Get the Most Out of Your Visit to Channel Islands National Park

Get the Most Out of Your Visit to Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands

Channel Islands National Park is one of the most beautiful and scenic national parks in the United States. But it is also one of the least visited with less than 500,000 visitors a year. It’s a perfect spot for avoiding the crowds of revenge travelers swarming national parks this year. This post informs you on how to plan for and get the most out of your visit.

Channel Islands National Park is a unique destination in Southern California. Located off the coast of Ventura County, it’s home to five different islands that offer amazing opportunities for camping, hiking, marine life viewing, and kayaking.

Although the Channel Islands can be explored any time of year, there are some key factors you should consider when planning your trip.

Planning Ahead

How to Get There

The 5 Channel Islands are only accessible via plane or boat. We recommend working through the park concessionaire groups Channel Islands Aviation or Island Packers. You will find year-round options for access to the park in general though some islands do have specific times of the year when travel is easiest.

Planning for the cost to get to the islands is a consideration. Since flights through Channel Islands Aviation listed trips starting at $1200, we chose to go by boat. We worked with Island Packers for our day trip to Santa Cruz Island and paid for the extra tickets out to Painted Cave. This cost us less than $330 for a family of four. It would be slightly more expensive if you camped overnight.

Through Island Packers you have multiple excursion options. Do you want to visit more than one island? There is an option that allows you to see both Santa Cruz and Anacapa Islands or if camping over multiple days you can find Camper Island Hopping options. Want to spend a few extra hours on the water appreciating the “California Galapagos”? You can catch interactions with dolphins, sea lions, and whales while traveling from Santa Cruz Island’s Prisoners Harbor to the Painted Cave for just another $19 per person beyond your $63 round trip ticket price. You’ll read more about this option later in the post.

Here are the steps you will follow to get tickets.

  1. Choose Your Island(s) – use the links above to research what each of the islands has to offer. Then choose the island that best fits your ideal. When ready head to the Island Packers website to make your reservation.
  2. Pick Your Date – once you click on a date and time you’ll see the fees for either a day trip or camper fare. Click Add to Itinerary.
  3. If Camping – open a second window in your browser for to make sure you can reserve a campsite for the dates you want to be on the island. For example, on Santa Cruz Island you can camp at Del Norte Backcountry or Scorpion. The campsite you are able to reserve will determine which boat trip you take as those are two different harbors. You can book up to six months in advance. Make sure you have a place to sleep before you buy your boat tickets!
  4. Choose your Return – back at the Island Packers website, choose your return date and time. Select the number of people in your group and click next to pay.

What to Bring

Plan to bring your own food and drinks with you. Pack a picnic lunch and plenty of snacks if day tripping. Use the brown fox boxes at your campground to store food if spending the night. The foxes on the island are cute but not shy at all about taking food. There are no concessions or gear rental on the islands to replace anything lost or forgotten. Some campgrounds do not have drinkable water either so be sure to check ahead of time if spending the night.

Wear layers. We were absolutely freezing on the boat and were dressed in sweats, with layers under our sweatshirts. The group seated next to us were in shorts, poor things, and let me just say chicken skin is not fun no matter what age you are!

Marine Life Viewing

The boat ride from the mainland to Santa Cruz Island is scheduled to be 90 minutes long but can take longer as they slow for encounters with marine life. This trip gives you the opportunity to see a multitude of marine life. We saw the largest pod of dolphins I’ve ever come across. There must have been thousands. We also enjoyed seeing sea lions on our way out of the harbor.

Once docked at Prisoners Harbor the captain will let off a small group of hikers and campers then take you out to Painted Cave if you’ve purchased the extra ticket. You will enjoy another 30 minutes of boat travel over to one of the largest sea caves in the world.

The cave itself was beautiful and the size was amazing as our 60 plus foot boat was able to enter it with ease and then gently back out again. The trip also afforded us an opportunity to see a small group of whales who were feeding in the area.

The boat captain and first mate were able to slow the boat and circle the area. They narrated the whales’ coordinated efforts to create bubble nets and explained how other sea life such as sea lions, dolphins, and birds would interact with the whales in order to share in the fish feast. We were even able to see one whale breaching the water with its mouth still open!


If you include a side trip to another island or out to Painted Cave as we did, this will reduce your time to hike. But each option will still give you at least one or two hours to explore. If you plan to camp overnight then you’ve added that many more hours that you can get out on the trails.

Once you get off the boat and receive your mandatory introduction to the area with the park rangers you can head out. Each island has unique hiking opportunities. The rangers will highlight which trails are available to you and when to be back at the dock.

Plan to wear comfortable hiking boots or trail shoes. Some paths are not well posted and cell phone reception can be spotty so be sure to have a paper map with you or a map already downloaded to your phone.

On Santa Cruz island just next to Prisoners Harbor we had Pelican Bay trail available if we signed a waiver as well as the Del Norte trail. Each had views of the coastline and great spots to sit with a picnic lunch.


If planning to camp on the islands Island Packers will have you skip to the front of the line to drop off your gear on the boat. Be ready to climb up and down a ladder with your gear when moving from the boat to the island dock.

You want to have all your gear (e.g., tent, sleeping pad and sleeping bag, clothing, food and water) meet the weight limits so check with your transportation’s website for weight limits before packing up. The wind is a factor and it can get cold at night so plan for gear that helps you stay warm.

If you have the desire and/or experience backcountry camping is also available on Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz Islands.

Kayaking and Snorkeling

You can explore the islands from more than just the trails! If your idea of fun includes getting in the water then be sure to plan for a visit to Santa Cruz lsland and working with the park concessionaire to schedule a kayaking tour of the sea caves or some snorkeling time.

If you plan to bring your own kayak and/or snorkeling gear you can work with your transportation company to make sure you can bring your gear with you. Check out the national park website for tips on safety considerations.

Tide Pools and Bird watching

Marine life viewing isn’t restricted to just being on a boat. If you’d like to explore tide pools then you need to check out Smuggler’s Cove on Santa Cruz Island, or if going to another island then check the Channel Islands national park website for tips on where to get the best access.

These islands serve as a protected habitat for many sea birds. The Island Sea Jay is a special species only found on these islands. You may even spot a bald eagle here as they were reintroduced in the early 2000s.

You have a lot to consider when packing for your adventure on these islands. The weather is different, the wildlife and natural hazards are unique, and you need to be aware of park rules and regulations that may not apply in other areas. With all these things taken into consideration, it’s important that you are prepared before leaving home so you can enjoy every moment without worrying about what could go wrong or if you forgot something important.

We hope this article has been helpful and we would love to hear from any readers who have stories about an island visit! What was one piece of advice shared here which helped make your trip easier? Leave us a comment below with your thoughts!

Looking for another national park to visit without the crowds? Check out this post on fantastic hikes in Pinnacles National Park.