Channel Islands Day Trip: Planning, Tips, and More

The Channel Islands are a beautiful group of eight islands located just two hours (plus a ferry) from Los Angeles. Five of these islands make up the Channel Islands National Park, known for their natural beauty, unique wildlife, and rich history. A Channel Islands day trip is a great way to explore this beautiful area of California.

As an avid national park explorer, I was so excited when on my last trip to Los Angeles, I was able to spend a day in Channel Islands National Park. There are several different options for a Channel Islands Day Trip, and I hope throughout this post, you’ll find an option that works best for you!

Table of Contents

channel islands national park sign on santa cruz island

About Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park often ends up on lists of the least visited national parks in the United States, which is surprising given its proximity to Los Angeles! It really is a remarkably beautiful set of islands just off the coast of southern California, well worth a visit. 

It’s comprised of five of the eight Channel Islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara. Catalina Island is also part of the Channel Islands but not the national park. I’ve also visited that island, and it’s beautiful, but a completely different feel than the national park!

Channel Islands National Park is approximately 23 to 70 miles off the California coast, depending on which island you decide to visit. The largest and most popular is Santa Cruz Island, which is still not very large. It’s easy to visit one of the islands on a day trip.

Unlike other islands near Southern California, the Channel Islands were formed due to volcanic activity, making the coastlines, flora and fauna, and soil unique. This has led to endemic species (plant and animal species that are found in a particular geographical region and nowhere else in the world) being found throughout the island, many of which were close to extinction before preservation efforts by the National Park Service.

The Channel Islands were declared a national park in 1980, and since then, there have been increasing efforts to save the unique species that call these islands home. This remote national park is truly unique!

view along hiking trail of sea caves santa cruz island channel islands national park

Tips for Visiting Channel Islands

Here’s a few tips before spending one day in Channel Islands National Park.

  1. You need a reservation well in advance for your trip because ferries are limited and do sell out. More on this below.
  2. Speaking of ferries, ferries do not run to every island every day. Be sure you check which island you’d like to visit and check that the ferry is running to that island that day. You’ll find the most ferries to and from Santa Cruz Island.
  3. Weather can change rapidly here. Bring layers, check the weather often to make sure you have updates on what time your ferry will leave, and plenty of sunscreen – most of the island is shrubbery, not shaded with trees.
  4. Speaking of what to bring, you will have to pack everything in and everything out. Bring all necessary supplies, such as plenty of water, food, a trash bag, sturdy hiking shoes, and a jacket. It’s a good idea to bring a first aid kit, too, as emergency services are limited.
  5. When on the island, stay on trails, view wildlife from a distance, and leave no trace. You’re in a habitat with several endangered species that are so important to protect!
  6. Prepare for potential sea sickness. On a windy day, the water can get rough, and the ferry takes about an hour (depending on wildlife viewing). The staff is great at giving tips and helping if you need it. We were lucky to visit on a day with minimal wind, and the water was really smooth!
  7. Cell phone service was spotty throughout the day. Anticipate being “off the grid” as they say during your day trip!
ferry to channel islands national park with island packers

Getting There

The easiest and best way to get to Channel Islands National Park for a day is by ferry. 

Seaplane

After people mentioned that flights were $300 one way, I gave up and went with the ferry. There’s a chance you could get a flight for this price by contacting Channel Islands Aviation, 305 Durley Ave., Camarillo, CA 93010 (tel. 805/987-1301, ext. 0; www.flycia.com), which will fly you there from Camarillo or Santa Barbara in one of its small, fixed-wing aircraft.

Ferries

Ferries are the most affordable and common way to get to Channel Islands National Park. All ferries are through Island Packers, but depending on which island you decide to visit, your ferry port might be different—either Ventura or Oxnard.

Ferries to Santa Cruz Island (Scorpion Cove, Prisoners Harbor), Anacapa Island, Santa Rosa Island, and San Miguel Island are from Ventura. Additional ferries to Anacapa are from Oxnard.

Island Packers offers several different options for ferries, such as whale-watching cruises, on which you never actually land on the islands, transport to and from the islands, and group charters. They start at $33 one way and can change from there depending on the option you choose. 

If you want to spend a day in the park, I’d recommend taking their ferry in the morning and then in the afternoon back from the island of your choice. It takes about an hour to an hour and a half one way. 

The ferry really is part of the fun because it’s great for wildlife viewing along the way! You’ll need to make sure you buy two one-way tickets and choose times that make the most sense. They sell snacks and drinks on the ferry, but make sure you bring your own food too.

