Day Trip to The Channel Islands National Park, California (it’s magic!)

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If the crowds of California are getting a bit much, then it’s high time you took a day trip to the Channel Islands National Park.

These are the adventures I live for. Adventures that test my comfort zone in the middle of extraordinary natural beauty (without the crowds).

cliffs next to water with kayakers in it
Kayaking at Channel Islands National Park

Kayaking around the cliff faces of Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands National Park, California, made me realize we haven’t had such a unique and special natural adventure like this since leaving Australia to live in the U.S.

I’m ready for more of it. And when you visit Channel Islands National Park it will be a highlight of your adventures in California.

It was our big bang final experience after an amazing 10 day road trip from San Diego, through Orange County, then up to Ventura County on a partnership with Visit California.

But how do you spend one day in The Channel Islands and how do you take a day trip there? In this guide I’ll share with you what you can do in one day and how to take a Channel Islands National Park day trip.

Where is Channel Islands National Park?

Channel Islands National Park is located off the coastline of Ventura California.

Ventura County is located 70 miles north of Los Angeles and 30 miles south of Santa Barbara.

Its remoteness helps to give it the title of the least visited of the National Parks in the USA, but undoubtedly it’s one of the best things to do in Ventura CA.

It’s not that remote – an 80 minute ferry ride from Ventura Harbor on the California mainland. But, enough to only capture the most adventurous of hearts.

girl kayaking

There’s nothing over on the Channel Islands for you except beautiful beaches, cliff faces, valleys and canyons for hiking, and sea caves to explore on kayaks.

Oh wait.

There’s also snorkeling through the kelp forest, tiny island foxes waiting to grab your lunch, and this divine gum tree.

Gum tree on Channel Islands National Park, California

The Channel Islands National Park is made up of five islands:

  • San Miguel Island
  • Santa Rosa Island
  • Santa Cruz Island
  • Anacapa Island
  • and Santa Barbara Island

We only visited Santa Cruz Island as it’s the perfect place for a one-day trip, and is the easiest island to get to.

How to Take A Channel Islands National Park Day Trip?

kalyra looking at view on the Channel Islands National Park ferry

Not sure how to get to Channels Islands National Park?

You can visit any of the islands by the Channel Islands National Park ferry with Island Packers. The boat leaves from Ventura Harbor and takes you to Prisoner’s Harbor on Santa Cruz Island.

You can also visit by plane with Channel Islands Aviation, or your own private boat.

There are no roads on the island. You can get yourself around by foot or kayak.

While you can visit the islands all year round, you should keep in mind that not all islands are accessible in bad weather.

Island Packers Boat Trip to Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park ferry docked at the jetty

The Channel Islands ferry ride over from Ventura Harbor is an adventure in itself.

We spotted a group of seals resting on a buoy, large fish swimming to the surface, and dolphins in the distance.

Seals lying on buoy we spotted on the Channel Islands National Park ferry in California

As these waters of the Santa Barbara Channel run pretty deep, Island Packers boat tours to the Channel Islands and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary often see whales: humpback, fig and blue whales!

Yes, the largest animal in the world!!

We didn’t see any whales, but wait to you get to the end of this post so you can read more about how many dolphins we saw on the way back.

people walking on a bridge

Things to do in Channel Islands National Park

Now you know how to get to the Channel Islands National Park, here are some of the best attractions you can do during your day trip.

1. Sea Cave Kayak Adventure at Scorpion Anchorage

Kalyra Kayaking near a cave  at Channel Islands National Park

We were spending the day at Scorpion Harbor on Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the islands.

Our mission was clear – spend a half-day exploring the sea caves by kayak with Santa Barbara Adventure Company who offer several Channel Islands National Park tours.

Since Savannah clutched to me like a baby koala up a gum tree with every bump on the ferry over (which really wasn’t that bad), I thought our kayaking adventure was going to be a disaster.

She has been on so many boats, cruises, and once even kayaked 16 kms through the Noosa Everglades, but lately she’s developed a strange fear of boats.

However that all slipped away once she zipped up in her wetsuit, buckled up her life jacket, grabbed the paddle and jumped in the kayak.

Big sister Kalyra was right with her.

girl kayaking

Since Savannah has no problem rock climbing up a 55 foot wall, I’m guessing the thrill of adventure overtakes her and she can’t help but breathe deep and fall in love with the experience.

I can’t tell you how much I love having these experiences with my daughters.

