Just off the Central Coast, there’s a remarkable, record-holding natural cavern that almost no one sees. This enormous sea cave—the longest in North America and one of the lengthiest in the world—plunges a 400 metres into the side of Santa Cruz Island, within Channel Islands National Park. “When the tide is right, the cave opening is big enough to drive a 18 metre boat almost halfway into the tunnel, and kayaks can slip in even deeper,” says Grant Cunningham of Santa Barbara Adventure Company, which along with other outfitters leads regular guided kayak trips into Painted Cave. “During the rainy season there’s a waterfall at the mouth of the cave too—it’s really amazing.”
“It’s hard to describe because it’s such a surreal thing: to be in a pitch-black chamber, with barking sea lions, under an island.” —kayak tour guide Grant Cunningham
Cunningham’s favorite feature to share with guests lies deep within the cave. “When you get about two-thirds of the way back, the cave narrows,” he explains. “You paddle through and enter a huge, pitch-black chamber.” Back there, he notes, you’ll often find a dozen or more barking, bawling sea lions holed up in the darkness, resting on an invisible rocky beach.
“Sometimes people are freaked out, but most of the time they’re just speechless,” says Cunningham. “It’s hard to describe because it’s such a surreal thing: to be in a pitch-black chamber, with barking sea lions, under an island. Some people want to stay for a long, long time.”
Guided full-day trips include transport (via Island Packers boat service from Ventura) to the island and all paddling gear. You should have some paddling experience, and know how to swim. Cunningham says it’s usually a 3.2km downwind paddle to reach the caves (you get a boat ride back), and there are plenty of other, smaller caves to explore, plus snorkeling in the surrounding Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.
Five islands off the Southern California coast comprise one of America’s most remote—and utterly magical—national parks. Visitors arrive on the islands by boat (boats depart regularly from Ventura and Oxnard) or small plane, then use their hiking boots or kayaks to get around. Revered for its endemic plants and plentiful wildlife, the “Galapagos of North America” has no lodgings, stores, or restaurants—a place that draws you in without a lot of extra trappings. On this ocean sanctuary, it’s all about wraparound beauty, solitude, and the chance to totally and completely unplug.
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 centre) 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. 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 focus on areas like the 33-metre-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.
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.
Only one-quarter of Santa Cruz Island is national park land; the rest belongs to the Nature Conservancy. But since Santa Cruz is the largest of all the Channel Islands, measuring 96 square miles/248 square km and 20 miles/32 kms long, that park-protected 25 percent covers a whole lot of territory. The boat ride to the island is a quick a beautiful 1-hour cruise across turquoise sea—so you can get there and back and have plenty of time on the island all in one day. Trails take you to windy bluffs, wide vistas, and secret coves.
"Trails take you to windy bluffs, wide vistas, and secret coves."
From Scorpion Canyon Campground, walk the rewarding 1.2-mile/1.9-km round-trip to Cavern Point, a high promontory where you can scan the sea for passing whales. A 4.6-mile/7.4-km round-trip takes you to an overlook above Potato Harbor, a potato-shape cove edged by rugged cliffs. Look for sea lions frolicking in the kelp forests below. For an excellent 7-mile/11.3-km hike, set off for the cobble- and driftwood-covered beach at Smuggler’s Cove. While you’re hiking, keep an eye out for the Santa Cruz Island scrub jay, a bright blue bird that lives on this island and nowhere else in the world. For an unforgettable experience, consider staying overnight at Scorpion Canyon Campground, with 25 sites shaded by eucalyptus. It’s close to Scorpion Bay, a great put-in site for kayakers who want to explore this island’s remarkable cave-riddled shoreline.
Closest to the mainland of all the Channel Islands, tiny Anacapa is only 12 miles/19.3 km out to sea, and hence the most visited: the boat ride over takes about an hour, and you can explore the entire island in just a half-day. The boat anchors at the smallest of Anacapa’s three tiny islets, a mere third of a square mile in size. Keep your ears peeled for the mournful horn of the island’s lighthouse, which was built in 1932 to steer ships away from this treacherous shoreline. A 2-mile/3.2-km trail makes a figure-eight around the islet, passing dramatic overlooks at Inspiration Point and Cathedral Cove. From Inspiration Point, you can gaze at the two smaller Anacapa islets and (relatively) huge Santa Cruz Island beyond. Peer over the sea cliffs to look for seals and sea lions, as well as kayakers paddling to some of the island’s 30 sea caves.
