you have unique animals like the Channel Islands fox and island deer mouse, which you will not find anywhere else. There is also a wide variety of seabirds as well as land birds.

Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park is more than worth the extra effort it takes to get there. The national park’s protection of the five islands, allows you to explore coastal Southern California’s natural state.

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Channel Islands National Park in Southern California is not your average park. There are so many unique, fun, and adventurous things to do. From camping on an island to hiking to diving, it really is a natural wonderland.

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