Kalyra and Caz  kayaking next to a cave

To have a seal pop its head up just meters from your kayak, to craftily paddle through Marg Simpson shaped crevices in the rock face, and navigate past rocks with the white wash give you a push is exhilarating.

“Paddle Kalyra. I’m going to steer and get us through without crashing the rocks, but I need you to keep paddling so we can get on the wave at the right timing.”

We timed our paddle through the narrow gap perfectly.

You just can’t beat having these thrilling team working experiences with your kids.

Caz and Kalyra kayaking next to cliffs
makepeace family  in kayaks smiling at camera

After paddling through the belly of elephant cave, we learned about the dwarf wooly mammoths that thrived on the island until the last Ice Age ended.

We also learned about the Indigenous history and culture on the island, its past ranching history before becoming a National Park, the restoration projects that happen to protect the flora and fauna, and the different animals that live on the island, including foxes, ravens and nesting birds.

Go into the dark cave to find your power

people kayaking next to cliffs

Then there was the moment where we sat in the darkness of the Painted Cave grappling with our fears and deciding whether to take advantage of the low tide and paddle into the back room with only the light of a flashlight to guide us.

Painted Cave is one of the largest sea caves in the world and stretches 300 meters back into the island.

people kayaking in a cave

Savannah wasn’t having any of it, but I managed to help Kalyra find the courage to take the flashlight and help us find our way.

Savannah and Craig waited in the cave entrance, while Kalyra and I paddled beside our guide who expertly guided us into the dark and noisy cave.

The sound of the ocean rushing in and hitting the walls to deepen the cave spooked us.

I felt small and vulnerable.

These moments with Mother Nature remind you of your aliveness and that your smallness is part of something so significant.

It’s almost as if in that moment She passes over to you some of her power.

Snorkeling amongst the Kelp Forest

people in kayaks above sea kelp

Since the water temps are pretty chilly in California, we decided on the ferry ride over that we probably wouldn’t snorkel.

But, once we peered over the kayak to watch the bright orange Garibaldi, the protected state fish of California, swimming amongst the kelp forest, I knew I could not turn my back on this once in a lifetime opportunity.

hand holding up seaweed in the water

Don’t worry, if you fear cold water, it really wasn’t that bad. It was much colder when we swam with the sea lions in South Australia.

The Channel Islands Adventure Company has thick wetsuits you can wear, including a full head feature.

I know, I’m setting sexy snorkeling fashion trends here.

I really didn’t need it but how could you say no to this look?

Kalyra jumped in beside me and we explored the kelp forest around the pier together.

The underwater rainforest danced around us as we peered between the giant kelp to discover what lies amongst and under them.

man snorkeling in the ocean
seaweed in the ocean

Elise, our awesome guide, helped us by bringing out sea stars, sea cucumbers and bright purple sea urchins for us to have a look at.

close up of marine creatures

I decided to swim back to shore to see if I could spot any sand rays. Except I took a wrong turn and ended up on top of the kelp forest trying to swim my way across in my heavy wetsuit!

That was such hard work, but I made it and did not see any rays, over the short strip of sandy bottom I managed to crawl my way over to.

It’s all part of the Channel Islands Ca adventure!

Elise was very patient and friendly, making sure we were comfortable and having a good time.

We enjoyed our time with her kayaking around the cliffs and seeing Santa Cruz Island from the water (and under it!)

2. Have A Picnic on Santa Cruz Island

people sitting at a picnic table

Once our Channel Islands kayaking tour was over, we found a picnic table to sit with the sun, and the creeping foxes to enjoy a picnic lunch from Channel Islands Provisioners.

Fox on Channel Islands National Park, California

Owner, Chef Neal met us at the Ventura Harbor terminal to pass us each an insulated lunch pack. Chef Neal gave us lots of great tips about the island before we got onto the boat.

Chef Neal makes everything in your prepacked lunch from scratch and has a selection of island gourmet fare from sandwiches to salads.

Our salads were definitely gourmet, the food so fresh and flavorful, the girls’ sandwiches were equally gourmet and delicious.

food on a table

Craig and I are gluten free and Chief Neal can cater to food allergies.

In the lunch pack you also get a trail mix – perfect for taking on the kayak – fruit and a water bottle filled with icy chilled water.