Beaches on East Anacapa are not accessible because the sea cliffs are hundreds of feet high, but on calm days, you can swim at the landing cove. Bring your snorkelling gear so you can look eye-to-eye with the garibaldis* and giant sea kelp. Also, don’t forget to bring a sun hat. Anacapa Island is completely treeless.
California’s second largest isle, Santa Rosa Island measures a whopping 84 square miles—if you’re looking for isolation and adventure, this is the place. It’s a 3-hour boat ride each way from Ventura, so day trips aren’t practical.
"If you’re looking for isolation and adventure, this is the place."
Your best bet for exploring this expansive wilderness is to pitch a tent and stay at least one night at Water Canyon Camp, located near a 3-mile-long beach, and conveniently outfitted with showers, flush toilets, and wind shelters (a noted necessity in a place where strong winds are commonplace). So snug down the tent stakes before you head off to explore.
One must-do hike is Lobo Canyon, with its native flora, eroded sandstone formations, and embedded pygmy mammoth fossils. Pygmy mammoth? It sounds like an oxymoron, but a miniaturized 5-foot-/1.5-meter-high mammoth once roamed here. Other ambles lead to sandy beaches and a rare stand of Torrey pines (this island and San Diego are the only two spots where these wind-sculpted conifers grow).
Getting to Santa Rosa Island requires a 3-hour boat ride, or Channel Islands Aviation flies here in a mere 25-minute flight. It’s pricey, but if you’re prone to seasickness, it could be a worthy investment.
Remote Santa Barbara Island is the loneliest island in Channel Islands National Park. Located far to the south, it’s a tiny, isolated bit of land poking from the wraparound blue. Yet it touts a respectable 5.5 miles/8.8 km of hiking trails that travel through its gently rolling grasslands. The most popular is the 3.3-mile/5.3-km Signal Peak Trail, which loops over the island’s south half and visits the summit of Signal Peak, the highest point on the island at 634 feet/193 metres. Since this island is so tiny, the peak’s view is dramatic—a full 360 degrees of blue Pacific as far as the eye can see. The path also offers fine views of Sutil Island, an even smaller island just offshore to the southwest. Both Santa Barbara and Sutil Island provide nesting habitat for Scripps’s murrelets, a rare seabird.
Much like Anacapa Island, Santa Barbara Island is grass-covered and treeless. Be sure to bring a sun hat and lots of water with you. Getting to Santa Barbara Island requires a 2½ - or 3-hour boat ride, and Island Packers runs only about a dozen trips each year (April to October). If you come here, you’re part of a very select club.
While the most spectacular views from the Channel Islands are of rugged landscapes and ocean vistas, there’s plenty of scenery that lies right at your feet—specifically, the colorful wildflowers that spring to life on the island chain. Blossoms range from showy California poppies and coral and ruby splashes of Indian pinks to butter-yellow clusters of soft-leaved paintbrush. The latter, endemic to the island chain, is now found only on Santa Rosa Island.
Many of the plants that have adapted to the islands’ dry climate blossom later than typical mainland wildflowers. In June and July, you might find gumplant, buckwheat, poppies, and verbena in bloom. Earlier in the year, flower aficionados covet the giant coreopsis or “tree sunflower,” which grows up to 6 feet/1.8 metres tall on Anacapa and Santa Barbara islands. In exceptional years, the bushy yellow flowers bloom so prolifically on Anacapa that their glow can be seen from the mainland, 12 miles/19.3 km away. (Timing for the coreopsis bloom is typically January to April.) On the smaller islands, which are mostly grass-covered, finding flowers is easy. To hunt for botanical treasures on the larger islands like Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa, look for segments of trail that probe draws and canyons, where resident deer, elk, and wild pigs can’t easily graze.
The whale-watching tours that run between the Ventura coast and the Channel Islands are almost always eventful. Of the 78 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises in the world, 29 have been spotted near the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Even if a grey, blue, or humpback whale does not make an appearance, the tour boat captains can usually find a pod of dolphins—Common, Bottlenose, or Risso’s, as well as rafts of sea lions. Every now and then, a school of flying fish soars right over the boat.
