Top 10 Things to Do at Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park is a hidden paradise just off the coast of Southern California. This unique and awe-inspiring archipelago consists of five rugged islands, each boasting its own distinct charm and natural wonders. It’s a sanctuary of pristine landscapes and captivating wildlife, making it a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers alike.

In this article, I’ll take you on an unforgettable journey through the top 10 things to do at Channel Islands National Park. From scenic hiking trails that offer breathtaking views to diving into crystal-clear waters to uncover the underwater world beneath the surface, these islands have something to offer every adventurer.

Whether you’re an avid wildlife watcher, an aspiring marine biologist, a seasoned camper, or simply looking for peace alongside the ocean, this region promises an unforgettable experience. So, let’s uncover some of the best activities to enjoy in this extraordinary coastal wonderland!

1. Hiking Channel Islands NP (by island)

Two hikers enjoy a stroll along the Scorpion Canyon Loop Trail at national park channel islands
Two hikers enjoy a stroll along the Scorpion Canyon Loop Trail.

When you venture into Channel Islands National Park, prepare yourself for a hiking experience like no other. The park’s five islands offer many hiking and nature trails that immerse you in the pristine beauty of their landscapes and showcase the region’s unique plants and animals.

Wildlife encounters will leave you fascinated as island foxes playfully dart through the trails on Santa Rosa, and seabirds gracefully glide above on Anacapa. Channel Islands National Park’s hiking and nature trails also present a unique opportunity to witness California gray whales during their seasonal migrations. 

Here are 5 great hiking trails in the park:

Santa Cruz Island: Scorpion Canyon Loop Trail

This moderate hike guides you through lush canyons, leading to coastal bluffs. Along the way, you’ll see unique plants like the Santa Cruz Island ironwood and island scrub oak. 

Anacapa Island: Inspiration Point Trail

This is a short but rewarding hike. As you ascend to the point, the trail unveils awe-inspiring views of the rugged coastline and the iconic arch. Keep an eye out for seabirds, as the island is a haven for nesting California brown pelicans and western gulls.

Santa Rosa Island: Torrey Pines Loop Trail

Here, you’ll wander through a rare grove of Torrey pines, an exclusive sight on this island and one other location in California. The trail treats you to sweeping ocean vistas and glimpses of the delightful island fox that roam here. 

San Miguel Island: Prince Island Trail

Prepare to be awestruck by dramatic sea cliffs and the hidden allure of sea caves. Throughout this hike, watch for abundant wildlife, such as seals, sea lions, and an array of seabirds soaring above.

Santa Barbara Island: Landing Cove Trail

Landing Cove Trail introduces you to the island’s diverse wildlife, including the rare island night lizard. You’ll also view a collection of various seabirds, an integral part of this unique ecosystem.

2. Snorkeling & Scuba Diving at Channel Islands

A scuba diver spots a large sea star while exploring the reefs around Channel Islands
A scuba diver spots a large sea star while exploring the reefs around Channel Islands.

As you plunge into the crystal-clear waters surrounding Channel Islands National Park, prepare to take in the mesmerizing scene beneath the surface. Snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities abound in this marine paradise, allowing you to explore thriving ecosystems.

The waters around the islands teem with life, making snorkeling and scuba diving the perfect outing. Experience a range of colors as you explore the kelp forests, vibrant coral gardens, and rocky reefs that serve as havens for marine life.

Popular Snorkeling and Diving Spots

One of the most popular snorkeling spots is at Anacapa Island, where you can encounter playful sea lions and curious harbor seals. The calm and clear waters of Santa Barbara Island offer fantastic snorkeling opportunities, while Santa Cruz Island boasts remarkable sea caves to explore during your scuba diving endeavors.

Thriving Marine Life

You’ll encounter a wide array of marine creatures. Watch for graceful bat rays gliding effortlessly through the waters and schools of playful dolphins dancing around you. The islands are also home to California’s state marine fish, the Garibaldi, displaying their vibrant orange hues.

