Remote, untouched, and prime for adventure, California’s Channel Islands might just be the coolest national park you’ve never heard of. The park protects a collection of five islands and their surrounding waters off the coast of Ventura, enticing travelers with secluded beaches, mind-blowing flora and fauna, and alluring sea caves. Known as the “Galapagos of North America,” the islands are home to whales, dolphins, sea lions, seals, otters, seabirds, and the endemic island fox.
Venturing around one or more of the islands by sea kayak affords many opportunities to see marine life and explore the dramatic geology of the archipelago. With camping options on all five of the islands, this park makes for one of the best kayaking and camping destinations in California. Whether you set out on your own or join a guide, here’s an inside look at how to spend a weekend getting to know the Channel Islands.
Getting to the Islands
The primary way to get to any of the five islands is with the boat service offered through Island Packers, the park-authorized concessionaire. Boats depart from Ventura (and nearby Oxnard for those traveling to Anacapa), and spaces should be reserved, especially in summer. If you would like to bring a personal kayak or a rental kayak from a local outfitter on the mainland, you can transport your boat on the ferry as long as it meets the boat company’s guidelines. Additional transport fees are required.
The National Park Service strongly discourages attempting to kayak from the mainland to any of the Channel Islands, as this area is a busy shipping route and is known for rough, fast-changing conditions.
Pick Your Island (or Islands)
If you only have a weekend for exploring, you’ll need to focus on one or two islands. Each of the five islands has a unique flair and specific considerations for paddling. In general, you’ll need to join a guided tour or be a well-equipped, experienced sea kayaker to paddle the Channel Islands.
Situated 21 miles from Ventura, this 96-square-mile island is the largest of the five and treats paddlers to some of the most spectacular—and most accessible—offshore adventures.
The park-authorized guide service for this island, Channel Islands Adventure Company, operates several tours that showcase the best of Santa Cruz Island, namely the beautiful sea caves around Scorpion Anchorage, the rugged shoreline of Potato Harbor, and Painted Cave, one of the world’s largest sea caves. As a bonus, several tours include snorkeling amid the giant kelp forests protected by the sanctuary.
Actually a collection of three neighboring islets, Anacapa lies 14 miles from Ventura and is almost as popular as Santa Cruz for kayaking.
Kayaking around East Anacapa—the most accessible islet for visitors—makes for an interesting adventure, as you won’t find any beaches here—on alls sides, steep cliffs meet the sea. The park-authorized outfitter for this island, Blue Ocean Kayaking, offers tours that include transportation to and from Ventura and afford paddlers unbeatable sea life viewing opportunities in the crystal-clear waters around East Anacapa. Meanwhile, paddlers with their own kayaks can load them on the passenger ferries and lower their kayaks directly into the water.
San Miguel, the farthest east island, is one of the most unique spots in the Channel Islands, though a decidedly tough one for paddlers. Strong, unpredictable winds and the absence of guided tours on this island mean San Miguel is reserved for highly-experienced sea kayakers bringing their own equipment.
Part of what makes San Miguel so fascinating is its colorful military history. It was once a bomb testing site, and the National Park Service warns that undetonated explosives may still lurk around the island. For this reason, a visit to San Miguel requires hanging out at the beach campground in Cuyler Harbor unless accompanied by a park ranger. For paddlers keen on making San Miguel their basecamp for the weekend, reserve a free ranger-led hike and savor the opportunity to learn about the island from someone who knows it best.
Nestled between San Miguel and Santa Cruz islands, Santa Rosa is the second largest of the Channel Islands and notable for its fickle weather conditions. Like San Miguel, the park service recommends only the most experienced open-water kayakers to travel around these windswept waters. Those up for the challenge will be rewarded with solitude and splendor: this remote island boasts a well-equipped campground, a pristine 3-mile-long beach, and several hiking trails.
Off on its lonesome, the tiny Santa Barbara Island lies more than 40 miles from the rest of the park and is accessible via a three-hour boat ride from Ventura on a variable, limited schedule (hardly more than a dozen boat trips per year). Bringing a kayak to explore around this speck of land surrounded by vast open waters would make for an unforgettable experience. Aside from paddling, most people visit Santa Barbara Island for a chance to see the extremely rare Scripps’s Murrelet seabird and hike the island’s 5.5 miles of nature trails.
In general, paddling from island to island in this archipelago requires thorough planning and advanced sea kayaking skills, such as open-water navigation, self-rescue, and the ability to handle strong winds. For a weekend trip, the most appealing multi-island itinerary would be paddling from Scorpion Ranch on Santa Cruz Island to East Anacapa Island, roughly 14 miles total with about four miles of open-ocean crossing.
Make Your Camping Reservations
After a solid day of kayaking, you’ll be ready for a well-deserved rest and a cozy spot to turn in for the night. Fortunately, all five islands offer year-round primitive campgrounds for a $15 reservation fee (required). Camping outside of established campgrounds or one of the two designated backcountry camp areas is prohibited in the park.
The campgrounds on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands are the only ones that provide potable water; campers in any other area must bring their own. Most of the Channel Islands, especially San Miguel and Santa Rosa, experience strong winds, so be sure to pack extra layers.
Tips for Self-Guided Paddlers
If setting out to explore the pristine and exciting waters around the Channel Islands without a guide, safety and preparedness should be a top priority. Having the requisite sea kayaking skills is a must, along with bringing the right gear for the journey, like wetsuits, helmets, PFDs, navigation equipment and ample food and water.