Accessible by boat and airplane, the five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park are located off the southern coast of California, near Santa Barbara. There are more than 2,000 species of plants and animals living in and around the Channel Islands, including dozens of species unique to the islands. The park offers a wide range of activities, such as whale-watching by boat and snorkeling in the kelp beds off Anacapa, the island nearest to the mainland.
Entrance fees: Admission is free.
Visitor center: Robert J. Lagomarsino Visitor Center is open daily, except Thanksgiving Day and December 25. Two additional visitor centers are located on Anacapa and Santa Barbara islands.
Other services: Three ranger stations and three boat-in camps
Accommodations: Campsites are available year-round on all five islands. Reservations are recommended. 800-365-CAMP.
Channel Islands National Park comprises the five northernmost islands of an eight-island chain jutting from the Pacific along the Santa Barbara coast. Each of the islands has unique offerings for tourists. On Santa Rosa Island, archeological and paleontological sites are abundant. Santa Barbara offers some of the best snorkeling in Landing Cove, where sea stars and spiny sea urchins can be seen. In the spring, a waterfall flows past the entrance to a massive sea cave known as Painted Cave on Santa Cruz Island. Tens of thousands of sea lions and seals habitate Point Bennet on San Miguel Island every winter. And Anacapa Island’s underwater kelp forest is a fascinating site for travelers to observe.
The Channel Islands are a refuge for many unique plants and animals. For tips on viewing the plant and animal life, go to the next page.
The lands of Channel Islands National Park were inhabited as early as 11,000-30,000 years ago. How people arrived there still remains a mystery. Today the fire pits containing the bones of small mammals that the people cooked can still be found in the outlying islands.
Archaeological remains are not the only treasures on the islands. On tidepool walks visitors may see starfish, sponges, periwinkles, crabs, and limpets. While snorkeling or scuba diving, the seaweed may seem like a multihued carpet on the sea floor, with sea anemones nesting together in small colonies that resemble wildflower beds. Boat-in backcountry campers will observe a variety of wildlife depending on the time of year. In the spring, double-crested cormorants, brown pelicans, pigeon guillemots, surfbirds, and oyster catchers prowl along the coast.
In June, hulking sea lions give birth to their young while vying for space on the rocks with the bulbous-snouted northern elephant seals. In December, 20-ton gray whales migrate south from their summer feeding grounds up north in places like Glacier Bay National Park. Higher up in the mountains, the sand dunes are anchored by the abundant vegetation, such as tree sunflowers that burst into a rich golden hue in the autumn months. Many people believe the best time of year to visit Channel Islands National Park is in the fall.
Only 90 minutes by boat from the coast of California is Arch Rock, a 40-foot high arch and the gateway to the Channel Islands. It makes a spectacular entrance to Anacapa Island for visitors who have made the journey from the mainland. The formation was once part of the rocky island, but now it stands offshore as a dramatic, delicate arch.
After climbing up 154 steps from the landing platform, visitors can stroll along a one-and-a-half-mile nature trail on their own or join a park ranger for a guided tour that reveals a lot of island lore.
In many ways, Anacapa is a microcosm of the Channel Islands. Making a home here are such unusual plants as the tree sunflower, which bursts into a rich golden color in autumn. In spring and summer, thousands of wildflowers bloom here, despite the dearth of fresh water on the island. Elsewhere, there are the remnants of a Chumash midden used for cooking.
In spring, thousands of sea birds, such as petrels and oystercatchers, nest on the island’s rocky cliffs high above the sea. On fine days, the nature trail offers outstanding views of the mainland from its vantage point on the cliffs more than 140 feet above the sea.
All five of the Channel Islands have spectacular views and interesting wildlife. Here are some of our favorites places to take photos:
From a distance, it’s plain to see that Channel Islands National Park is a mountain range that is nearly submerged in the sea. In the next section, we’ll explain how the Channel Islands were formed.
The five islands of Channel Islands National Park — San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, and Anacapa — are strung like great peaks of a mountain range lost long ago to the relentless sea. It takes little imagination to picture their bases on the seafloor, surrounded by foothills and valleys. The islands are volcanic remnants of an ancient mountain range that was once the western extension of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Today, only the eroded peaks rise above the ocean, but the islands were formed by the same geologic upheaval that created the mountains on the mainland. About half a million years ago, violent and extensive earthquakes gradually separated the islands from the mainland; over time, wind and water eroded them down to the outcroppings of today.
The islands may have been inhabited as early as 30,000 years ago by people who left behind a cooking pit that still contains the burned bones of a small mammoth. How people and mammoths got to the islands remains a mystery. On Santa Cruz island, there are also remnants of villages built by later inhabitants.
More recently the Chumash lived here. They went to sea in long plank canoes, caulked with tar from oil seeps, to fish and to hunt for seals, whales, and sea otters. Their peaceful existence was shattered by the arrival of the Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who landed on San Miguel island in 1542. The Spanish hired the native people to hunt sea otters for their pelts. Over time the Spanish brought other people to the islands to help with the hunt. They warred against the Chumash, finally driving them to the mainland.
Beaches, rocky harbors, and inlets provide a habitat for such exotic creatures as the northern elephant seal, which can weigh up to three tons and wriggles up sandy beaches on its belly. An equally familiar sight is the thousands of California sea lions that return to San Miguel each year to mate, give birth, and rear their young. The islands also accommodate sea otters, northern fur seals, and all kinds of nesting sea birds.
Sea otters were hunted almost to extinction to satisfy the booming European fur business. Recently they have begun thriving again on the Channel Islands, which today are a refuge for wildlife and plants found nowhere else.
A marine sanctuary extends for six nautical miles around each island, protecting a giant kelp forest that provides a habitat for nearly 1,000 species of fish and many unusual marine plants. Each December, great gray whales stop by the islands to feed on the bountiful sea life.
At Channel Islands National Park, there are archaeological curiosities to examine and ample flora and fauna to explore. Travel to the park in any of the seasons for different experiences: witness a myriad of wildflowers in the spring, revel in the sunny sights in the summer, dive into the clear waters in the fall, or watch migrating gray whales in the winter. A land of ancient beauty awaits visitors.
1901 Spinnaker Drive
Ventura, CA 93001