Kelp Forest Magic

Prepare to be amazed by the iconic kelp forests that characterize these waters. These towering aquatic forests serve as a nursery and shelter for an assortment of marine life. Watch in awe as you navigate through this submerged jungle, spotting leopard sharks, colorful rockfish, and even California sea otters playing amongst the kelp blades.

Encounters with Giants

The Channel Islands also attract the gentle giants of the sea. During certain times of the year, you might experience the presence of magnificent whales. Witness the awe-inspiring sight of humpback whales breaching above the surface. You might also see majestic blue whales, the largest creatures on Earth, cruising through the waters. Whale watching in Channel Islands is amazing!

3. Wildlife to See

A small island fox wanders over a grassy field on Santa Cruz Island
A small island fox wanders over a grassy field on Santa Cruz Island.

Channel Islands National Park comprises a unique habitat with varied and flourishing ecosystems, creating the perfect stage for remarkable animal sightings. Here are just some of the abundant wildlife you can see here.

Santa Cruz Island: Home to Island Foxes and Bald Eagles 

Embark on a journey to Santa Cruz Island, where you’ll have the chance to spot adorable island foxes, a species found exclusively on the Channel Islands. Keep your eyes peeled for majestic bald eagles soaring high above the island’s rugged terrain.

bald eagle in flight
A Bald Eagle in flight.

Anacapa Island: Seabirds Galore and Playful Sea Lions 

As you set foot on Anacapa Island, be prepared for an avian spectacle. Marvel at the nesting seabird colonies, including California brown pelicans and western gulls, perched on the cliffs. Snorkelers and divers will also delight in playful sea lions, curious about your presence underwater.

Santa Rosa Island: Encounter Island Foxes and Rare Torrey Pines 

Santa Rosa Island also offers a chance to spot the elusive island foxes, renowned for their cute and diminutive size. While hiking through the island’s interior, you’ll also encounter the rare and impressive Torrey pines, adding to the allure of this incredible destination.

San Miguel Island: Seals, Sea Lions, and Seabirds 

San Miguel Island is teeming with abundant marine life. Wander along the coastline to witness the bustling seal and sea lion colonies, where playful interactions and adorable pups await. Keep your binoculars ready to spot a variety of seabirds soaring against the backdrop of dramatic cliffs.

Santa Barbara Island: Island Night Lizards and Bountiful Seabirds 

As you explore Santa Barbara Island, look for the elusive island night lizard, a unique and protected species residing only on this island. Experience the serenade of various seabirds, comprising an essential part of the island’s ecosystem.

Whale-Watching Splendor 

As a bonus, watch for majestic marine giants. During the appropriate seasons, the waters surrounding the Channel Islands become a highway for migrating California gray and humpback whales. Witness them as they majestically navigate through the vast ocean.

4. Sea Cave Explorations

kayaking in the channel islands through sea caves
Kayaking through the massive sea caves inside the park is a truly unique experience.

Channel Islands National Park boasts a network of fascinating sea caves waiting to be explored, adding a touch of excitement to your island visit. Many of these sea caves are accessible by boat and kayak, offering various options for exploration. My choice is kayaking in the Channel Islands to fully experience these magnificent sights.

Accessing the Sea Caves by Boat and Kayak 

kayaking in the Channel Islands through the aqua-colored waters along the rocky shoreline
A kayaker paddles through the aqua-colored waters along the rocky shoreline.

Exploring the sea caves by boat allows you to access some of the larger and more remote caves. Guided boat tours are available, contributing expert insights and ensuring you make the most of your sea cave trip.

On the other hand, kayaking in the Channel Islands grants a more intimate and immersive experience. Paddling through the caves on a kayak allows you to get up close to the rocky formations and marvel at the exchange of light and shadows within the caves’ depths.

Guided Tours and Safety Precautions 

Guided tours are highly recommended for safe and enjoyable sea cave exploration, especially if it’s your first time visiting. Experienced guides can easily navigate the waters, taking you to the best spots and supplying valuable information about the caves’ geological and ecological significance.

