With a yearly attendance of 300,000, one would think that not many people know of the extreme seclusion and overwhelming peace found at Anacapa, Santa Barbara, San Miguel, Santa Rosa, and Santa Cruz islands only 20 miles away from the coast of California. And they would be correct.
Channel Islands National Park is a respite from the fast-paced, crowded city life that lies just across the bay. Kayaks are the main form of transportation around these islands, which harbor 145 incredible plant and animal species not found anywhere else in the world.
Those who have discovered the park’s charms come to watch the whale migration from north and south, spearfish through giant kelp beds, and explore amazing sea caves. It is here, in a land stripped to its bare essentials, that these travelers seek to recover their own equilibrium through the self-sufficiency and preparedness required for one of Mother Nature’s best offerings.
Why Visit Channel Islands National Park in an RV?
Travelers will not get to the islands with their RV, but they will get pretty close. Ventura, California is the mainland destination, where boat service takes visitors on the 20-mile journey out to the Channel Islands. Once on Santa Cruz, or any of the other islands, let your feet do the hiking over hills, to sea cliffs, and onto the beaches of America’s version of The Galapagos. Or, sign on with a guide service and explore the many sea caves in a kayak. Return to the mainland when you are ready, and your home away from home will be waiting for you.
While you can’t physically reach the Channel Islands National Park by RV, you can still take in the breathtaking views while parked. Being close to the park is one of the biggest advantages of traveling by RV, meaning you’ll be among the first visitors in line for the boat service or air service. Who wouldn’t want to cut down on time waiting to climb aboard a boat or plane to save as much time for exploring the park once you arrive? The comfort and convenience of your RV will be ready, and close by, after a full day of exploring.
When to Visit Channel Islands National Park
The Channel Islands are open year-round, 24-hours a day, yet different seasons bring different opportunities. Winter can bring rough waters, so what might be a good time for whale watching is not the most enjoyable for boating. Kayakers await the calmer summer winds to explore sea caves and enjoy playful sea otters.
Huge colonies of brown pelicans breed here between January and October when they dive for anchovy to feed their young. Many travelers to the park simply do not care what time of year it is. They have come to escape the hustle and bustle of city life, finding that somewhat elusive quality of peace and quiet on an island full of wonder.
Check the park’s website for up-to-date weather information to plan accordingly for your visit.
Channel Islands National Park in the Spring
Visiting in the spring will result in seeing the islands when they’re green and covered in wildflowers, including bright yellow coreopsis flowers. Seabirds, such as western gulls, begin nesting and migration is underway. Spring is a great time to witness sea lions and fur seals gathering in groups at rookery sites.
Channel Islands National Park in the Summer
If you’re looking to go sailing, diving, swimming, kayaking, or snorkeling, then summer is the ideal time to visit. Whale watching begins in the summer when you can get glimpses of blue and humpback whales. Sea lions and fur seals typically start delivering their pups during the summer months. June through August is when the park receives the bulk of its traffic.
Channels Islands National Park in the Fall
Fall is when the elephant seals start to gather at their rookery sites while whale watching (blue and humpback) comes to an end. However, the fall months are usually the best time to visit if water activities are of interest. Visibility can reach up to 100 feet and the water temperature can reach 70 degrees, making it the ideal circumstance to go snorkeling or diving.
Channel Islands National Park in the Winter
Elephant seals and harbor seals start pupping in the winter and gray whale watching begins toward the end of December. Wildflowers start to bloom late in the winter, but the biggest advantage to visiting the park during the winter is the sunsets. Make a point to hang around until the sun starts to lower and soak in some of the most beautiful sunsets you’ve ever seen over the Pacific.
Where to Stay
There aren’t any RV parks on the actual island, but each does have a primitive campground. So bring a tent and sleeping bag with you when boating to the Channel Islands and enjoy a night or two under the stars.
If, however, you choose to use your motorhome or travel trailer as a home base on the mainland, here are a few campground options:
- Ventura RV Beach Resort – offers a wide variety of RV sites, tent sites, and rental units with full amenities.
