The stretch of Pacific coastline along California’s western Santa Barbara and Ventura counties borders two of the world’s most spectacular nature reserves: Channel Islands National Park includes five islands and a mile of surrounding waters. The adjacent Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary encompasses an additional six nautical miles surrounding the islands.
The islands are so undeveloped that they reflect a time warp of the California that existed way before urban development changed the landscape along the coast. More than 2,000 species of flora and fauna live out there, and 145 of those are found nowhere else on the planet. The 175 miles of coastline includes long stretches of gorgeous beaches and one of the world’s largest sea caves — Painted Cave on Santa Cruz Island. The channel waters are home to 27 species of dolphins and whales, six species of seals and sea lions and thousands of sea birds. Rare plant species, long extinct on the mainland, thrive on the protected fields and hillside meadows.
These incredible islands might look hard to get to, but they really aren’t far away (14 to 26 miles from the mainland), and it’s relatively easy to get there via boat and by plane for a half or full day of hiking, or for multi-day camping adventures. Official park transportation boats depart from Ventura (Island Packers), and charter flights to Santa Rosa Island take off from the Camarillo Airport (Channel Islands Aviation).
If you can’t get out to the park, at least spend time at the mainland visitor center to learn about one of the most pristine wilderness regions in the nation.
Congress established Channel Islands National Park in 1980 to protect five islands off the California Coast: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara.
Visitors from around the world travel here to kayak in the sea caves, hike the uncrowded trails and camp in peaceful surroundings. Each of the five islands offers varied and unique opportunities for outdoor adventure, so you could visit many times and still have a long bucket list of places to explore and things to do.
The hills and meadows on Anacapa, just 14 miles from the mainland, explode with colorful wildflowers every spring. The rugged island is a half-mile wide and a mile long, with cliffs reaching 200 feet high along its shoreline.
The largest island along the California coast, Santa Cruz offers an extensive trail network with hikes suitable for novices or serious hikers.
The Outer Islands
Santa Rosa and San Miguel islands lie farther away and are excellent choices for remote wilderness experiences, especially if you can spend a few days camping. Santa Barbara Island offers excellent diving and snorkeling opportunities. Note: The Nature Conservancy protects much of Santa Cruz island, so visit the organization’s website for more information on those managed portions of land.
Dive the Deep Seas: Divers from around the world come to Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary to explore the rich underwater life in the protected waters. Several boats depart for single and multiday dive trips out of Ventura Harbor, including Peace, Spectre, Explorer and Raptor. Ventura Dive & Sport offers dive classes, excursions and equipment rentals and sales.
Catch the Fish: Sign up for sportfishing excursions and cast your line to catch calico bass , lingcod, whitefish, rockfish, barracuda, halibut and sea bass.
Kayak in Coves and Caves: Paddle into the caves and coves along the shores of Channel Islands National Park. Use your own kayak, rent one at the harbor or join a guided kayaking trip with an adventure outfitting company. Contact Santa Barbara Adventure Company for information.
Watch the Whales: Various whales swim through the channel during migration periods. Hop aboard a boat from Ventura Harbor to mingle front-and-center with the gentle giants. Prime season for gray whale watching runs December–March, but the channel teems with life year-round. On a typical boat trip, you are likely to spot humpback whales, orcas, giant squid, elephant seals and thousands of common dolphins. Blue whales typically nosh on krill in the channel from June to September.
You can reach the islands by cruising with an Island Packers boat (board in Ventura Harbor) or by private watercraft. Fly to Santa Rosa Island with Channel Islands Aviation, which offers day hiking, surf fishing and camping options. Soar over the islands and marine sanctuary on an aerial tour with Channel Islands Helicopters.