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Things to Do in Channel Islands National Park: The Expert Guide to Each of the 5 Islands

Two bottlenose dolphins jump from the ocean. Spotting wild dolphins is one of the best things to do in Channel Islands.

Channel Islands National Park protects five of the eight Channel Islands in Southern California. Each one has its own splendor, attracting visitors from around the world. Each also has its own unique series of things to do in Channel Islands National Park.

Although they’re in close proximity to each other, you’ll find completely different weather patterns, wildlife, plants, and more depending on which island you visit. Below, you’ll find a complete list of things to do in Channel Islands National Park in my guide to each of the five islands.

Last updated April 10, 2020. This page may contain affiliate links.

Things to Know Before You Go

There are no services on any of the Channel Islands. You should be prepared to be completely self-sufficient no matter if you’re taking a day trip or camping.

There are only two authorized services that will bring you to Channel Islands National Park: Island Packers, a ferry service, and Channel Islands Aviation, a flight service. For more details, read my full post on how to get to Channel Islands National Park.

Once you arrive on the islands, you’ll disembark the boat by climbing a ladder. Depending on where you dock, you may also need to climb several flights of stairs. Find more details on this in the descriptions of each island that you’ll find below.

Things to Do in Channel Islands National Park

Anacapa Island

A white lighthouse on a grassy cliff in the ocean. Seeing this lighthouse is one of the best things to do in Channel Islands.

Anacapa is the closest island to the mainland, about 12 miles from shore. Trips from the mainland take approximately one hour each way. This could be longer if wildlife is spotted along the journey. It’s perfect for short half-day or one-day excursions.

Island Packers tours that include Anacapa Island are East End Landing Cove (day trip), Anacapa Island Camping, the Anacapa and Santa Cruz Day Trip, and the Half-Day Island Wildlife Cruise.

The Arch Rock frames a smaller rock formation in an ocean. Seeing this formation is one of the best things to do in Channel Islands.

Some of the highlights of visiting Anacapa Island include the fully operational Anacapa Lighthouse, the beautiful Inspiration Point, and the opportunities to snorkel in the kelp forest. These are some of the best things to do in Channel Islands National Park.

The Island Packers naturalists will sometimes lead guided hikes on the island when you arrive. Furthermore, a national park volunteer may also be present to lead a hike or provide a program/talk. You can also camp on the island.

On the return trip, you’ll also pass by the famous sea arch pictured above.

While you won’t find any endemic island species here, you may still have some opportunities for wildlife viewing. We looked down into a cove and saw hundreds of sea lions resting on the beach. We also saw some swimming in the water when we were leaving the island.

Additionally, the island is filled with Western Gulls. They nest on the island from April through August which results in a strong odor and guano along with very protective birds – plan your visit accordingly if you wish to avoid the Western Gull rookery.

Two Western gulls. These are a can't miss on Anacapa Island, one of the best islands for a variety of the best things to do in Channel Islands.   A rocky point jetting out into the ocean. Of all the things to do in Channel Islands National Park, Inspiration Point is one of the most popular.

Important Note: Visitors to Anacapa Island are required to climb a small ladder to reach the dock. Then, you’ll need to walk up 157 stairs to reach the island. There are some benches along the way if you need to rest.

Furthermore, there are very limited services on the island. You won’t find potable water, restaurants, vending machines, or lodging. Bring water and food with you, then pack out all of your trash.

What you will find is a small visitor center with exhibits on the lighthouse and the island, a few pit toilets, and a small picnic area.

Make sure you bring sunscreen and a hat as there is very little shade on the island. Sneakers or hiking boots are also highly recommended.

An image of a group of islands at sunset. The text on the image is encouraging you to download a a guide to Anacapa Island in Channel Islands National Park by signing up for e-mail notifications.

Santa Barbara

Waves crash on the shore of Santa Barbara Island.

NPS Photo

Note: The dock at Santa Barbara is currently closed due to severe storm damage. There is currently no estimate on when it will be repaired.

There is a limited transportation schedule for Santa Barbara, but if you can get here, it will be well worth your time.

