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An Overlander’s Guide to Channel Islands National Park 

 July 17, 2023

By  Patrick @DarkSkyOverland

Channel Islands National ParkChannel Islands National Park off the coast of California, with its sparkling waves crashing on rocky cliffs, pods of dolphins swimming offshore, and seaside cliffs teeming with wildlife, seem like a different world waiting to be explored. For overlanders seeking remote adventures far from crowds, Channel Islands provides the perfect isolated island getaway.

Comprised of five rugged islands—Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara—the park protects a unique coastal wilderness brimming with natural wonders. Here you can camp on beaches with views rivaling any tropical paradise, hike miles of empty trails through valleys and canyons, watch whales migrate just offshore, and kayak into unbelievably beautiful sea caves.

This extensive overlander guide provides everything you need to know to plan an epic island overlanding adventure. I’ll cover how to get there, what gear to bring, where to camp, top highlights, insider tips, and frequently asked questions to maximize your time on this island paradise.

Whether you have just a day or a week to explore, this guide has you covered.

Ready to hit the waves to the Galápagos of North America? Then keep reading… you won’t be disappointed!

Getting There: Ferry and Flight Options

Rock near Anacapa Island at Channel Islands National ParkThe only way to reach the islands is by boat or small plane—there are no bridges connecting them to the mainland. While you can’t drive your rig directly onto the islands, don’t let that stop you! The islands make an amazing overlander destination when combined with the transportation options below.

Island Packers Ferry from Ventura

Island Packers provides daily year-round passenger ferries to all five islands out of Ventura Harbor, about an hour north of Los Angeles. Their boats offer both day excursions and multi-day camping trips where they drop you off and pick you up days later.

Island Packers has daily departures to Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands. They visit the other islands 1-2 times per week, schedule varies:

  • San Miguel Island: Usually Wed/Sat
  • Santa Rosa Island: Most Thursdays-Mondays
  • Santa Barbara Island: Occasional day trips

Rates start around $63 for an adult for day trips and go up for overnight camping excursions. A full breakdown of their fees can be found here.

Reservations are highly recommended and sell out weeks in advance for many departures. You can book on their website or by phone up to 2 days before departure.

Departure times range from mid-morning to early afternoon, with return trips usually midafternoon to early evening. The boat ride takes 1-2 hours depending on your destination.

Be aware that open ocean crossings can get rough so make sure you bring motion sickness medication if you’re susceptible to queasiness.

Once on the islands, you’ll need to explore by foot, kayak, or limited island shuttles—no private vehicles are allowed. Pack accordingly for self-supported hiking and camping. I’ll cover essential gear later.

Channel Islands Aviation Plane Charters

A faster but pricier way to reach the islands is by air.

Channel Islands Aviation provides year-round charter flights to all the islands out of Camarillo Airport, about 30 minutes from Ventura Harbor by car. Their 8-seat single-engine planes depart daily except Sunday.

Charter costs range $100-$300 per person depending on the island and number of passengers. You must call to check current pricing and availability. The flight is less than an hour compared to 1-2 hours by ferry.

Once you land, you can arrange to rent camping or kayaking gear on the islands. Pack ultra-light as space is very limited on the small planes.

Choosing the Right Island for You

Inspiration Point at Channel Islands National ParkEach of the Channel Islands offers unique scenery, activities, and terrain best suited for different trip lengths and interests. When deciding where to go, consider:

  • Your time frame: Just a day or multi-day camping?
  • Interests: Kayaking, hiking, camping, wildlife watching?
  • Access: Ferry schedules vary by island.

Here’s an in-depth look at the highlights and logistics of each island:

Anacapa Island

Anacapa Island is comprised of three small islets totaling just over 1 square mile. With towering sea cliffs, natural bridges, and sea caves, Anacapa dazzles with stellar scenery and wildlife.

It’s the only island accessible year-round by ferry.

Highlights:

  • Iconic Arch Rock, Inspiration Point, and lighthouse views
  • Sea caves with breeding seals, seabirds, and rich tidepools
  • Easy hiking around island perimeter (11 miles total)
  • Kayak launch site and rentals on East Island
  • Up-close viewing of gulls, cormorants, pelicans, and other sea birds

Camping is limited to only seven sites on Anacapa, so it’s best to make reservations ahead of time. The boat ride from Ventura is just over an hour. Anacapa makes an easy add-on to a longer Santa Cruz or Santa Rosa trip.

