Just a stone’s throw from Los Angeles, Channel Islands National Park in Ventura might be Southern California’s best kept secret. Although, I don’t know why. It’s the closest national park to L.A and offers many thrilling outdoor adventures for families.
The national park is comprised of five rugged islands: Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Barbara. Santa Rosa, and San Miguel. While the islands share some similarities, each has unique features. Whether for a day or overnight, the parks offer opportunities to hike, swim, snorkel, kayak, birdwatch, take photos, relax, and camp on a natural island. Note that while swimming is allowed, there are no lifeguards at any of the beaches. To protect island wildlife, pets are not allowed.
Providing a true getaway from urban sights and sounds, the islands are rugged but welcoming. There are no services such as food stores or gear rental shops on the islands. So it’s important to bring drinking water, food and necessary gear for your one day or overnight island adventures.
The islands are only accessible by park concessionaire boats (Island Packers) and planes (Channel Islands Aviation) or private boat. Make reservations in advance.
As you plan your trip, keep in mind that on days that the concessionaire boats and planes travel to the islands, guided hikes may be offered by national park volunteer or concessionaire naturalists. Guided hike locations, distances, and departure times are announced after your arrival on an island. But you’re welcome to hike and explore on your own.
Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara and Anacapa Islands have visitor contact stations with exhibits and information. It’s also worth checking out the mainland Visitor Center showcasing books and exhibits.
The islands are listed by their accessibility and suitability for families.
Most Family-Friendly: Santa Cruz Island
The largest, most easily accessible island, Santa Cruz has the best weather and array of recreational activities. It’s just a one-hour boat ride to the island, which has picnic tables, hiking trails, watersports and camping. Along the way you may even see dolphins.
Scorpion Beach has clear water for swimming, snorkeling and kayaking. In fact, one of the most exciting things to do on Santa Cruz is kayaking through sea caves and coves. You’ll see spectacular natural features like a swaying kelp forest, blowhole and rock garden. Don’t be surprised to see a sea lion or two swimming alongside your kayak!
While you can kayak on your own, I recommend guided tours available through the Channel Islands Adventure Company. Expert guides help you navigate through arches and narrow passages. Keep your eyes open for sea lions and California’s state fish, the bright orange garibaldi.
Snorkeling is another fun way to explore the clear waters and see colorful fish. Guided tours are available or you can rent snorkel gear (for kids too) on the island.
Hikers will find a range of trails from relatively flat, signed trails of Scorpion Valley to the rugged, mountainous paths of the Montañon area. Birders will go wild over the variety of shore birds, especially the endemic island scrub-jay only found on Santa Cruz Island and no other place in the world.
Of the five islands, Santa Cruz has the most family-friendly primitive camping at the Scorpion Ranch Campground (31 sites; $15 per night per site; reservations required). Water, picnic tables, food storage boxes, and pit toilets are provided. The campground is a one-half mile walk from the landing.
Climb a cliff: Anacapa Island
It takes about an hour to reach this scenic cliff island. Upon arrival, you’ll need to climb from the boat up a steel-rung ladder to a dock, and then walk up 157 stairs to the top of the island.
Get your bearings at the small visitor center located in one of the historic Coast Guard buildings. Things to do on the island include kayaking and hiking, Since Anacapa is a cliff island, the only accessible beach is at the Landing Cove. Located within a marine reserve, underwater visibility is good and teeming with life. You can kayak east towards Arch Rock or west towards Cathedral Cove’s sea caves, and arches.
Land activities include two miles of easy hiking trails that traverse slopes to scenic overlooks, coastal views and the last permanent lighthouse built on the West Coast. Be on the lookout for seabirds, seals and sea lions. Wildflowers add a splash of color in late winter and spring.
The camping area is located one-half mile from the landing. Primitive camping (seven sites; $15 per night per site; reservations required) amenities include picnic tables, food storage boxes, and pit toilets. No water is available.
Summer fun: Santa Rosa Island
Island Packers offers boat trips spring through fall. Sailing time is about three hours to this more remote island. Hiking and picnics are the main family activities.
Trails and roads range from the relatively flat route to Water Canyon Beach to the rugged, mountainous path to Black Mountain. Or enjoy a leisurely walk along a white sandy beach at Water Canyon Beach, about one mile from the pier. Because of strong winds, swimming, snorkeling and kayaking are limited and only advised for the experienced. But check out good tidepooling spots at Bechers Bay, the east end of Southeast Anchorage and near East Point.
Picnic tables are available at Water Canyon Beach (by the road cut at the end of the airstrip) and on the grass area of the historic ranch house. Water is available at Bechers Bay at the Water Canyon campground and the public bathrooms in the historic ranch area.
Camping is a commitment. Due to the boat schedule, minimum stay is usually three days. The Water Canyon campground (15 sites; $15 per night per site; reservations required) provides picnic tables, food storage box, windbreak, pit toilets, and water. The campground is a flat 1.5-mile hike from the pier and a one-quarter mile walk from the airstrip.
Roughing it: Santa Barbara Island
If your family likes a challenge, grab your outdoor gear and head over to this cliff island reachable via a three-hour boat ride April through October. At the Landing Cove, you’ll need to step from the boat onto a ladder to a small dock. From the dock, climb 200 feet along a one-quarter-mile trail to the top of the island.
If you’re planning to swim, dive, snorkel or kayak on Santa Barbara Island, you’ll find beach access at the Landing Cove. Kayakers can paddle north towards Arch Point or south towards the Sea Lion Rookery.
For hiking and camping, you’ll need to scale the rugged cliffs. There are five miles of trails affording magnificent coastal views.
If you’re camping, bring enough supplies for three days due to the limited boat schedule. At the rustic campground (10 sites; $15 per night per site; reservations required) you’ll find picnic tables, food storage boxes, and pit toilets. No water is available. Distance from landing to campground is one quarter-mile.
For the adventurous: San Miguel Island
A four-hour boat ride and frequent windy weather make this island among the more challenging to reach. A permit (including liability waiver) is required to visit the island. Island Packers, Channel Islands Aviation, or Truth Aquatics will provide the forms to you upon your reservation.
Things to do include exploring Cuyler Harbor beach, Nidever Canyon and the Cabrillo Monument. At Cuyler Harbor, rangers and volunteer naturalists offer guided hikes soon after the Island Packers boats arrive on the island. In addition, guided hikes are offered on weekends that Island Packers drops off campers.
Primitive camping is only available at the established campground near the historic Lester ranch site (nine sites; $15 per night per site; reservations required). Picnic tables, food storage boxes, windbreak, and pit toilets are provided.