The smallest of the Channel Islands is famous for its elephant seal population. It also has a rich cultural history and is home to stunning wildflowers and Scripps’s murrelets (a type of bird).

Island Packers offers tours to Santa Barbara only a few times per year. The island is the southernmost in the Channel Islands chain and lies about 38 miles from the mainland. It takes approximately three hours to get there (one-way). If you see wildlife on the trip, it could take longer.

Upon arrival, visitors must climb a small ladder to the dock followed by a walk along a 1/4-mile trail that climbs 200 feet to the island.

Baby sea lion pups cuddle together.

NPS/Dan Richards

As with the other Channel Islands, there are no services available. This means you’ll need to bring your own food, water, and supplies. There is no lodging and no public phone. The island does have a small, unstaffed visitor center with a few exhibits. Picnic tables are also located at the visitor center.

Hiking and camping are the most popular things to do in Channel Islands National Park, especially on Santa Barbara Island. On days that ferry services come to the island, Island Packers naturalists may lead a guided hike. Altogether, there are five miles of trails to explore on the island. To protect fragile plant life and seabirds, no off-trail hiking is allowed. Pelicans nest on the island between January and August; trails are subject to closure during this time.

Primitive camping includes a food storage box, picnic table, and pit toilet. Remember to bring your own water! Additionally, snorkeling, swimming, diving, and kayaking are popular things to do here.

Some highlights of Santa Barbara Island include the Elephant Seal Cove and Sea Lion Rookery overlooks. Visit during the wildflower bloom in late winter and spring for glorious vegetation.

Santa Cruz

Scorpion Anchorage

Note: As of November 2019, Scorpion Anchorage is closed while a new pier is constructed. Construction is expected to last 6-9 months.

Santa Cruz is the largest island in Channel Islands National Park. It’s also considered to be the best for day trips or camping as it has the largest variety of things to do in Channel Islands in terms of recreational activities. Typically, Santa Cruz also has the best weather.

Trips from the mainland take a little over one hour each way. This could be longer if wildlife is spotted along the journey. It’s perfect for short half-day or one-day excursions. Island Packers tours that include Santa Cruz Island are Scorpion Anchorage (day or camping), Prisoners Harbor (day or camping), Painted Cave Exploration, and the Anacapa and Santa Cruz Day Trip.

Potato Harbor Santa Cruz Island CINP DSC_5009

Some of the highlights of visiting Santa Cruz Island include a variety of hiking trails, one of the world’s largest sea caves, and endemic wildlife. The Island Packers naturalists will lead guided hikes on the island, usually to Pelican Bay on Nature Conservancy property. This hike is very strenuous and you must be accompanied by a guide. You’re also required to sign a waiver.

Upon arrival, you may find guides from the Channel Islands Adventure Company offering kayaking tours.

You can also camp on the island. There are two campgrounds, each very primitive, on opposite sides of the island. The Scorpion Canyon Campground near Scorpion Anchorage includes potable water, a picnic table, a food storage box, and pit toilet. Camping at the Del Norte Backcountry Site is much more primitive.

painted cave3A

To see the famous sea cave, Painted Cave, you’ll need to book a special ticket. Trips to Santa Cruz do not include the sea cave. This is one of the most popular things to do in Channel Islands.

Once you dock, the day visitors will disembark and anyone with tickets to Painted Cave will continue on. There is no landing inside the Painted Cave. After you’ve seen it, the boat will return to Prisoners Harbor and you’ll have about three hours to spend on the island.

Island Fox - Santa Cruz Island - explore

The island is also one of the best for wildlife viewings. There are many endemic species that can only be found on Santa Cruz Island and nowhere else on Earth. The most popular is the Island fox, a fox about the size of a house cat. Another is the Island Jay, a creature very similar to Scrub Jays. Island foxes are most prominent near Scorpion Anchorage while the best place to see the Island Jay is near Prisoners Harbor. The island is also great for spotting a wide variety of sea birds.

It’s important to note that visitors to Santa Cruz Island are required to climb a small ladder to reach the dock. Unlike Anacapa Island, there are no stairs to climb up here.