Santa Cruz Island

At 96 square miles, Santa Cruz Island is the largest island and offers diverse terrain perfect for multi-day camping trips.

Dramatic sea cliffs line its 77-mile coast. Inland you’ll find mountains up to 2,000 feet high, deep canyons, valleys, and two rugged volcanic peaks.

At the island’s center lies the historic Scorpion Ranch.

Highlights:

  • Sea kayaking along cliffs or to explore sea caves
  • Excellent hiking with 60+ miles of trails
  • Camp at Scorpion Ranch or remote Del Norte site
  • See endemic island foxes, spotted skunks, and other wildlife
  • Visit historic adobe ranch buildings and see island cattle
  • Prisoners Harbor landing with visitor center and shuttle

The boat ride from Ventura is 1-2 hours. Ferry service runs daily. Primitive and developed campsites require advanced reservations through Recreation.gov.

Santa Rosa Island

Santa Rosa Island captivates overlanders with its white sand beaches, coastal lagoons, rare Torrey pine forests, and rolling grasslands. You’re likely to spot herds of deer, island foxes, and seabird rookeries. The second largest island offers excellent hiking and camping opportunities.

Highlights:

  • Beach and lagoon kayaking, swimming, and snorkeling
  • Hike across the island – 15 miles one way
  • Camp at one of two developed campgrounds
  • Look for rare Torrey pines only found on the islands
  • Spot migrating whales offshore (winter/spring)

The boat ride is 1.5-2 hours from Ventura. Ferries go 1-2 times per week. Make campground reservations well in advance.

San Miguel Island

Farthest out in the Pacific, San Miguel Island boasts a remote wildness and exceptional wildlife viewing. Point Bennett on the western tip hosts one of the world’s largest seal and sea lion rookeries. The island’s remote beaches and caliche forests offer outstanding primitive camping.

Highlights:

  • Beaches with excellent snorkeling and kayaking
  • Hike across the island – 10 miles one way
  • See seals/sea lions plus whales offshore
  • Camp at Cuyler Harbor or Tyler Bight with permit
  • Extremely secluded beaches and caliche forests

Access is limited—the ferry runs only 1-2 times weekly and the boat ride is 2+ hours. Make reservations for camping permits through Recreation.gov. This is a good choice if you really want to get away from it all!

Santa Barbara Island

At just 1 square mile, Santa Barbara Island is the smallest of the Channel Islands. Home to nesting seabirds and endemic plants, it offers exceptional kayaking, snorkeling, and hiking around its perimeter.

Santa Barbara Island Campground offers 10 campsites. Reservations can be made through Recreationg.gov.

Highlights:

  • Spot seabird rookeries with nesting Xantus’s Murrelets
  • Snorkel or kayak in the island’s pristine protected waters
  • Hike along the entire coast on the short trail around the island
  • Photograph the picturesque sea caves

Island Packers offers only occasional day trips to Santa Barbara Island due to landing restrictions.

Map of Channel Islands National Park

Map of Channel Islands National Park

When to Visit Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National ParkThe islands provide excellent year-round adventures with a mild Mediterranean climate. That said, each season has slightly different weather, wildlife activity, and crowds.

Spring: March-May

Spring offers ideal weather with warmer temperatures, wildflower blooms, fewer crowds than summer, and excellent whale watching opportunities on the ferry crossing, making it arguably the prime time for overlanders to visit Channel Islands National Park.

Here’s a breakdown on what you can expect during Spring:

  • Whale watching offshore on the ferry crossing
  • Wildflower blooms – best time for botany
  • Comfortable temps, some overcast days
  • Not as windy as summer
  • Fewer crowds than summer

Summer: June-August

With its sunny days, warm ocean temperatures perfect for swimming and snorkeling, steady winds ideal for kayaking, and long daylight hours to explore the islands, summer provides favorable conditions for overlanders to enjoy Channel Islands National Park, despite larger summer crowds.

Here’s a breakdown on what you can expect during Summer:

  • Warmest ocean temps for swimming, snorkeling
  • Long sunny days with little rain
  • Steady winds perfect for kayaking
  • Busier with tourists on weekends

Fall: September-November

Fall brings pleasant weather, fewer crowds after Labor Day, the deer rutting season, fall bird migrations, and possible whale sightings offshore, making it an ideal time for overlanders to experience Channel Islands National Park’s wildlife and natural beauty.

