How to Explore the Channel Islands VC_California101_ChannelIslands_Stock_RM_152836733_1280x640
Cody Duncan/Getty Images

How to Explore the Channel Islands

How to Explore the Channel Islands
Spend a day—or a week—in this idyllic national park off the Central Coast

This chain of five islands—Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, and San Miguel—is rich with untouched natural beauty and a California destination worthy of your consideration. Whether you have half a day or more than a week to experience Channel Islands National Park, here are some of the best ways to explore the islands—by kayak, yacht, or just by foot.  

Embrace the Journey Itself

Just getting to the national park is a scenic experience—one to three hours by boat, or about half an hour by plane. Most boat trips depart from Ventura Harbor (home to the national park’s visitors center) via operator Island Packers, and the majority go to the two closest islands, Santa Cruz and Anacapa. You can also reach the islands from Santa Barbara, by way of a Santa Barbara Sailing yacht, helmed by a U.S. Coast Guard captain. On the way from either city, you might spot frolicking whales, dolphins, or even flying fish.

Paddle a Kayak     

Exploring the Channel Islands by kayak is the best way to see the islands’ wealth of sea caves and kelp forests up close. Book a kayaking trip with Santa Barbara Adventure Company—the main outfitter for activities on the Channel Islands—which includes your ferry ride from Ventura, kayaking gear, and a guide. Paddling time lasts from 90 minutes to a full day, and tours focus on areas like the 100-foot-wide Painted Cave, one of the largest sea caves in the world. 

Hike and Look for Wildlife

Each island offers its own scenic hikes, with pristine views and opportunities to see wildlife and birds. Santa Cruz Island has some 15 trails, Anacapa has a nice hike to a lighthouse (one of the few structures you’ll see around here), and Santa Rosa Island has Lobo Canyon, with sandstone formations, pygmy mammoth fossils, and a good chance of seeing local island foxes.

Go Whale-Watching

Depending on the time of year, several species of whales can be spotted diving, breaching, and spouting around the islands. Take a whale-watching tour with Island Packers between December and April to see gray whales on their annual migrations between the Bering Sea and Mexico, or come in summer to see humpbacks (and sometimes even giant blue whales) looking for a local buffet of krill. These tours don’t land on the islands, so they’re ideal if you only have part of a day.

Stay for Days

There’s nary a hotel on the Channel Islands, but that doesn’t mean you can’t stay for a night or longer. Each island has a campground: the biggest are Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz and Water Canyon Camp on Santa Rosa Island. For a full-service expedition, book a one- to 10-night trip with Santa Barbara Sailing, where you sleep on the boat and bring your own food (or let the crew cook for you) and spend your days stand-up paddleboarding, snorkeling, surfing, SCUBA diving, or just relaxing on a beach that you’ll have to yourself. 

Dinosaur Cave Park/Shell Beach, San Luis Obispo County
Mimi Ditchie/Getty Images

Discover the Central Coast

From the epic grandeur of Big Sur to the Mediterranean-style stretch of Santa Barbara coastline nicknamed “the American Riviera,” this region of picturesque hamlets, jagged sea cliffs, and rolling wine country has long attracted—not surprisingly—writers and artists mesmerized by its dreamlike beauty.

Monterey served as California’s first capital when the state’s first constitution was signed in in the coastal city in 1849.

Take the epic Highway One drive between San Francisco and Los Angeles to discover secret beaches and soaring cliffs along Big Sur, stroll a redwood trail, spy a sea otter at the incomparable Monterey Bay Aquarium, and sip Pinot Noir at sunset in the romantic Santa Ynez Valley.

Ragged Point

Trip 3-4 days 8 stops

San Luis Obispo to Ragged Point

Venture from San Luis Obispo up Highway 1 to discover pristine coastline, small beach towns, and a fabled landmark
How to Explore the Channel Islands VC_SantaMariaBarbecue_Supplied_AlisalGuestRanch_SatPM-38_1280x640 (1)
Courtesy of Alisal Guest Ranch Resort

Santa Maria Barbecue

Head to California’s Central Coast to try this distinctive regional cuisine at its source

The barbecue styles of Kansas City, Memphis, and Texas are well known around the U.S., but California’s Santa Maria Valley claims a...