Neal also provided breakfast for us to eat on the boat ride over to Santa Cruz Island.

picnic food on a table

There are no shops or food vendors on the island, so be sure to bring your own lunch, or if you want a hassle free Channel Islands experience, grab a prepacked meal from Channel Islands Provisioners.

Be sure to order at least 3 days in advance!

3. Hit The Hiking Trails on Santa Cruz Island

beach surrounded by high cliffs

We had little time after we finished our lunch before the ferry left to go back to Ventura.

But, we had just enough time for some Channel Islands National Park hiking. There isn’t much in the way of development on the island, only a campground and a lighthouse, which means the biggest attraction is the nature.

We followed one of the trails from the visitor center up to a viewpoint to look out over Scorpion Anchorage.

caz Hiking along a cliff path

It’s a loop walk that takes you further around to look over the cliff faces you just kayaked around.

savannah and kalyra hiking on path with views of mountains and valleys
caz and girls posing to camera with beach behind them

If you don’t want to do any kayaking and would prefer to stay on land, the Potato Harbor and Cavern Point Loop trail is a popular 4.5 mile hike that takes you on a loop along the northern coast of the island.

Alternatively, the Smugglers Cove hike is a longer, more challenging 8 mile hike. We didn’t have time for this one, but if we stayed longer, we would love to do this one.

We’ll save the bigger hikes for next time we visit the Channel Islands National Park with kids.

What to Take to Channel Islands National Park

If you’re thinking this all sounds great, but you’re not sure what to take, here are some items we recommend all visitors bring with them:

  • GoPro camera – perfect for your kayaking adventure
  • Waterproof phone case – I took my phone on the kayak with one of these to take video. Don’t take your phone with you without one.
  • Dry bag – if you want to take things on the kayak with you
  • Sunscreen – the sun in California is quite a burning sun. Protect yourself
  • Hat (there is little shade on the islands)
  • Sunglasses
  • Swimming costume and rash shirt
  • If you have your own snorkel gear, bring it so you don’t have to pay to rent it
  • Keens, or similar hiking sandals that are waterproof
  • Ample food for your day as there are no stores or concessions on the island
  • Bring plenty of water if you are visiting in the summer
  • Warm jacket for the boat ride back, it can get breezy
  • Tissues and hand sanitizer. There are only pit toilets on the island, fair warning.

Be sure to take off your own trash, there are no receptacles on the island.

Best Time to Visit the Channel Island National Park

peopel kayking next to high cliffs

The Channel Island National Park is open all year round, but each season brings something special with it.

In the Spring, you can expect to see the green islands blooming with wildflowers. It’s also when the Western gulls and seabirds begin nesting and the fox pups are born.

However, for those interested in wildlife watching or whale watching experiences, you can expect the whales to have left by this time, but the sea lions and northern fur seals and elephant seals still gather.

The summer is prime time for getting out on the water for snorkelling and diving adventures. It’s also when the seabirds babies leave their nests and the sea lions have their pups.

It’s also when the blue and humpback whales start to visit for their annual migration. However, June to September are the busiest times to visit for tourism.

Autumn is when the blue and humpback whales leave and the bird migration starts to move on, and winter brings the Gray whale to the islands between December to April.

Video of the Channel Islands National Park

Final Thoughts on A Channel Islands Day Trip

I stood under the gum tree breathing it in for some time. Oh how I miss that fresh earthy smell that usually tells me I’m home. Thank you Channel Islands California for that unexpected moment of joy.

As they say, home is where the heart is, and my heart felt in the right place on Santa Cruz Island.

Our visit provided a striking contrast to the hustle and bustle of southern California we typically experience.

So far it’s one of the most beautiful places in California we have seen. You can also go camping on the island.

So, if you love adventure, natural beauty, and remoteness without being too isolated, these islands would have to be one of the best places to visit in California.

And if the day couldn’t be more perfect, on the way home, our boat stopped and turned around.

Right there, coming to remind us of how precious and special nature is, was a pod of about 100 dolphins. I have never seen so many dolphins in my life.

Dolphins jumping out of the water

We stayed with them for some time watching them chase fish and dive in and out of the water.

Dolphin jumpin gout of the water

Visiting the Channel Islands National Park with kids is just pure magic.

Many thanks to Visit California and Ventura County Coast for helping us experience amazing destinations to share with you. 

Other California National Parks

Looking for tips on other national Parks in California? Start here:

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Are you planning to visit Channel Islands National Park? Let us know if you have any questions? Or if you’ve already been, share your tips in the comments!

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