5. Camping at Channel Islands

old Lighthouse near the Anacapa Island campground
An old Lighthouse completed in 1932 can be seen flickering in the background near the Anacapa Island campground. NPS photo

Camping at Channel Islands National Park makes for an unforgettable experience surrounded by the sounds of the ocean and the island’s unique wildlife. The park provides various camping options, allowing you to experience the park in a more natural environment. Check out my comprehensive camping guide for the park here.

6. Stargazing 

stargazing national parks
Stargazing at Channel Islands National Park

The night sky here comes alive here. What makes stargazing at Channel Islands truly exceptional is the minimal light pollution. With the absence of city lights, the night skies become a canvas of twinkling stars and celestial wonders. You’ll witness a marvelous display of constellations, planets, and even shooting stars, making stargazing a highlight of your camping adventure. 

7. Island Hoping

Island hopping at Channel Islands National Park is an extraordinary opportunity to explore the diverse beauty of each island within the archipelago. Let’s run through these beautiful isles, each with its own distinctive features and activities to offer.

Santa Cruz Island: The Largest and Most Varied Island 

Santa Cruz Island is the largest in the park, offering a blend of captivating landscapes. A hike along the Scorpion Canyon Loop Trail is a must if you’re visiting with limited time. This moderate hike lets you witness the island’s lush canyons and coastal bluffs while offering glimpses of unique plants and wildlife. You can also snorkel or kayak in crystal-clear waters, revealing the marine treasures beneath.

Anacapa Island: Home to Iconic Arch and Seabird Colonies 

The Anacapa Island Lighthouse stands tall along the rugged cliffside
The Anacapa Island Lighthouse stands tall along the rugged cliffside.

Anacapa Island stands out with its iconic sea arch and abundant seabird populations. If you have limited time, hiking the Inspiration Point Trail is a rewarding choice. Witness the spectacular coastal vistas and observe nesting seabirds like California brown pelicans and western gulls. Don’t miss a snorkeling excursion to encounter sea lions and other marine life.

Santa Rosa Island: A Wilderness Escape with Rare Flora and Fauna 

Santa Rosa Island extends a wilderness experience with unique animal and plant life. For a brief visit, opt for the Torrey Pines Loop Trail, showcasing the island’s impressive Torrey pines that provide sweeping ocean views. If time permits, explore the historic buildings at Water Canyon and visit the island’s remarkable beaches.

San Miguel Island: Dramatic Cliffs and Abundant Wildlife 

San Miguel Island’s dramatic cliffs and abundant wildlife make it a must-visit destination. With limited time, take the Prince Island Trail to Point Bennett, where you can witness fabulous sea caves and various marine life. Keep an eye out for seals, sea lions, and seabirds along the way.

Santa Barbara Island: A Gem for Wildlife and Nature Lovers 

Santa Barbara Island, the smallest in the archipelago, boasts mixed wildlife and unique vegetation. For a short visit, explore the Landing Cove Trail, allowing you to appreciate the island’s seabird population and potentially spot the rare island night lizard. Also, snorkeling off the island’s shores offers a glimpse of the surrounding marine wonders.

8. Photography and Nature Sketching

bald eagle nature sketching
Bald Eagle sketch drawing on white background

If photography or nature sketching is your passion, you will love the opportunities to let your artistic gifts run wild. The striking beauty of this coastal wonderland will keep you busy for sure. With photogenic landscapes ranging from rugged cliffs to vibrant wildflowers, the islands offer an endless array of picturesque scenes. 

Wildlife photography opportunities abound, featuring charismatic island foxes, graceful sea lions, and various seabirds soaring against the stunning backdrop. Whether you’re an avid photographer or a skilled sketch artist, this national park provides a canvas of natural wonders to draw in your sketchbook.

9. Whale Watching in Channel Islands

The tail of a humpback whale slips beneath the waters of Channel Islands National Park
The tail of a humpback whale slips beneath the waters of Channel Islands National Park.

Whale-watching tours at Channel Islands National Park offer a thrilling chance to witness majestic marine giants in their natural habitat. 

The best time for whale watching is typically from late spring to early fall. During this period, you may encounter California gray whales during their northbound migration in spring and their southbound migration in fall. Additionally, humpback whales are often spotted feeding in the rich waters surrounding the islands during the summer months. 

