Recently, I visited Channel Islands National Park, and wow, I was blown away! The park is made up of 5 islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara. Each island has its own unique charm and offers something different for visitors. Whether you’re looking to hike, camp, kayak, or just relax on the beach, this park has it all. I spent five days exploring the park, and here are my 7 Top Things to Do in Channel Islands National Park California.
1. Explore Sea Caves
I was always fascinated by the idea of sea caves. I remember looking at pictures in National Geographic of these beautiful, otherworldly places and thinking that I wanted to see them for myself one day. And when I finally had the chance to visit the Channel Islands, I prioritized exploring as many sea caves as possible.
There are sea caves all throughout the Channel Islands, but some of the best and most easily accessible ones can be found on Santa Cruz Island. Painted Cave, for example, is one of the largest sea caves in the world, and its walls are covered with beautiful (and strangely eerie) cave art.
But my absolute favorite sea cave on Santa Cruz Island is Cavern Point. To get to Cavern Point, you have to hike about 2 miles (3.2 km) from the nearest ranger station. But trust me, the hike is worth it. When you finally reach Cavern Point, you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of the coast and, of course, the magnificent sea cave itself.
To get into the cave, you have to walk down the 52 stone steps that have been carved into the cliffside. And once you’re inside, it’s like being in another world. The cave is huge, and the waves crash against the rocks with such force that it feels like the whole cave is shaking.
All in all, exploring the sea caves is definitely one of the top things to do in Channel Islands National Park. I would definitely recommend wearing shoes with good traction because the rocks can be slippery. And if you’re visiting during the winter, be sure to bring a jacket because it can get pretty cold inside the cave.
2. Go Whale Watching
One of the things that I was most excited about before my visit to Channel Islands National Park was the possibility of going whale watching. I’ve always been fascinated by whales, and I’ve always wanted to see them in the wild.
The best time to see whales in the Channel Islands is from mid-December to mid-March. That’s when the gray whales migrate from Alaska to Baja California. And there’s a good chance that you’ll see other types of whales as well, including blue whales, humpback whales, and orcas.
There are a few different companies that offer whale watching tours in the Channel Islands. I went with Island Packers, which is the official concessionaire of Channel Islands National Park. The tour includes a boat ride to one of the Channel Islands (I went to Santa Cruz Island), a whale watching tour, and time to explore the island.
I saw a lot of different animals on my whale-watching tour, including dolphins, seals, and sea lions. But the highlight of the trip was definitely seeing the whales. We saw about a dozen gray whales, including a mother and her calf. It was an incredible experience, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone visiting Channel Islands National Park.
Remember to book your tour in advance because they sell out quickly during the peak season. And if you get seasick, be sure to take some medication before the trip.
3. Camp on One of The Islands
One of the best things to do in Channel Islands National Park is camp on one of the islands. And trust me, camping on an island is a very different experience than camping on the mainland.
When you camp on an island, you’re totally cut off from the rest of the world. It’s just you and the sound of the waves crashing against the shore. And while it might sound isolating, it’s actually a very freeing experience. Being on an island forces you to slow down and appreciate the simple things in life.
There are five main islands in Channel Islands National Park, and each one has its own unique character. Santa Cruz Island, for example, is the largest island and home to a variety of plants and animals that you won’t find anywhere else. On the other hand, Anacapa Island is known for its dramatic cliffs and beautiful tide pools.
San Miguel Island, on the other hand, is known for its dramatic cliffs and rugged coastline. And Anacapa Island is home to a variety of seabirds, including the famous California brown pelican.
The best way to decide which island to camp on is to visit the Channel Islands National Park website. The website has a ton of helpful information about each of the islands, including camping regulations and contact information for the ranger station.
4. Spot Some Wildlife
One of the things that I loved about the Channel Islands is that they’re home to so many different kinds of animals, many of which are endemic to the islands (meaning they’re found nowhere else in the world).
One of the best places to see wildlife on the Channel Islands is Anacapa Island, which is home to a large colony of brown pelicans. These beautiful birds can be seen flying overhead or perched on the cliff sides. And if you’re lucky, you might even spot a few young pelicans learning to fly.