The city of Oxnard, which is less than 10 miles from Channel Islands National Park, is a perfect home base for a whale-watching excursion. Island Packers offers both winter and summer three- to three-and-a-half-hour whale-watching cruises along the Santa Barbara Channel, with the option of extending your trip to a full day to land on Anacapa or Santa Cruz Island. Channel Islands Sportfishing has tours that run from late December to April.
When is the best time to spot whales? Grey whale season typically runs from late December until mid-April, when these 15-metre leviathans are making their annual migration from the Bering Sea to Mexico and back again. The summer months are the best times to see humpback whales and blue whales, which are attracted by abundant krill. Humpbacks are more common, but seeing a blue whale—the largest animal ever recorded on earth—is an experience you never forget. Measuring up to 27 metres long (the length of three school buses), the blue whale can spray water from its blowhole nearly 9 metres into the air.
The kayaking opportunities at the Channel Islands are some of the best anywhere in California. Visitors can kayak on their own or go with a park-authorised outfitter. Anacapa and Santa Cruz are the most popular islands for kayaking, with hundreds of sea caves to explore; at the top of most paddlers’ lists is a trip to Santa Cruz Island’s Painted Cave, one of the largest sea caves in the world. It is almost 30 metres wide and extends 370 metres into the west end of Santa Cruz.
Santa Barbara Adventure Company offers a deluxe all-inclusive Painted Cave day trip that departs from Santa Barbara harbour on a charter vessel equipped with hot showers and all the gear you’ll need. You’ll enjoy breakfast and hopefully some whale-watching en route to Santa Cruz Island, where you’ll then hit the water in kayaks for a day of exploring.
Once you travel through Painted Cave’s yawning mouth, you’ll find it’s pitch black inside, but there’s life all around you. Seals and sea lions protest your arrival with a ruckus of barking. Hundreds of seabirds roost in the damp alcoves. Remember to pack a good headlamp to light up the multi-hues of the cave walls, with colours caused by lichen and minerals.
Afterwards, go snorkelling before enjoying a hot lunch on the boat before the return trip. No experience is necessary; even paddling novices can make the trip (but expect to have sore triceps the next day).
A range of other kayaking excursions are offered as well, including the Ultimate Sea Cave Kayak tour for more experienced kayakers, combo kayaking and snorkelling trips, and the shorter, half-day Discovery Sea Cave trip that explores the caves around Scorpion Anchorage.
The cutest creature living on the Channel Islands is the island fox, found nowhere else on the planet. The gray- and rust-colored creature, a much smaller descendent of the mainland gray fox, doesn’t get much bigger than an average housecat. Six of the eight Channel Islands have their own populations of island foxes, and each is recognized as a separate, unique subspecies. They’re all slightly different, each with its own evolutionary adaptations such as a shorter tail or a longer nose.
In 2004, each of the island fox subspecies was federally listed as endangered, but a captive breeding program combined with other measures saved this species from extinction, and populations are now more stable. In the national park, the foxes are found on San Miguel, Santa Rosa, and Santa Cruz islands. One of your best chances of seeing foxes is on Santa Cruz Island, home to about 1,000 individuals, often spotted near Scorpion Ranch Campground. Unlike the mainland gray fox, which hunts only at night, the island fox has no predators, so it cruises the island by daylight.
The only way to get to four of the five islands in Channel Islands National Park is by boat—either a privately owned vessel or on a trip run by the park-authorised concessionaire, Island Packers. The locally-owned company, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2018, runs charters to Santa Cruz Island daily year-round; charters to Anacapa run five days a week during summer (fewer trips in the off-season).
"The only way to get to four of the five islands in Channel Islands National Park is by boat"
Boats depart from Ventura or Oxnard (Channel Islands Harbor), and take about an hour to reach these two islands. Getting to Santa Rosa Island requires a much longer boat ride of about three hours, but it can also be reached by a 25-minute flight on a small plane out of Camarillo Airport (Channel Islands Aviation is the authorized concessionaire). Private airplanes may not land on the islands. There’s no shortcut for getting to Santa Barbara Island; it is only reachable via a three-hour boat ride.
Most trips run by Island Packers visit only one island at a time. Day-trips are common for Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands. Campers can sail to any of the islands and stay for multiple days. If you really want to get into the island mindset, consider a fascinating, multi-day trip available from the Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics. Explore an island by day, then sleep aboard the boat as it travels to the next island by night.