What you need to know about a day trip to one of America’s least visited national parks.
Tides are King
The adventure to Channel Islands National Park had been booked and planned well in advance. In early December, on the eave of my birthday, the day bag was packed, picnic lunch and snacks were assembled, and the dog had been dropped off at the boarding kennel. After a 5 am wake up, a call in the morning to the dock to confirm the trip, and a punctual check in, I thought I was set to have a great birthday adventure.
However, the tides thought differently. Fifteen minutes before boarding, I was told at the dock that the tides at Anacapa Island would be too low to pick up day trippers that evening. The campers could go, but day trippers had to stay on the mainland. To my great disappointment, my trip to Anacapa Island was rescheduled for a month later.
Finally, January came around and it was time to go to the dock again. This time I got a call the day before the trip that once again the tides were uncooperative for day trippers to Anacapa. I was exacerbated once more. The folks at Island Packers offered an alternative though: I could go to Santa Cruz Island the same day and at roughly the same time instead. Not wanting to reschedule for a third time, I agreed. And that is how I came to visit Santa Cruz Island instead of Anacapa.
In most cases, you’ll need a boat to access Channel Islands National Park. Island Packers Cruises is the park affiliated company that transports visitors both as a ferry service and adventure cruise. You have the option of leaving from Ventura or Oxnard. The two cities are only about 20 minutes apart, with Oxnard further south. From central Los Angeles, it takes about an hour and a half to get to the Oxnard dock. From Santa Barbara, the Ventura dock is about 45 minutes away. The round trip boat cost varies by island, but it is $60 for Santa Cruz.
Because of its unique and isolated location, the Channel Islands are home to many species found nowhere else on earth. This includes the island fox. They are the largest mammal on the island (aside from humans) and come out during daylight hours in addition to being active at night.
Bald eagle sightings are common. Despite the lack of trees, bald eagles lived on the Channel Islands until the 1950s when the consequences of use of pesticides like DDT completely eliminated their existence on the islands. In a reintroduction program that started in 2002, sixty-one adolescent bald eagles were released on the Channel Islands. Mating pairs were established and today there are many that continue to reside there. You can watch the nests of a few bald eagles live on webcams here.
Along the journey to and from the mainland, it is common to spot sea lions, dolphins, whales, and a huge variety of birds. During my trip I was lucky enough to cross paths with a “mega pod” of dolphins, a truly magical sight to behold hundreds dolphins breaching quite literally in every direction you look. A fin whale, the second largest in the world, also popped up to say hello.
The Islands: How to Choose?
There are five islands within the national park archipelago: Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, and San Miguel.
Santa Cruz Island, the one I day tripped, is the largest of the islands at 24 miles long. It is located about 20 miles offshore from Ventura. By virtue of being the biggest, it is also the easiest to get to and generally has the best weather of all the islands. Furthermore, the island offers a long network of trails. From Scorpion Landing, most trails start with an incline but after that the trails are relatively flat and maintained. There is also a small visitor center at Scorpion Landing. Kayaking from the beach at the ferries’ drop off point is a popular activity.
Anacapa Island is perhaps best known for its historic lighthouse. There are only about 2 miles worth of trails on this small island, but it makes for a good day trip. The famous viewpoint from Inspiration Point is found on Anacapa. In February 2022, the dock at Anacapa Island closed for renovation. Prior to February, as I begrudgingly learned, the tides made access to Anacapa challenging. Disembarking was also dangerous, with at least one fatality in recent years. Anacapa will be closed to visitors until construction of a new dock finishes.
Santa Rosa Island is the second largest island in the park. If offers more low lands and beaches, yet still features mountains that rise to 1,589 feet. There is no visitor center on this island, but water and restrooms are available at Becher’s Bay. This island also known for being quite windy.
Santa Barbara Island is the smallest. It is only one square mile. Sea lions, harbor seals, and elephant seals use the rocky shores of the island for rest and breeding. There is a more limited transportation schedule to this island, making visiting it more challenging. Despite this, there is a small visitor center here and picnic tables.
San Miguel Island is the western most island, making it subject to harsh weather. This makes for unique, beautiful landscapes. There are 27 miles of pristine coast that are home to tens of thousands of pinnipeds like sea lions and seals. A ranger led, 16 mile hike can take visitors to view this incredible sight at Point Bennett.
Day Trip vs. Camping
Visiting one of the islands can be done in a single day. The ferry schedule allows enough time for a decent hike to explore the land before needing to head back for the boat. However, a day trip to one of the islands leaving many feeling like they’ve only scratched the surface of all the pristine beauty this archipelago contains. Multi-day camping trips and multi-island visits help solve this. I think a day trip is a great way to be introduced to Channel Islands National Park. You’ll probably leave wanting to come back to explore more.
If you have the gear, the ferry system will bring campers to the islands the same as day trippers. You’ll need to bring all of your own food and necessary supplies however. In most cases this includes bringing enough of your own water.
The most popular campground is on Santa Cruz, however there are other campground options and backcountry permits. Primitive camping is available at the Scorpion Canyon Campground on Santa Cruz Island. Reservations are required and cost $15 a night. The sites are shaded and in general this is the most family friendly campground in the park. Day trippers sometimes venture through the campground as it connects to the island trails. It was here I spotted the island fox.
What to Bring
For your day trip, it is critical to know there are few services on the islands. For example, you must bring your own food. The boats and harbors on the main land offer snacks, but you should be prepared with your own arsenal of munchies and drinks in your bag. This is especially the case for water.
I highly recommend dressing in layers. The day trip introduces you to a wide range of temperatures and wind chill. From the early morning boat ride to the midday hike, you will be grateful for the clothing options. Wear a good pair of tall socks as some of the trails are a bit dusty. Sneakers or hiking boots are the best shoe choice. Sunglasses and a hat will be good to have as you will be exposed to the sun for most of the day.
Aside from food and water, you could also bring a camera, a good book, and a blanket. Once you arrive at the island for a day trip you have several hours to explore your own way. This could mean logging as many hiking miles as you can or simply finding a good view to spread out a picnic and relax. You should also probably bring sunscreen, as there is little shade on most islands. In addition, I brought with me a small emergency kit in my bag which luckily went unused.
Related: A Day at Conagree National Park
Things might not have gone as planned for me the first few tries, but the Channel Islands are an absolute gem of the National Park System. I can’t wait to get back out and explore all five islands.