Five islands off the Southern California coast comprise one of America’s most undeveloped—and utterly magical—national parks. Visitors can choose to arrive at any of the Channel Islands National Park islands via an Island Packers boat, which depart daily from Ventura and Oxnard. To reach Santa Rosa Island, another option is to hop on a small plane from Camarillo with Channel Islands Aviation. Once there, use your hiking boots or kayaks to get around (there’s no driving here). Revered for its endemic plants and plentiful wildlife, the “Galapagos of North America” has no lodgings, stores, or restaurants—only a wild coastal landscape and come-hither scenery. At this ocean-bound preserve, the action centers around hiking, camping, wildlife-watching, and the chance to totally and completely unplug.
Each of the islands—Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel—has its own distinct geography and assets. The closest, Anacapa, is just 14 miles/22.5 km from the mainland and takes about an hour by boat. Home to a historic 1932 lighthouse, the last permanent one built on the West Coast, Anacapa actually consists of three islets. Boats land at the smallest islet, where a 2-mile/3.2-km trail leads to dramatic overlooks at Inspiration Point and Cathedral Cove; from the sea cliffs, you can peer at harbor seals and sea lions along the shore, as well as kayakers paddling to some of the island’s 30 sea caves. On calm days, you can swim and snorkel at the landing cove, where you’ll look eye-to-eye with bright orange garibaldi fish and giant sea kelp.
Remote San Miguel Island boasts the largest pinniped (aquatic carnivorous mammals with flippers) rookery in the world. Sometimes 30,000 animals congregate at Point Bennett, making it one of the largest concentrations of wildlife on Earth. Vast Santa Rosa Island is home to a rare stand of Torrey pines. Most people who venture to Santa Rosa camp at Water Canyon Campground, a short distance from a gorgeous stretch of beach.
Endemic island foxes live on several islands, but they’re most commonly seen on Santa Cruz Island, where a captive breeding program saved the furry gray- and rust-colored carnivore from extinction. (Since island foxes hunt during the daytime, they’re fairly easy to spot.) With Painted Cave, the longest sea cave in North America, and Diablo Peak, which rises to 2,450 feet/747 meters, Santa Cruz is a diverse destination. Not surprisingly, the hiking is excellent. From primitive Scorpion Canyon Campground (31 sites), make the 1.2-mile/1.9-km roundtrip trek for the views from Cavern Point. Or for a longer outing, try the 7-mile/11.3-km hike to the secluded beach at Smuggler’s Cove.
Want to get away from it all? Lonely and tiny Santa Barbara Island lets you explore its compact land mass along 5.5 miles/8.8 km of trails that travel across rolling grasslands and Signal Peak. The island’s highest point may be modest in elevation but delivers spectacular 360-degree views. Transportation to the island is limited, with only a few trips per month from spring through fall.
The most spectacular views from the Channel Islands are of rugged landscapes and ocean vistas. Popular hikes include Scorpion Bay to Cavern Point, El Montañon Peak, and Smuggler’s Cove Loop, all offering sweeping seaside views. However, some of the park’s loveliest scenery lies right at your feet—specifically, the colorful wildflowers. Many of the plants have adapted to the islands’ dry climate, meaning you can find blooms nearly year-round. In June and July, look for gumplant, buckwheat, poppies, and verbena. Anywhere from January through April, you might witness the giant coreopsis or “tree sunflower.” In exceptional years, the bushy yellow flowers bloom so prolifically on Anacapa Island that their glow can be seen from the mainland.
The islands also provide ample opportunity for wildlife sightings. In addition to the foxes, seals, and sea lions, you can count on seeing any of dozens of species of seabirds and shorebirds who use the islands as their nesting ground. Visitors also often spot pods of dolphins bounding through the surf.
The geography of Channel Islands means that one of the best ways to get around—and to see marine life up close—is by kayak. Outfitters like Island Packers and Santa Barbara Adventure Company offer guided experiences, leading intrepid paddlers to secluded beaches and sea caves. The aforementioned Painted Cave plunges a quarter mile into the side of Santa Cruz Island. Paddle through the mouth into a massive pitch-black chamber, often occupied by barking sea lions, holed up in the darkness, resting on an invisible rocky beach.