Here’s a breakdown on what you can expect during Fall:

  • Warm days and cool nights
  • Fewer tourists after Labor Day
  • Fall bird migration, deer rutting season
  • Possible fall storms with choppy crossings

Winter: December-February

With prime gray whale watching opportunities on the ferry crossing, cooler temperatures ideal for hiking, lush green vegetation, and the chance to see the islands at their wettest, overlanders will find unique reasons to visit Channel Islands National Park in the winter months.

Here’s a breakdown on what you can expect during Winter:

  • Whale watching on ferry crossings
  • Lush green island vegetation
  • Cool temps – pack plenty of layers
  • Storms can cause trip cancellations

While the islands shine year-round, spring and fall are arguably the best times with moderate temperatures and fewer crowds. Just be ready to adjust your plans—the boat captain makes the final call on cancellations due to high winds, storms, or rough seas.

Packing Checklist: Gear Essentials

Hiking at Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National ParkThe islands have no supply stores, so pack strategically. Space is limited, you’ll carry everything yourself, and you want to travel light.

Here are the most essential items to bring:

  • Lightweight tent or hammock system
  • Warm sleeping bag – nights are cool
  • Backpacking stove, cookset, utensils
  • Headlamp or flashlight
  • Food and at least 1 gallon water per person per day
  • Sturdy hiking boots or shoes
  • Sandals for kayaking and swimming
  • Lightweight, quick-dry clothing layers
  • Windbreaker and rain jacket
  • Sun protection – hat, sunscreen, sunglasses
  • First aid kit, medications, toiletries
  • Waste bags for trash and human waste
  • Map, compass, GPS (no cell service in many areas)

Plus any snorkel gear, fishing rods, kayak equipment, or other recreational gear you plan to use. Keep in mind you must carry everything from the boat landing up to a few miles or more.

Travel as light as possible while still being prepared for rapidly changing island weather conditions.

Leave valuables and anything unnecessary behind–the islands are a perfect place to unplug from technology and connect with nature instead. There are no medical services, so consider a satellite communicator device to summon emergency help if truly needed.

Permits and Camping Reservations

Anacapa Island Lighthouse at Channel Islands National ParkOvernight visitors to Channel Islands National Park have several designated areas where camping is permitted, allowing you to wake up to sunrise sea views.

Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel Islands each have one established campground in a scenic coastal location overseen by the National Park Service.

Additionally, primitive backcountry camping with permits can further your remote island immersion on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa.

Keep in mind that camping is prohibited on a large portion of Santa Cruz Island managed by The Nature Conservancy.

Carefully research campground specifics, reservations, and backcountry camping regulations to find the right overnight accommodation to match your Channel Islands adventure.

To make things easier to decipher, I put together the following specifics for each island:

  • Anacapa: One established campground on the east islet
  • San Miguel: One established campground above Cuyler Harbor
  • Santa Rosa: One established campground at Water Canyon
  • Santa Cruz: One established campground at Scorpion Canyon
  • Santa Barbara: One established campground above the Landing Cove

Camping permits help conserve the fragile island ecosystems. Sites book up weeks or months in advance, especially in summer. You can reserve camping permits by calling (877) 444-6777 or through Recreation.gov so plan ahead for an enjoyable trip!

Island Rules and Regulations

Cathedral Cove at Channel Islands National ParkTo protect the fragile natural ecosystems and cultural resources of the Channel Islands, the National Park Service has established guidelines and regulations for visitor behavior.

By educating yourself about the islands’ rules ahead of time and practicing Leave No Trace principles during your visit, we can all do our part to preserve these precious islands.

When exploring any National Park, it’s important to be mindful of your impacts. Channel Islands National Park may seem wild and remote, but it’s still a highly regulated landscape we must treat with respect.

Keep these rules in mind to ensure a safe, sustainable adventure:

  • No vehicles, bicycles, drones, or fires unless in specified campgrounds
  • Stay on designated trails – no off-trail hiking or access
  • No collecting natural artifacts, plants, animals, or cultural resources
  • No pets or trash – pack out everything you brought
  • No fishing without a valid CA fishing license
  • Kayaks/boats require permits from Island Packers
  • Watch wildlife from a safe distance – no approaching, feeding, or touching

Basically, tread lightly and don’t leave a trace. Come prepared with all your own supplies.