- Rincon Parkway Campground – located right on the Pacific Coast Highway, self-contained RVs park on the pavement with the highway on one side and the ocean on the other.
- Foster Park – pets are welcome and tent camping is allowed, this park has both full hookups and pull-through options available.
- Faria Beach Park – with full-service restrooms and showers, this park has 42 spaces available including 15 full hookups.
- Ventura Oaks RV Park – located 10 miles from the ocean in the countryside, this campground has 60 full hookups.
How to Get Around Channel Islands National Park
To access Channel Islands National Park, visitors must take a boat. Boats leave from Ventura Harbor, and to get there take the Victoria Avenue exit off of Highway 101. Turn left on Victoria, right on Olivas Park Drive, and right on Spinnaker Drive. Follow the signs to “Island Tours/Island Packers” to catch a boat. There is no transportation of any kind on the islands and no bicycles are allowed, so getting around is done by foot, boat, or swimming.
Check out the park’s website for info about island transportation, including general schedules for concessionaire transportation to and from the five islands.
Places to Go
Here’s a look at some of the most important and interesting places you can visit while you’re at the park.
Lagomarsino Visitor Center
Located in the town of Ventura on the mainland, the Lagomarsino Visitor Center has information and exhibits about each of the islands, along with a bookstore and ranger-led programs on weekends and holidays.
Outdoors Santa Barbara Visitor Center
This small visitor center is located in the coastal mainland town of Santa Barbara. It has information not only on the Channel Islands National Park, but the Maritime Sanctuary and the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum.
The lighthouse has been guiding ships through the Santa Barbara Channel since 1932 and is still in operation today. Because of that, there are no tours inside the building, but an exploration of the area around it is enlightening. Buildings were originally used to house a crew and their families; today, they’re used by park employees. An antiquated, yet useful water collection system was set up and can still be seen here.
The Five Islands
Each of the islands in this national park offers unique attractions to visit. From Inspiration Point on Anacapa Island to exploring sea caves along the shoreline of Santa Cruz Island, planning your visit properly requires getting more familiar with what each island offers. Here are some quick links to the park’s web pages for each island:
Things to Do in Channel Islands National Park
There are numerous activities on the islands, but visitors should be reminded that there are no services. If choosing to participate, come well organized, trained, and equipped for your activity, as you alone will be responsible for your success.
Visiting any of the five islands in the park by sea kayak is an exhilarating experience. However, it is strongly suggested that novice kayakers use a guide service, because of the high risk for injury with quickly changing weather. Bring your own kayak or rent one on the mainland and hire a concessionaire to take you across the channel, as there are numerous hazards there.
Santa Cruz Island is a popular place to kayak, with easy access to beaches, clear ocean water, and a shoreline with sea cliffs and caves to explore. For the most experienced kayakers, San Miguel and Santa Rosa islands offer extremely challenging ocean conditions and weather.
There are several miles of trails and dirt roads on the islands, making them great hiking paths. Each island is different, however, so here are links to the hiking opportunities on each. They include maps and descriptions:
- Anacapa Island hiking
- Santa Cruz Island hiking
- Santa Rosa Island hiking
- San Miguel Island hiking
- Santa Barbara Island hiking
To make sure you have all the essentials for safe hiking on the Channel Islands, you may want to check out our gift guide for the backpacker in your life.
Camping is available year-round on all five islands, with one maintained campground on each. Reservations are required, and each campground has pit toilets, but freshwater is only available on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands. Campers must pack water, food, and equipment in and pack out equipment and trash, as there are no receptacles. No fires are allowed, but campers can use enclosed gas stoves.
SCUBA Diving and Snorkeling
The waters in the Channel Islands offer some of the best snorkeling and diving opportunities in the world. Because of the extremely windy conditions around San Miguel and Santa Rosa islands, it is suggested that divers explore the waters around Anacapa, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz islands to venture through sea kelp and caves. There are also several shipwrecks to investigate, like the Winfield Scott, which sank in 1853. There is a guide service with rentals available on Santa Cruz Island.