How to Explore the Channel Islands VC_Ventura_Ventura_Stock_RF_585358083_1280x640
Zachary Miller/Getty Images

Spotlight: Ventura County

How to Explore the Channel Islands dummy-map_event_2
Absorb the relaxed vibe of this classic California destination on the coast

When it comes to places in California that feel like one big outdoor playground, Ventura County, on the south end of the Central Coast, stands out...

How to Explore the Channel Islands VCW_D_SLO_Rachel_6984778856_a03252fd95_o_1280x642_1
San Luis Obispo’s Bubble Gum Alley is filled with more than 1.7 million pieces of bubble gum.
How to Explore the Channel Islands SantaBarbara_Hero_HarriotManley_1280x642_0
Harriot Manley/Sunset Publishing

Spotlight: Santa Barbara

How to Explore the Channel Islands vca_maps_centralcoast
Mediterranean style magic and a perfect ocean breeze

Bougainvillea twining across red-tiled rooftops, birdsong mingling with the ocean breeze, islands and whale spouts on the horizon—...

SPECIAL FEATURE
See a few amazing wonders of the sea first-hand

Each year, about 20,000 gray whales make an epic 6,000-mile/9,656-km journey between Alaska and Mexico—and then back again. These whales travel from feeding grounds in the Bering Sea to mating and...

How to Explore the Channel Islands Whale_MicheleW_preview_686x885
Michele W/Flickr
How to Explore the Channel Islands VCW_D_CC_T2__BigSur_VCLCC_BigSur_PfeifferBeach_.jpg_KG-dark-1280x642
Kodiak Greenwood

Spotlight: Big Sur

How to Explore the Channel Islands vca_maps_centralcoast
Art and nature merge on this rugged coast, one of California’s most spectacular settings

Welcome to one of the world’s most unforgettable stretches of coastline. This roughly 90-mile-long stretch of redwood- and fog-trimmed waterfront...

Apr 20 - Apr 23
April

Get ready for the Central Coast’s ultimate gathering of the culinary world. Now in its ninth year, this luxurious event is one of those star- and spectacle-studded experiences you simply have to...

How to Explore the Channel Islands VC_PebbleBeachFoodWine_Supplied_SpringBreakCookingWithoutRules_GinaSinotte_22_686x885
Gina Sinotte
How to Explore the Channel Islands vca_maps_centralcoast
How to Explore the Channel Islands FF_Central_Coast
Castroville produces 95 percent of the nation's artichokes. In 1948, Marilyn Monroe was crowned the town's first "Artichoke Queen."
SPECIAL FEATURE
Follow celebrated routes to iconic vineyards and tucked-away surprises

With more than 4,000 wineries statewide, California lets you sample award-winning wines almost anywhere you go. These classic and up-and-coming wine roads—some too packed with wineries to tackle...

How to Explore the Channel Islands Grapes_WineRoads_SpecialFeature_preview_686x885
SPECIAL FEATURE
Kid-friendly fun zones, special kids' menus & amazing wine for the grownups

Sure wine country is romantic, but now it’s a surprisingly great destination for families too, with a growing number of vineyards trading in elegant tasting rooms for kid-friendly fun zones that...

How to Explore the Channel Islands VCW_SI_T5_John_preview_686x885
John/Flickr
SPECIAL FEATURE
Farm-fresh produce, culinary adventures

Juicy heirloom tomatoes and just-picked strawberries. Super-sweet peaches shaped like mini UFOs. Artisanal cheeses, emerald-green olive oils, local wildflower honey—California’s farmers’ markets...

How to Explore the Channel Islands VCW_SI_FarmersMarket_T4_CV_DavisFrmMkt1_Flippen_preview_686x885
Laura Flippen
How to Explore the Channel Islands VCW_TI_6_Hero_CC_BigSur_coast_TS_1280x648

Trip 5-7 days 10 stops

Highway One Classic

Take the trip that captures the heart and soul of the Golden State
How to Explore the Channel Islands SanDiego_Skyline_JohnBahu_1280x642

Start in one of California’s sunniest destinations, not just in terms of the weather, but also in attitude. In the heart of the city, shop in Horton Plaza, or catch a baseball game at Petco Park. See the giant pandas at the San Diego Zoo. Next, explore one of the city’s diverse neighborhoods,...