Please note: these fragile islands have very limited medical services—a satellite communicator device can summon emergency help if truly needed.

If we all follow the rules, we can keep the Channel Islands natural for years to come.

Top Highlights and Activities on the Islands

No matter how long you choose to stay, here are the must-see highlights and activities for overlanders on each of the five incredible islands:

Anacapa Island

  • Birdwatching – Get up close to breeding gulls, cormorants, pelicans and other seabirds.
  • Islet hopping – Kayak or take circle tours to see Arch Rock, Cathedral Cove, Lighthouse Point.
  • Hike Inspiration Point Trail – Best coastal views on West Island.
  • Natural Bridge – Spot the 40-foot rock bridge on Middle Island.
  • Kayak sea caves – Paddle through caves along the island perimeter.

Santa Cruz Island

  • Kayak Scorpion Harbor – Paddle to explore sea caves on guided tours.
  • Hike Cavern Point Loop – Take in expansive coastal views from scenic overlooks.
  • Explore historic Scorpion Ranch – Learn about early island settlers and see ranch relics.
  • Look for endemic island foxes – Spot these tiny canines unique to the islands.
  • Camp at Del Norte – Backpack to remote Del Norte site.
  • Hike to Potato Harbor – Great coastal views and chance to spot bald eagles.

Santa Rosa Island

  • Kayak at Bechers Bay – Launch from beach into this rich marine life cove.
  • Hike Water Canyon – Follow creek through palm-filled canyon to a hidden beach.
  • Beach camp at East Anacapa – Spend nights on this expansive white sand beach.
  • Look for rare Torrey Pines – Spot these unusual pine trees only on the islands.
  • Snorkel – Swim with garibaldi, seals, and other marine life.
  • Hike to Lobo Canyon – See “Munchkin trees” oddly twisted by harsh weather.

San Miguel Island

  • Hike Cuyler Harbor to Harris Point – Traverse the island on this 10-mile trek.
  • Camp at Tyler Bight – Enjoy extremely remote and scenic beach camping.
  • Kayak Tyler Bight – Launch kayaks from beach for excellent paddling.
  • See Point Bennett wildlife – View sea lion/seal rookery plus gray whales offshore.
  • Beachcomb – Search for shells, glass, and other treasures along isolated beaches.
  • Hike Nidever Canyon – Explore this deep canyon full of endemic wildlife.

Santa Barbara Island

  • Hike Island Trail – Walk the 1.5-mile trail encircling the entire island.
  • Snorkel – Enjoy the island’s clear protected waters.
  • Look for Xantus’s Murrelets – See these rare seabirds nesting here.
  • Photograph sea caves – Capture images of the picturesque caves.
  • Watch for pods of dolphins – Spot them swimming offshore.
  • Picnic on the northern bluff – Take in panoramic views of the other islands.

Insider Tips for an Epic Channel Islands Adventure

A trip to the Channel Islands can be even more incredible with insider knowledge from veteran overlanders and island experts. Beyond the packing lists and permits, practical wisdom from those who have explored the islands before you helps take the experience to the next level.

I’ve compiled the best pro tips to maximize your time in Channel Islands National Park. Read on for insider tricks that can transform an ordinary Channel Islands visit into the adventure of a lifetime.

Follow these insider tips from experienced overlanders for an incredible visit to the islands:

  • Bring more water than you think you’ll need – there are zero freshwater sources.
  • Pack high-calorie, no-cook backpacking foods to conserve fuel.
  • Keep an eye on the weather forecast – high winds or storms can change plans.
  • Come midweek to avoid weekend crowds if possible.
  • Start hiking early before the winds pick up in the afternoon.
  • Take seasickness medication for the boat ride if you’re prone to nausea.
  • Bring a book or journal – the islands are perfect for relaxing at camp.
  • Travel in the shoulder season for a true wilderness experience.
  • Consider bringing a fishing rod if permitted – fishing can be amazing.
  • Savor the starry night skies free of light pollution.
  • Appreciate the isolation – basecamp instead of bouncing around.
  • Respect wildlife and give them plenty of space.
  • Leave no trace so others can enjoy the islands too.