Many divers come to the islands with one intent, to spearfish, as the Channel Islands are considered one of the best spearfishing locations in the world. All fishing on the islands requires a permit, and because some of the waters around them are included in 13 marine protected areas, fishermen should be aware of their location and limitations. It is illegal to fish in those specific areas.
There are more endangered species in this national park than in any other, so wildlife viewing can be extraordinary! Whale watching is a sport here, with 27 different whale species passing by the park. Seals, sea lions, and sea otters are found in massive numbers on the beaches and rock formations around the coastlines of the Channel Islands. Huge pods of dolphins play in the waters here, as well. Underwater life is also colorful, with anemones, sunflower stars, garibaldi, sea bass, and spiny lobsters. So be sure to bring your snorkeling gear!
What to Bring and How To Prepare
As a result of the weather variation on the islands, it’s important to know what to bring to ensure you’re as comfortable and as prepared as possible.
- Pack lightly. Each bag of gear is limited to 45 pounds, so pack gear and food in backpacks, coolers with handles, or convenient-to-carry duffels.
- Food storage. Plan your meals carefully and repackage before entering the park to reduce space, weight, and litter. Food containers should be mouse-proof.
- Bring water. There isn’t any water available on the island, with the exception of the Scorpion Ranch campground on Santa Cruz Island and the Water Canyon campground on Santa Rosa Island, so bring your own. As a general rule, bring one gallon of water per person per day. Keep the containers smaller than 2.5 gallons.
- Dress in layers. Cooler mornings often lead to warmer afternoons, so layers that can be added and removed throughout the day are wise. Visitors should wear sturdy hiking shoes with non-slip soles and sunscreen at all times.
- Waterproof bags. There isn’t a pier at San Miguel and landing will be by skiff, so plan to have a waterproof bag to ensure the contents aren’t wet when you arrive.
- Do your homework. Check the park’s website for more recommendations on appropriate clothing and gear for exploring and camping on the Channel Islands.
History of Channel Islands National Park
Because archaeologists don’t believe the Channel Islands were ever connected to the mainland, the islands contain several animal species not found anywhere else. There are also signs that ancient man was here 37,000 years ago, and a couple of human bones on the islands are 13,000 years old, making them the oldest remains ever found in North America.
Modern man was discovered living on the three northernmost islands when Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo landed there in 1542. Two to three thousand Chumash Indians greeted him, and it was discovered that the ancestors of these Native Americans had been inhabiting the islands for over 8,000 years.
The Chumash had a highly evolved society here and developed trade between islands and on the mainland by building tomols (plank-built boats) and redwood canoes in which they could travel. But as Europeans moved into California, they brought diseases that almost annihilated the Chumash people. Today about 5,000 tribal members live on the mainland.
While California was filled with Spanish and Mexican settlers, the abundant fish in the area were not exploited until the Chinese discovered the Channel Islands and their brimming waters. Abalone was captured in record amounts in the late 1800s. By 1915, California outlawed shipment to China, as the popularity of the shells became even more profitable than the meat. Now, no abalone is harvested here, in hopes of encouraging the mollusks’ comeback.
By 1932, a lighthouse was finally built on Anacapa Island, and the National Park Service was alerted to the Channel Islands’ significance. In 1938, President Roosevelt created the Channel Islands National Monument to protect the unusual species of animals, plants, and natural history of the islands.
But it wasn’t until 1980 that three of the five islands in the monument were named a national park. By 2000, Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz had been added to Anacapa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara to create the modern boundaries of Channel Islands National Park.
Coming to Channel Islands National Park is a conscious choice, as so much preparedness and self-reliance are required. It won’t be a casual visit, but one that tests its participants and rewards them with memories to last a lifetime.
Do you want to experience nature without all the trimmings? No back-up, no assistance, but also no exhaust fumes, no drive-thrus, no racing to the office? Just you and the wide-open land and water, experienced just as it was thousands of years ago. The Channel Islands are representative of Mother Nature without any filters, a perfect challenge for the true adventurist.
Have you ever been to Channel Islands National Park? What were your experiences there?