Channel Islands National Park

Location: California

Park Tally: 55/59

Orientation: Channel Islands National Park is located in southern California, approximately 25 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara. The national park is made up of five islands, all beautiful and unique in their own way. The five islands, Anacapa, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, San Miguel, and Santa Rosa, are all accessible by boat. We chose to explore the island of Santa Cruz during our visit to Channel Islands National Park in October 2017.

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Our trip started with a boat ride from Ventura Harbor with the concessionary Island Packers. During the hour long journey to Santa Cruz Island we saw dolphins and various birdlife. Once arriving on the island we set up camp at Scorpion Ranch and got exploring. Keep reading for our tips on things to do in Channel Islands National Park.

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Most iconic view:  Funnily enough, the cute (and naughty!) foxes on Santa Cruz island are one of the most well-known features of Channel Islands National Park. The Santa Cruz Island Fox was almost extinct back in the 1970s, prior to The Nature Conservancy’s efforts to protect them from invasive species and predators. The island fox population is now thriving and these adorable animals can be seen all over Santa Cruz Island. We had some close encounters around camp as they have cottoned on to the fact that visitors have food on them! Be sure to always use the “fox boxes” to store scented items, keep your distance, use common sense and leave-no-trace principles. It is very detrimental for the foxes’ health to consume human food and become reliant on us for survival.

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Accessible activity:  A concessionary boat cruise around one or more of the Channel Islands is a fantastic way to easily experience the park. Island Packers run a variety of tours, which include stopovers on the islands for interpretive hikes and optional kayaking. Their website has all the options listed, including half and full day excursions, bird viewing trips, and whale watching tours. We were impressed by their hospitality during our cruise to and from Santa Cruz Island, plus we were thrilled at the opportunity to see dolphins swimming alongside the boat.

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For the adventurous:  An overnight (or multi-night) camping trip to one of the Channel Islands is a fantastic way to truly explore the park. We chose to stay one night at the Scorpion Ranch Campground on Santa Cruz Island. There isn’t any transportation on the island so be prepared to hike your gear to/from the campsite, bring all your own food, and pack out every last ounce of trash. The national park does a brilliant job at keeping the island as primitive as possible, which really enhances the overall experience in our opinion.

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Another adventurous option is to take a kayaking tour. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do this ourselves, though we heard amazing things from others who had taken a tour. Island Packers offers kayaking tours around Santa Cruz Island, including cave exploration and beach landings.

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Best photo opportunities:  Potato Harbor was a fantastic location for sunset photography on Santa Cruz Island. We hiked approximately 4-miles (roundtrip) to the harbor and were not disappointed with the views! It was also the perfect location to sit back and enjoy the fresh ocean air and island solitude. 

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Quick facts

  • Channel Islands National Park was established on March 5, 1980.
  • The oldest human remains in North America were found in Channel Islands National Park, on the island of Santa Rosa. The remains date back to 13,000 B.C.
  • The Chumash Indians inhabited the Channel Islands in the early 1800s, travelling between the islands by canoe. There are 600 Chumash archeological sites on San Miguel Island.
  • The islands lack transportation – all areas must be explored on foot, or by boat or kayak.
  • At nearly three times the size of Manhattan, Santa Cruz Island is the largest island in California (24 miles long, 6 miles wide, 77-miles of shoreline).
  • The National Park has worked hard to eradicate non-native species from the islands, including rats, rabbits, feral cats, and burros.
  • In 2016, Channel Islands National Park had 364,807 visitors according to the National Park Service.

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