The Channel Islands reward those who come prepared and travel with flexibility. Keep these insider tips handy during your visit to unlock an extra level of island magic.

Appreciate the slower island pace, watch wildlife from afar, and leave no trace on the beaches and trails. By tuning into the islands’ rhythms and following wise guidance from those who’ve gone before, you’ll be on your way to an epic adventure in Channel Islands National Park.

Top 10 FAQs about Channel Islands National Park

1. Where exactly is Channel Islands National Park located?

The park includes five islands located off the southern coast of California, roughly stretching between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. The islands lie across 160 miles in the Pacific Ocean and are only reachable by boat or plane from the mainland.

2. How did the Channel Islands form?

The four northern islands of Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel originated from volcanic activity related to undersea vents. Santa Barbara Island was formed differently through uplifting of the ocean floor. The islands were never fully submerged when sea levels were higher.

3. Why are the Channel Islands so biologically important?

Due to their isolation, many species of plants and animals evolved to be unique to the Channel Islands over thousands of years. There is extremely high biodiversity in the park, with 145 endemic species found nowhere else on Earth.

4. How many islands make up Channel Islands National Park?

Five islands are included in the national park: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara Islands. This is just a fraction of the eight total Channel Islands, which also include Catalina, San Nicolas, and San Clemente Islands not in the park.

5. What is the best and most affordable way to visit the Channel Islands?

For most budget-friendly access, take the public Island Packers ferries from Ventura Harbor to the islands. They offer day trips and camping trips at reasonable rates year-round. Flights or private charters cost more.

6. Can you actually drive to the Channel Islands?

No, there are no bridges or tunnels to any of the islands, only boat and plane access. You also cannot drive vehicles, bikes, or even fly drones once you reach the islands. Transportation is limited to hiking, kayaking, island shuttles, and guided vehicle tours.

7. How do you get around Channel Islands National Park?

Private vehicles are prohibited on the islands, so you must walk, kayak, take an authorized guided road tour, or ride the free island shuttle offered only on Santa Cruz. There are no public transportation options on the other four islands.

8. Which island is best for camping in Channel Islands National Park?

Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz Islands offer established campgrounds in beautiful settings. For a more remote, rugged camping experience, San Miguel provides scenic primitive beach sites. Anacapa and Santa Barbara prohibit camping entirely.

9. What are the main things to do in Channel Islands National Park?

Primary activities are hiking, kayaking, snorkeling, camping, wildlife viewing, and photography. Whale watching is excellent during migrations. You can also tour historic ranch buildings, learn about island ecosystems and native Chumash history, go fishing if permitted, and relax on the beaches.

10. What is the best time of year to visit Channel Islands National Park?

The islands can be visited year-round, though some months are better than others. Spring and fall tend to be best for pleasant weather and wildlife activity without summer crowds. Winter offers possible whale sightings along with lush vegetation.

Conclusion

With its rare coastal California wilderness, diversity of landscapes, and abundance of wildlife, Channel Islands National Park provides a special retreat for overlanders seeking adventure and solitude. Though reaching the islands takes extra effort, those who make the journey are rewarded with beaches, trails, activities and sights found nowhere else.

Whether you explore by kayak, foot, or park shuttle, a Channel Islands escape will create memories that last a lifetime. As one of the most isolated island groups in the lower 48 states, the Channel Islands remain relatively untamed.

Remember to tread lightly during your visit to leave no trace, so that future generations of overlanders can enjoy the magic, too.

From island foxes and mammoth bones to rocky coves and sea caves, Channel Islands National Park is full of discoveries waiting to be made. Now that you know how to get there, where to camp, what to do, and when to visit, the only thing left is to start planning your next overland adventure in this remarkable island paradise off the Southern California coast!

If you’ve been to Channel Islands before, please add whatever you noticed I left out of this article in the comments section below. Your input is invaluable, not only to me but also to other overlanders. Thank you!

Patrick @DarkSkyOverland


Dark Sky Overland is an overland lifestyle brand that was created to support the various trips I take to National Parks and other designated Dark Sky Parks within the United States. It was also born out of a strong desire to simplify life after my wife of over 24 years passed away from a three year battle with inflammatory breast cancer (IBC). You can learn more about my story at https://darkskyoverland.com/about/.

Patrick @DarkSkyOverland

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