How to Explore the Channel Islands SF_Harbor_Myles_1280x642

Finish your trip in one of the world’s great cities. For a novel way to visit “the City by the Bay” park your car and explore by foot, bike, and unique public transportation. Pedal bikes across the Golden Gate Bridge and back, then explore the lush Presidio, a former military base that’s now a...

SPECIAL FEATURE
Discover the awesome sports scene in the Golden State

With nearly twice as many professional teams as any other state, California is big league all the way. But the state’s sports scene goes far beyond football and baseball, with a diverse line-up of...

How to Explore the Channel Islands PebbleBeachProAm_ChristinaLauren_preview_686x885
Christina Lauren/Flickr
July

Vampires beware: this is one garlic-infused weekend that creatures of the night may want to miss. Everyone else—go, at least once, to this unforgettably odiferous and one-of-a-kind event. See how...

How to Explore the Channel Islands Preview_GGF_2014_Garlic_Braid_Couple_BillStrangePhotography_686x885
Bill Strange Photography
How to Explore the Channel Islands vca_maps_centralcoast
How to Explore the Channel Islands VenturaWineTrail_KenLund_Flickr_1280x642
Ken Lund/Flickr

Ventura County Wine Trail

How to Explore the Channel Islands dummy-map_event_2
Visit vineyards in coastal hills and communities

Sip your way along the Ventura County Wine Trail, where you’ll find nearly 20 wineries and tasting rooms in settings ranging from urban...

How to Explore the Channel Islands VC_Ventura_Oxnard_Stock_RM_552082503_1280x640_1
David McGlynn/Getty Images

Oxnard

Discover California’s “Strawberry Coast”

Oxnard is where strawberries meet the sea. In this city 40 minutes south of Santa Barbara, you’ll find 7 miles/11.3 km of unspoiled beaches, plus...

SPECIAL FEATURE
Big-city-worthy events liven the sleepy Central Coast

Bookended by the big cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Central Coast may be known for its mellow pace, but the closeness of those major gateways bring big names to relatively small...

How to Explore the Channel Islands VCW_D_CC_T11-Mont Jazz Fest_trombone_shorty_garden Stage_MJF53_2010_141_cole_thompson_0_vertical_sized_0
Courtesy of Monterey Jazz Festival
SPECIAL FEATURE
Check these amazing experiences off your bucket list

Kiss a beluga, see cool movie props, and learn about Walt’s secret hideaway on exclusive and behind-the-scenes tours at California’s theme parks and attractions. Here’s a roundup of worth-the-...

How to Explore the Channel Islands VCW_SI_VIP_T1_MichaelSaechang_preview_686x885
Michael Saechang/Flickr
SPECIAL FEATURE
Beautiful locations, luxurious comforts

Get the starry nights, the campfire stories, the cozy sleeping bag, and all the best parts of camping in some of California’s most beautiful settings—but without the hassle of...

How to Explore the Channel Islands VCW_SI_T6_Glamping_ElCapitanCanyon_CabinExt1_preview_686x885
SPECIAL FEATURE
Old-fashioned fun in the Golden State

Historic oceanfront playgrounds, classic city-park charmers, boisterous adventures—smaller theme parks and attractions offer an array of ways to play.  These smaller parks offer old-...

Safari West
Tai Power Seeff
How to Explore the Channel Islands VCW_D_CC_T8_Solvang_Manley_Sunset_sized
Harriot Manley/ Sunset Publishing

Solvang

A Danish stronghold makes a charming outpost surrounded by ranchlands and vineyards

Imagine a village where fresh-cut flowers and warm-from-the-oven pastries scent the air. Add gingerbread architecture, twirling windmills,...

How to Explore the Channel Islands Mission_Carmel_sized
Tai Power Seeff

Central Coast Missions

Visit some of California’s most beautiful missions to discover the state’s Spanish roots

Strung like Spanish pearls along an 824-mile trail from San Diego to Sonoma, California’s 21 historic missions offer a wealth of treasures, from...

How to Explore the Channel Islands FunFact_SBMission_sized
Santa Barbara ranks in the nation’s top 20 counties for bicycle commuters, with nearly 5,000 residents commuting to work by bicycle.