There are no round-trip tickets, so don’t accidentally book a one-way ticket and risk not having a return the same day if they sell out! Which can happen due to those backpacking and camping on the islands.

Where to Stay

It is possible to drive from Los Angeles or other cities across Southern CA to Ventura Harbor or Oxnard Harbor. However, it’s much easier if you stay nearby instead; you’ll want to take an early morning ferry, and you could have a. long drive.

We stayed at the Hampton Inn Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard the night before our ferry to Channel Islands Harbor. It made the drive in the morning super easy—it was just 10 minutes from the ferry!

Vons and Ralphs grocery stores are near your hotel and typically have pre-made meals and sandwiches to go. There’s also a Starbucks, so staying here is easy! The ferry will have a few snacks and refreshments for sale.

view of santa cruz island channel islands national park from ferry

Which Island Should You Visit?

Now that you know how to get to each island, which one is right for you? Below is a little bit about each island to help you decide! Spoiler alert: we chose Santa Cruz, mostly because it is the easiest to get to and it was the only one with a ferry available the day we could go. It ended up being great!

Below are the five channel islands in order from closest to shore to furthest. The two I’d most recommend for a day trip are Anacapa and Santa Cruz Island. The ferries are shorter so you can spend more of your one day trip on an island, you’ll have plenty to do in a day without getting overwhelmed, and they are easily accessible.

1. Anacapa Island

  • Travel Time from Ventura and Oxnard Harbors:1 hour
  • Frequency of Trips: Year-round, variable schedule 3-7 days per week
  • Size: About 1.1 square miles.
  • Features: The island is divided into three islets: East, Middle, and West Anacapa. Known for its dramatic sea cliffs, natural bridges, and numerous sea caves. Home to thousands of seabirds, including the largest breeding colony of western gulls. Also notable for its population of California sea lions.

2. Santa Cruz Island

  • Travel Time from Ventura Harbor: 1 hour
  • Frequency of Trips: Year round, variable schedule 5-7 days per week
  • Size: The largest of the Channel Islands, covering about 96 square miles. 
  • Features: Diverse landscapes, including rugged mountain ranges, deep canyons, and pristine beaches. Hosts a variety of endemic species, such as the island fox and the Santa Cruz Island scrub jay.

3. Santa Rosa Island

  • Travel Time from Ventura Harbor: Boat trips are 3 hours.
  • Frequency of Trips: Boat trips run April through early November, 2-4 days per week.
  • Size: Approximately 84 square miles.
  • Features: Characterized by rolling hills, extensive grasslands, and coastal dunes. Known for its diverse plant life, including the rare Torrey pine, and a variety of endemic animals such as the island fox.

4. San Miguel Island

  • Travel Time from Ventura Harbor: Boat trips are 4 hours.
  • Frequency of Trips: Boat trips run April through early November, 4-8 days per month.
  • Size: About 14 square miles.
  • Features: The westernmost island is known for its rugged coastline and high winds. Rich in marine life, with large colonies of seals and sea lions at Point Bennett. Also home to the island fox and diverse bird species.
  • Note: A permit (including liability waiver) is required to visit the island.

5. Santa Barbara Island

  • There are no ferries currently available, but it is still worth mentioning because it is part of the park! They are working on restoring the dock.
  • Size: The smallest island in the park, covering about 1 square mile.
  • Features: Noted for its steep cliffs and unique volcanic rock formations. Important breeding ground for seabirds, including the Scripps’s murrelet and the ashy storm petrel. Also home to seals and sea lions.
scorpion harbor santa cruz island channel islands national park

Things to Do in Channel Islands National Park for One Day

Now that you know about each of the islands, what can you do while there? Each island offers a unique experience, from the rugged landscapes of San Miguel to the diverse ecosystems of Santa Cruz, making the Channel Islands a fascinating destination for nature lovers and adventure seekers alike.

The highlight of visiting the Channel Islands is the beautiful landscapes and unique wildlife that call these islands home. 

The top three things to do on the islands are hiking, kayaking, and snorkeling. The Channel Islands offer extensive hiking with coastal views, and some of the larger islands, like Santa Cruz, include inland hikes through canyons and valleys. Kayaking through sea caves and snorkeling in the kelp forests are popular activities. 

