Just off the coast of Southern California, the eight Channel Islands beckon. Located between the mainland and the open Pacific Ocean, they lie in an oceanic region characterized by a remarkably varied topography. The sea floor around the archipelago consists of sea mounts, underwater plateaus, canyons and vast basins—Santa Cruz Basin, for example, is deeper than the Grand Canyon. Five of the eight Channel Islands are protected as Channel Islands National Park.

The five islands in Channel Islands National Park are Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara.

Originated as the result of volcanic activity and plate tectonics, none of the islands were ever connected to the mainland. This, in addition to the region’s variety in geological and geographical features, is one of the main reasons for its extraordinary biodiversity.

This is the meeting point of a cold water current coming from the north and a warm current flowing in from the tropics. These currents stir up nutrients from the ocean floor, mixing all sorts of marine flora and fauna in a giant soup of life. Vast kelp forests surround the islands, providing a refuge and habitat for both the tiniest and the absolute largest animals, from plankton to blue whales. Other high-profile marine animals include seals and sea lions, dolphins, humpback whales and sharks.

Home to more than 2,000 different animal species, there’s a good reason that the Channel Islands are sometimes referred to as “North America’s Galapagos”.

On land, too, there’s an amazing variety of life. Much of it is endemic, thanks to the islands’ isolated history. Many mammals made it across the Santa Barbara Channel, eventually evolving into species unique to the islands. A lot of them, adapting to the difficult conditions on these remote islands, grew smaller. Mammoths became pygmy mammoths while gray foxes evolved to a species not larger than a cat. These now-native island foxes are one of the most iconic—and visible—endemic animals in Channel Islands National Park.

This gorgeous park lies only a short boat ride from the two mainland hubs of Santa Barbara and Ventura. Both are home to a visitor center.

The largest visitor center is the one in Ventura, which is also the departing and arrival point of island ferries (see below). While it’s difficult to really explore all five islands in-depth—unless you have a couple of weeks’ time to dedicate to this park—, the beauty of the Channel Islands is that you can get a sense of what this stunning archipelago is all about by spending a day (and preferably a night as well) on just one of the islands.

Channel Islands National Park is the perfect alternative to the desert parks of Southern California.

This is a place where you can enjoy spectacular coastal scenery, see an abundance of wildlife and partake in fun activities like hiking and sea kayaking.

I personally recommend Santa Cruz Island, the largest and arguably most accessible of them all. There’s a few campgrounds on the island, as well as several scenic hiking trails. Additionally, a small, well-preserved historic farming village addresses the fascinating human history of the island(s), an extra feature of Channel Islands National Park that can get overshadowed by its sheer natural beauty.

Best of Channel Islands National Park

Video shared from the National Park Service website.

How to Get to Channel Islands National Park

The beauty of this national park not only lies in its actual natural beauty, but also in its accessibility. It may be an archipelago, but the park is only a scenic boat ride away from Ventura, a coastal town just northwest of Los Angeles.

There’s only one company that offers boat trips to and from the Channel Islands and that’s Island Packers. They’re essentially your only option if you don’t have your own boat or want to spend money on a plane ride. Tickets are definitely affordable and, more importantly, the boat ride offers you a totally different perspective of the islands and the southern California coast.

If you’re lucky, you might even spot some marine animals on the way. On my trip to the islands, we didn’t come across any animals at all. On the way back, however, we ran into an enormous pod of dolphins—literally more than a thousand of them according to the guide—and saw a couple of humpback whales.

Channel Islands National Park Map

This Channel Islands National Park map shows all five islands that make up the national park. It also includes the location of Island Packers Cruises and a number of places of interest on Santa Cruz Island specifically.

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Useful Info

Location: Off the coast of Southern California

Nearest Towns: Santa Barbara and Ventura

Area: 389.9 square miles (1,009.9 square kilometers)

Annual Visitors (2016): 364,807

Features: Wildlife, coastal scenery, historic sites

Islands: San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Anacapa, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz

Main Activities: Hiking, camping, snorkeling and scuba diving, sea kayaking

Suggested Stay: 1-2 days

Further Information: National Park Service

Travel Guides

Nearby National Parks

Joshua Tree National Park, California
Pinnacles National Park, California
Death Valley National Park, California

Other Coastal/Island National Parks

Acadia National Park, Maine

Channel Islands National Park Photos

Visit my national parks photography portfolio for a bunch of awesome photos of Channel Islands National Park.

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Channel Islands National Park, California