10. Educational Programs & Park Ranger-led Activities

A park ranger educates a young boy on the wildlife that inhabits the beaches of Channel Islands
A park ranger educates a young boy on the wildlife that inhabits the beaches of Channel Islands. NPS photo

The park contains a range of enriching educational programs and ranger-led activities that provide you with deeper insights into the park’s natural and cultural heritage. These programs are designed to foster a greater appreciation for the unique ecosystems and history of the islands. Some of the educational programs and workshops offered by the National Park Service include:

  1. Interpretive Guided Walks: Join knowledgeable rangers on guided walks, where they share fascinating stories about the islands’ geology, flora, and fauna.
  2. Marine Life Talks: Attend informative talks by experts on the assorted marine life and ecosystems found around the islands.
  3. Wildlife Observation: Participate in ranger-led sessions dedicated to observing and learning about the unique wildlife, from seabirds to island foxes.
  4. Historic Site Tours: Discover the islands’ cultural heritage through guided tours of historic sites, including the remaining structures of past human settlements.
  5. Junior Ranger Programs: Ideal for young visitors, these interactive programs engage children in fun and educational activities that promote environmental stewardship.
  6. Nature Sketching Workshops: Unleash your artistic side with workshops that focus on nature sketching, capturing the island’s scenic beauty on paper.
  7. Photography Workshops: Enhance your photography skills under the guidance of experienced photographers, learning to capture phenomenal landscapes and wildlife.
  8. Night Sky Programs: Delve into the wonders of the night sky with astronomy-focused programs, where rangers help you identify constellations and celestial objects.

Final Thoughts

Channel Islands National Park offers an array of unique experiences, making it a true coastal paradise for those who love nature and adventure. From hiking scenic trails through lush canyons and coastal bluffs to submerging yourself in the underwater environment snorkeling and scuba diving, the park presents many outdoor activities for you to enjoy.

The park contains distinct wildlife, including island foxes, seabird colonies, playful sea lions, and the majestic California gray whales on migratory journeys. You can also discover hidden sea caves, accessible by boat or kayak, and witness the unparalleled beauty of the night sky through camping and stargazing. The area is also ideal for photographers snapping outstanding shots and artists sketching or painting nature scenes. 

Whether you’re seeking an escape into nature, exploration of rich marine ecosystems, or a chance to encounter rare wildlife, the top 10 things to do at Channel Islands National Park offer an unforgettable experience. What are you waiting for? Plan your visit to this spectacular coastal wonderland today!

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What can people do at Channel Islands?

You can hike nature trails, go snorkeling, scuba diving, wildlife watching, camping, stargazing, explore sea caves, and participate in ranger-led programs at Channel Islands National Park.

What is Channel Islands National Park best known for?

The park is best known for its pristine landscapes, amazing wildlife, rich marine ecosystems, and unique sea caves.

How long should you spend at Channel Islands National Park?

The recommended duration for a visit depends on individual preferences, but a minimum of 2-3 days is ideal to experience its top attractions.

What is the best island to visit in the Channel Islands?

Santa Cruz Island is often considered the best island to visit due to its varied landscapes and diverse activities.

What are some unique things about Channel Islands National Park?

A few unique aspects of the park include the presence of island foxes, thriving marine life, rare flora, pristine beaches, and excellent stargazing opportunities.

What is the best time to visit Channel Islands, California?

The best time to visit is from late spring to early fall for optimal weather and wildlife viewing, especially during the gray whale migration.

What is the best way to see Channel Islands National Park?

The best way to see the park is by taking guided boat tours or kayaking to explore the islands and their sea caves or by hiking the scenic trails.

What town is closest to Channel Islands National Park?

The closest town is Ventura, California, where most visitors access the park via boat from Ventura Harbor.

About Me

My husband and I have three precious daughters and live in the Kansas City, KS area. One of our favorite things to do is travel across the country visiting our extraordinary US National Parks!

Let us know what you think about our content and if you have any questions, suggestions, or have any favorite memories or tips you would like to share. We would love to hear from you!

Happy Travels! Sandy

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