Channel Islands National Park – Ferry, Tours & Best Tips

Petr Novák

Channel Islands National Park is composed of five out of eight islands from the Channel Islands group located off the west coast of the USA. Even though they are situated near the highly populated state of California, few people live on them. The total population of the islands is less than four thousand.

Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands NP | © David Wan

Table of Contents
  1. Information About Channel Islands National Park
  2. What to See and Do in Channel Islands National Park
  3. When to Visit Channel Islands National Park
  4. Channel Islands National Park Entrance Fees
  5. Getting to Channel Islands National Park
  6. Accommodation in Channel Islands National Park
  7. Tips and Recommendations for Visiting Channel Islands National Park
  8. Photos of Channel Islands National Park

Information About Channel Islands National Park

Part of the park is located west of Los Angeles in the waters of the Pacific Ocean and includes five islands. Listed in order from the largest to the smallest, they are Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara. The total area of the park is 390 mi2, which is average for USA national parks, with half of the park submerged under the ocean.

The Channel Islands have been protected as U.S. monuments since 1938, safeguarding the local wildlife, which has been preserved by its isolation for thousands of years. In 1980, three islands in the northern part were added to the list, and the entire Channel Islands archipelago was designated as a national park. The park welcomes approximately 319,252 visitors each year, as per 2021 figures.

The highest point in the park is El Montañon on Santa Cruz Island, at an elevation of 1,811 ft.

The fauna of Channel Islands National Park is primarily aquatic, featuring various species of sea lions, dolphins, whales, starfish, California crayfish, and the orange roughy and the spotted dolphin that inhabit the Pacific waters. The selection of terrestrial mammals on the islands, such as island foxes and long-tailed hamsters, is relatively limited, another result of the area’s remoteness.

The islands host 790 plant species, of which 578 are indigenous, with the remaining introduced in various ways.

The archipelago’s intriguing environment, which one might not expect to find near Los Angeles, is widely used by filmmakers. Santa Catalina Island, though not a national park, has been the setting for films like Escape to the Wild, Pearl Harbor, Jaws, Apollo 13, and Waterworld.

What to See and Do in Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park is made up of five islands, each offering unique experiences:

Santa Cruz

Covering 95 mi2, Santa Cruz is the largest island in the Channel Islands National Park and, indeed, in California. It can be viewed as a mini version of the state, as it features two mountain ranges, canyons, valleys, underwater caves, and rugged coastal cliffs.

The island’s main attraction is the Painted Cave, one of the world’s largest sea caves. Hikers can select from approximately 15 trails of varying difficulty.

Santa Rosa

This 82 mi2 island offers eight routes of varying difficulty to hike, with the longest stretching an impressive 16.16 mi. Most of the trails lead to the island’s landmarks, Black Mountain and Soledad Peak.

San Miguel

This remote island, measuring 14.29 mi2, houses the largest sea lion population in California. There are several trails for hikers, but be aware that San Miguel is known for its challenging weather conditions, especially the wind.

Anacapa

The park’s second smallest island, spanning 1.09 mi2, derives its name from the Chumash Indian tribe’s term anypakh, meaning deception or fata morgana. Indeed, during the summer fog or the afternoon heat, the island appears to change shape.

Visitors can walk along 1.86 mi of trails, explore some of the island’s 30 sea caves, or visit the old lighthouse, which dates back to 1932.

Santa Barbara

This minuscule 1.00 mi2 island was formed as a result of volcanic activity. All hiking trails on this island total 4.97 mi, and the sailing time to this island is approximately 3 hours.

Those who enjoy water sports can appreciate the islands from a unique perspective. The most favorable spot for kayaking is around Scorpion Beach on the east of Santa Cruz Island. Kayaking around Santa Rosa and San Miguel islands is recommended only for experienced paddlers due to strong winds and high waves. Several companies offer kayak rentals, transportation, and instruction, and can also manage your transportation to the park.

The underwater caves provide excellent diving opportunities, either with gear or by snorkeling. Enthusiasts should pay particular attention to the weather as strong winds from October to January can make diving challenging.

You can explore the park while observing whales, dolphins, and other marine life during a 3 to 3.5-hour sightseeing boat cruise down the canal. Departing from the city of Ventura, the adult ticket price is $44.

When to Visit Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park is open all year round, and you can visit at any time, weather permitting. The park offers a unique experience in every season. The busiest time at the park is between June and August.

Spring

Spring temperatures are generally quite pleasant but can be marred by strong winds and fog. This season witnesses the awakening of nature, with foxes and sea lions birthing their cubs and the islands turning green.

Summer

The best time of the year for outdoor activities like sailing, kayaking, snorkeling, or diving. Air temperatures hover around 72°F, with ocean temperatures reaching about 61°F in late summer.

Autumn

Early autumn ocean temperatures can go up to 70°F, and underwater visibility can extend to 98 ft. Many consider this period, specifically September, to be the ideal time for diving and kayaking. However, the idyllic weather starts to give way to strong winds in October.