Furthermore, there are very limited services on the island. You won’t find restaurants, vending machines, or lodging. While Scorpion Anchorage includes water, there is no potable water available at Prisoners Harbor. Bring water and food with you, then pack out all of your trash.

At Scorpion Anchorage, there is a small visitor center in the ranch house along with small picnic areas near the ranch or the beach. There are picnic tables near the beach at Prisoners Harbor as well. Furthermore, both sides of the island have pit toilets near the docking points.

Make sure you bring sunscreen and a hat as there is very little shade on the island. Sneakers or hiking boots are also highly recommended.

San Miguel

An ocean cove.

NPS/Tim Hauf

San Miguel is one of the more challenging Channel Islands to reach. Due to windy conditions and adverse weather, visitors must be prepared.

There are three ways to get to San Miguel: by boat with Island Packers or Truth Aquatics or by seaplane with Channel Islands Aviation. All visitors are required to have a permit and sign a liability waiver. All forms will be provided when you make your reservation.

Trips are offered in spring, summer, and fall. Travel time one-way is about four hours, and possibly longer if wildlife is seen. By air, it takes about 60 minutes one-way.

It’s critical that you remain on the trail system at all times. San Miguel was previously utilized as a bombing range and unexploded materials may still be present. Absolutely no off-trail hiking is permitted. Guided hikes are often offered during trips.

When you aren’t accompanied by a park ranger or guide, you are welcome to visit Cuyler Harbor Beach (pictured above), Nidever Canyon, the Cabrillo Monument (pictured below), and the Lester Ranch site. These are some of the best things to do in Channel Islands.

A small stone monument in a field of yellow flowers.

NPS/Tim Hauf

As with the other Channel Islands, there are no services available on San Miguel. You must bring your own food, water, and supplies. Furthermore, there are no picnic tables and there is no visitor center.

Popular recreational activities on the island include hiking, camping, and some watersports. Due to windy conditions, any water-based activities are recommended for experienced visitors only.

On a guided 16-mile hike to Point Bennett, visitors have the opportunity to see one of the largest congregations of wild animals on Earth. Five different species and as many as 30,000 individuals congregate here. Typically, these sightings include a variety of sea lions and seals.

Cuyler Harbor and Nydever Canyon are also excellent locations for viewing birds. Additional wildlife viewing opportunities include the endemic Island fox, which can sometimes be seen here but is very elusive.

A forest of rocky tree stumps.

NPS/Tim Hauf

Santa Rosa

The sunset casts a pink hue on Santa Rosa Island.

NPS Photo

As with San Miguel, windy conditions should be expected on Santa Rosa Island.

The island is rich with paleontological and archaeological resources. These tell the story of the Island Chumash who called the island home until approximately 1820. Using radiocarbon dating, it is estimated that humans have been present on the island for over 13,000 years.

You can reach the island by boat or seaplane. Island Packers offers tours in spring, summer, and fall while Channel Islands Aviation offers flights year-round. The ferry trip lasts at least three hours while the air service lasts about 45 minutes each way.

As with the other Channel Islands, there are limited services available. Do not expect to find restaurants, vending machines, public phones, or lodging. There is also no visitor center. You must bring all of your own food and supplies. There is potable water available at the Water Canyon Campground and the public bathrooms in the historic ranch area. You can find picnic tables near Water Canyon Beach and the historic ranch house.

Hiking and camping are the most popular outdoor activities and things to do in Channel Islands. Watersports such as snorkeling, swimming, and diving are also possible but recommended only for experienced travelers due to windy and common adverse conditions.

Hikers can choose from a variety of trails, including a relatively flat path to Water Canyon Beach or a strenuous climb to the top of Black Mountain.

Primitive camping at Water Canyon Campground includes a picnic table, food storage box, windbreak, pit toilet, and water. The campground is a 1.5-mile hike from the pier. Due to a limited boat schedule, expect to stay for at least three days.

A whale sticks its head above water. Whale watching is one of the best things to do in Channel Islands.

NPS/Tim Hauf

Pin Things to Do in Channel Islands National Park

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Karen

Friday 10th of April 2020

Great post. I really like how you included access information in the description.

Riley (The Parks Expert)

Friday 10th of April 2020

Thanks, Karen!

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