Another great place to see wildlife is Santa Cruz Island, which is home to the Channel Islands fox. These adorable little creatures are only found on Santa Cruz Island, and they’re sure to make you smile.
My favorite place to see wildlife was Santa Barbara Island, which is home to a large colony of seals and sea lions. These playful creatures are so much fun to watch, and they never seem to get tired of performing for the crowd.
But no matter which island you visit, you’re sure to see some amazing wildlife. So keep your eyes peeled and your camera ready!
5. Visit the Island’s Beaches
Of course, my visit to the Channel Islands would be complete without spending some time at the beach. I didn’t get to visit all of the island’s beaches, but I did get to visit a few of them, and they were all absolutely beautiful.
I started my beach-hopping on Santa Rosa Island, where I visited Water Canyon Beach. This beach is definitely worth a visit if you’re looking for a place to relax and take in the stunning views. The water is crystal clear, and the sand is soft and white.
I also visited San Miguel Island, which is home to Cuyler Harbor Beach. Cuyler Harbor Beach is a great place for swimming, kayaking, and exploring the tide pools. I didn’t have time to explore the tide pools on this visit, but I definitely want to come back and do that next time.
And finally, I visited Santa Cruz Island, which is home to a number of great beaches, including Smuggler’s Cove and Scorpion Beach. I didn’t have time to visit Smuggler’s Cove, but I did get to spend some time at Scorpion Beach. Scorpion Beach is a great place for swimming, sunbathing, and tide pooling.
Other great beaches in Channel Islands National Park include East Beach, Prisoners Harbor Beach, and Frenchys Cove. Therefore, don’t forget to include beach-hopping in your list of top things to do in Channel Islands National Park. They are definitely some of the best beaches in California!
6. Boat Tour of the Channel Islands
Do you want to see the Channel Islands but don’t want to hike or camp? Then a boat tour might be the perfect activity for you. There are a few different companies that offer boat tours of the Channel Islands, but my personal favorite is Island Packers. They have a fleet of boats that range from small inflatables to larger catamarans, and they offer a variety of different tours, including day trips and overnight camping trips.
I would definitely recommend doing a day trip if you’re short on time. During the day trip, you’ll see all five of the Channel Islands, including Santa Cruz Island (my personal favorite). In addition to the island tour, you’ll also see some of the other wildlife that inhabits the Channel Islands, such as dolphins, seals, and whales. You’ll also get to go on a short hike and explore one of the island’s many sea caves.
This is a great activity for families or groups of friends. And even if you’re not the outdoorsy type, I think you’ll still enjoy the boat tour. It’s a great way to see the Channel Islands without having to rough it.
7. Kayak Around Santa Cruz Island
We planned to go kayaking around Santa Cruz Island on our second day, but unfortunately, the seas were too rough, and we had to cancel. Thankfully, we were able to reschedule for our last day, and it was such a blast.
We booked our guided excursion with Channel Islands Adventure Company. They gave us a quick lesson on kayaking and safety before we set off. Then we were off! We paddled around Santa Cruz Island for about 5 hours, and it was such a great way to see the island from a different perspective.
The highlight of our kayaking trip was definitely Scorpion Cove. Scorpion Cove is a sheltered cove on the east side of Santa Cruz Island, and it’s known for its abundance of sea life. And we definitely saw plenty of sea life! We must have seen hundreds of crabs, sea urchins, and fish. It was like being in an aquarium.
If you’re thinking about going kayaking around Santa Cruz Island, I would definitely recommend guided tours like the one we did. The guides are very knowledgeable about the area, and they’ll make sure you have a safe and enjoyable experience. Plus, because of capricious sea conditions, it’s always a good idea to have a guide with you in case you need to be rescued.
All in all, we had an amazing time kayaking around Santa Cruz Island, and it’s definitely one of the top things to do in Channel Islands National Park. Just be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen and water because it can get pretty hot out there on the water.
I had an amazing time exploring the Channel Islands, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a unique vacation destination. There’s so much to do, from hiking and camping to exploring sea caves and taking boat tours. And the best part is that you don’t have to be an experienced hiker or camper to enjoy the Channel Islands. There are activities for everyone, regardless of your skill level.