Kayaking adventures are guided through Channel Islands Adventure Company, and some include snorkeling, or you can bring your own gear with you on the ferry. They do not have kayak rental-only options; you must join a guided tour if you don’t bring your own. Snorkeling can be done right on several beaches.

The islands also have a rich history with remnants of Chumash villages (the original inhabitants of the islands) and historic ranching structures that you can check out too! The Anacapa Island Lighthouse, built in 1932, is an iconic feature on Anacapa Island as well.

large pod of dolphis near channel islands national park

One Day on Santa Cruz Island

As mentioned, we chose to go to Santa Cruz Island for our Channel Islands day trip. Here’s what I’d recommend while there. 

Morning

As mentioned, taking a morning ferry before 9 am is best for a few reasons. First, waters tend to be calmer in the morning, so there is less chance of large waves and sea sickness. Second, wildlife viewing tends to be more active in the morning.

Third, if you stop for wildlife viewing, it can take longer than an hour to get to the island, so you want to go early enough to still leave plenty of time on the island. Don’t worry, you’ll LOVE the longer ride and seeing all the animals!

On our ferry ride, we saw SO MANY dolphins, birds, sea lions, huge fish, and more. I’ve never seen so many dolphins; they just surrounded the boat! I also loved that we saw the animals interacting with each other.

There were sea lions, dolphins, pelicans, and more all together! It gave me the same feel as when we were on a safari and saw all the animals at the watering hole.

beach at scorpion harbor channel islands national park

Option 1: Kayaking Tour

You can do either a half-day or full-day kayak tour to the sea caves. For the authorized kayak guide and outfitting concession in the Scorpion Anchorage area on Santa Cruz Island, visit Channel Islands Adventure Company.

Due to challenging weather conditions, kayaking should not be attempted by the novice or anyone who is not properly trained, conditioned, and equipped. You can bring your own kayak, but it is not recommended.

The area of the park most popular for sea kayaking is centered around Scorpion Beach. This location is a world class destination for sea kayaking because of easy beach access, clear ocean waters, nearby camping, readily available concessionaire boat transportation service, and a spectacular shoreline with beautiful sea caves and cliffs to explore.

Kayaking tours are pretty expensive; they start at $145 for 1.5 hours and go up from there. 

view of coast while hiking to potato harbor channel islands national park
hiking to potato harbor channel islands national park
hiking along coast on a foggy day channel islands national park

Option 2: Hiking and Snorkeling

Late Morning

Once you arrive on Santa Cruz Island, you’ll have a short introduction to the island and how to visit it respectfully. Usually, this ranger will offer a guided hike, so you can choose to join it if you’d like!

Another grade option (and what we did) is to hike Potato Harbor. This is a 5.2-mile coastal hike to a harbor shaped like a potato. Of course, I had to hike it! It will take up your morning, but you’ll absolutely love it. All along the hike, you’ll get to take in great coastal views, and we barely saw anyone along the entire hike. It was really peaceful and beautiful!

There is little shade on this hike, so it’s important to keep lots of water and make sure you bring food with you! Once you get to Potato Harbor, it’s a great spot to eat your lunch and take in the view before heading back. Consider going back through the valley to search for the foxes and other birds. 

channel islands national park sign on santa cruz island
view of sea caves on santa cruz island channel islands national park

Afternoon

Once you’re back in Scorpion Harbor, it’s time for some snorkeling! Unlike kayaks, you can rent a wetsuit and snorkel gear to snorkel here. You can rent a wetsuit from Channel Islands Adventure Co. They have a kiosk at Scorpion Anchorage, and wetsuits are first come, first served.

You can also choose to just go for a swim instead. Either way, you’re in for a nice time cooling off and relaxing at the beach! One thing to note is that the beach here is rocky. So plan ahead for that, and know it may not be the most comfortable place to lay down!

After some time in the water, wash off in the showers and stop by the Scorpion Ranch House, which is a small visitor/interpretive center. There’s also some historical information and details about the history and animals that inhabit the islands. There is a larger visitor center at the Ventura Harbor you can visit too.

scorpion ranch santa cruz island channel islands national park

Head Home

After you’ve enjoyed your day, it’s time to head back to Ventura! We chose to take the 4 pm ferry, and it included more dolphin and animal sightings but was faster than the ferry there. If you choose to kayak for the day, you’ll easily be able to take a ferry at this time, too.

I hope this guide to a day trip to Channel Islands National Park helps you make the most of your trip and that you love exploring this park as much as we did! 

Meghan

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