Winter

The coldest time of the year is between December and March, which is also the period with the highest rainfall, frequently accompanied by thunderstorms.

Check the current weather forecast shortly before your planned trip to the park.

Average Temperatures and Visitor Numbers in Channel Islands National Park

Here are the average temperatures and visitor numbers at Channel Islands National Park. Visitor numbers are based on the 2017-2021 average, with data provided by the National Parks Service.

Max Temp Min Temp Precipitation Days Visitors Popularity
January 64°F 54°F 5.0 12 292 🟩
February 64°F 54°F 5.2 20 162 🟨🟨
March 64°F 52°F 4.2 27 970 🟨🟨
April 68°F 54°F 1.8 31 865 🟨🟨
May 70°F 55°F 0.7 34 386 🟨🟨
June 73°F 59°F 0.1 41 845 🟧🟧🟧
July 79°F 64°F 0.1 48 762 🟧🟧🟧
August 81°F 66°F 0.1 42 438 🟧🟧🟧
September 79°F 66°F 0.5 35 916 🟨🟨
October 75°F 61°F 1.3 30 710 🟨🟨
November 70°F 57°F 2.7 24 194 🟨🟨
December 64°F 54°F 4.7 18 186 🟩

Channel Islands National Park Entrance Fees

Entry to Channel Islands National Park is free. Visitors do not require an America the Beautiful pass, which allows free admission to other national parks in the USA.

Getting to Channel Islands National Park

Access to the national park is solely by boat, with services provided by Island Packers.

Island Packers’ boats depart from the port in the California city of Ventura. It’s easy to reach by rental car. A one-day round-trip ferry ticket to Santa Cruz and Anacapa costs $63, while a ticket to Santa Rosa and Santa Barbara Islands costs $85. Purchase tickets in advance on the cruise company’s website. Cruise times vary between 45 minutes to an hour.

Public transportation is not available between the islands. You must utilize private boats or transport yourself by kayak or canoe.

Accommodation in Channel Islands National Park

🏨 Hotels

No hotels or motels are available directly on the islands. If you plan to stay overnight, you’ll need to find accommodation in the nearest city, either Ventura or Los Angeles. The rate for a room in an average motel starts around $70.

⛺ Campsites

All five islands host campgrounds with basic facilities. You must book your stay in advance and pay $15.00 per night. Remember to bring food, a tent, a stove, drinking water, a flashlight, a sleeping bag, a first aid kit, toilet paper, or a waste bag, among other necessities.

Here’s an overview of campsites in Channel Islands National Park:

  • Anacapa Campground
    This small campground has seven tent sites, each accommodating 4-6 people. The campground is designed for small groups of 4-6 people. It involves a climb of 157 stairs.
  • Santa Cruz Campground
    The camp, located at a place known as Scorpion Ranch, has 31 sites. The hike from the dock to the camp spans 4.97 mi.
  • Santa Rosa Campground
    This campground has 15 tent sites and is situated 1.55 mi from the boat arrival point.
  • San Miguel Campground
    A smaller camp with 9 tent sites is positioned 0.93 mi from the dock. The path is uphill.
  • Santa Barbara Campground
    This camp has 10 tent sites and is just 1,312 ft from the dock.

Tips and Recommendations for Visiting Channel Islands National Park

ℹ️ Visitor Center

There are two visitor information centers available for guests to the national park. If you’re planning a personal tour of the park, I recommend visiting them first. One is located in Ventura city, the other in Santa Barbara.

  • Robert J. Lagomarsino Visitor Center
    This center is in Ventura at 1901 Spinnaker Drive. It is open daily, except on Christmas and Thanksgiving, from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Here, you can watch a 25-minute documentary about the national park, purchase a book, or attend a ranger program. These are held on weekends and holidays at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.
  • Santa Barbara Visitor Center
    This visitor center is located on the fourth floor of the building at 113 Harbor Way. You can visit any day between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.

👍 Good to Know

Be sure to bring food, drinks, and several layers of clothing (long and short sleeves, shorts, pants) to the park. Sturdy shoes with non-slip soles are also essential.

All cruise lines limit the number of bags per backpack, so avoid over-packing. If you’re heading to San Miguel, be prepared for the fact that there is no pier on the island. The boat lands on the shore, and you will likely get wet disembarking.

Considering the necessary boat travel, plan your visit to Channel Island Park as at least a full day trip.

If you plan to navigate the islands on your own, download maps in .pdf format to your phone. They’ll be useful.

Photos of Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands NP | © Andy Rusch
Channel Islands National Park | © Steve Lyon
Channel Islands National Park | © Ken Lund
Channel Islands National Park | © Andy Rusch
Channel Islands National Park | © Coast Guard News
Santa Cruz Island | © Ephralm Ragasa
Channel Islands National Park | © Brent Myers

US National Parks

  1. List of US National Parks
  2. America the Beautiful Annual Pass
  3. Timed-Entry Reservation for US National Parks

Travel Guides to USA National Parks

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