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Visiting the Channel Islands, California - Whale watching, Hiking, Diving & More

Updated on July 19, 2010
Arch off of Santa Cruz Island, California. My original photography, see link for a bigger view and for purchase in the Links section.
Arch off of Santa Cruz Island, California. My original photography, see link for a bigger view and for purchase in the Links section.

California's Galapagos

The Channel Islands can offer a different view of California then the typical run of cities, beaches, mountains, deserts, amusement parks and other more well known attractions.

Even though they are a National Park, they are largely unknown even to those living in California so you won't find a tourist trap there. Wildlife dominates in the park. The Islands have kelp beds and a protected channel around them which host dolphins, sea lions, migrating whales and other sea creatures. On land you'll find Brown Pelicans, cormorants and other sea birds. You can also find endemic species like the Island Fox, Channel Islands Spotted Skunk, Island Scrub Jay and several others species.

Activities on various Islands include hiking, camping, diving, kayaking, surfing and stand up paddle boarding.

Even the boat ride there is a treat, more often than not I've seen dolphins while en route.

I've had the good fortune to visit the Islands in a variety of ways over the years and hope my experience will help out any who want to visit them.

Island Options

Day Trips

If you only have a day to visit the Islands, never fear, you can still have fun.

Visitor Centers

There are two Channel Islands Visitor Centers located on the mainland. I've been been to the one in Ventura, California at Ventura Harbor. It features exhibits including a touchable tidepool exhibit, a short film, informative rangers you can ask questions of, and a gift shop. It's a fun stop for families with small children or if you can't spend the time to get to the Islands themselves. Keep in mind though that a trip to the Islands will usually take all day so you usually can't go to the visitor center and out to the Islands on the same day unless you have chartered a boat or will sail on your own.

The other visitor center is in Santa Barbara, California and is also located in a harbor.

Whale Watching

Another option is to take a boat around the Islands. I did this as part of a whale watching excursion which went out of the closest island to Ventura Harbor, Anacapa. The captain warned us that if it was our first trip whale watching we were spoiled for life though. We saw numerous sea lions and sea birds and a huge pod of Common Dolphins surrounding the boat. The highlight was seeing Bottlenose Dolphins playing with Grey Whales.


Another day trip option is to take a boat to the island for a hike. My first visit to the Islands was as a trip to Anacapa Island, a small high cliff island where the light house, fog horn and Island Visitor Contact Station is located. It was a beautiful island with easy hiking and great views. Though if you go during sea gull nesting time you'll need to watch where you're going since their nests are on the ground!

I've also done the day hike trip to Santa Cruz Island, a large Island with an Olive orchard on it as well as a number of coves. Again easy hiking and a remote wilderness feel where you can also find Indian middens. The company we came out with offered a free nature tour hike of the area but my friend and I opted to go on our own.

Overnight Trips

I'm lucky enough to have a friend who lives on a sailboat so I've gone out to the Islands as crew and slept at anchorage. We've done this off of Santa Cruz Island at Twin Harbors and Yellowbanks.

If you don't know a person with a boat you can charter one or opt to go with a commercial company that takes hikers and campers out to the Islands at a reasonable cost. There is camping on Santa Cruz, Anacapa and San Miguel Islands. I've heard San Miguel is very windy though so if you go there be prepared.

Camping on the Islands is done without manmade facilities (no restrooms, etc), you must bring everything you need, including drinking water.


Kayaking around the Channel Islands is great! If you use Island Packers, an official concessionaire that takes folks out to the islands, you can have them stow your kayak. Kayaks can be rented at the harbor if you don't have one of your own. The coast line of the islands is of rocky cliffs with sea caves and delightful coves. Some have rocky beaches while others have some sand. I've gone and kayaked and then went snorkeling from the kayak in a protected cove. Most folks choose to stay on top of their kayaks though.

Dive Trips

A few diving companies offer dive trips out to the Islands. The kelp forests and the National Park status of the Islands make for great diving. Temperatures are cool and you will need a wetsuit. Dives are usually no deeper than 30 feet. A few dive boat companies go out to the Islands. I went with one that has an engine water jacuzzi on board for a very relaxing ride back to harbor. I've been diving off of Anacapa and Santa Cruz. You can get a fishing license and get scallops and fish if you like. Wildlife I've seen on dives: playful sea lions, a small harmless shark, lobster, an octopus and numerous fish and ocean plants.

Surfing and Stand Up Paddleboard Surfing

I haven't done it myself but I there is some surfing at the Islands when a large swell is around. Check weather conditions before you go.

Diver and juvenile Sea Lions, Anacapa Island, Channel Islands, California. Image taken by Clark Anderson/Aquaimages
Diver and juvenile Sea Lions, Anacapa Island, Channel Islands, California. Image taken by Clark Anderson/Aquaimages


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    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

      I would love to take a boat ride around the islands and do some whale watching. Sounds as though you have gotten to enjoy this national park many different ways. Nice! Up and interesting votes and am adding a link from this hub to one just published regarding the 8 national parks in California.

    • Eileen R profile image

      Eileen R 7 years ago from Southern California

      Thanks for the kind words, and yes, I do like living here :)

    • Joy56 profile image

      Joy56 7 years ago

      all i can say is wish i was there... It is raining in Manchester, but what is new.

    • climberjames profile image

      climberjames 7 years ago from Steel City

      You are very lucky to live in California!!

    • cupid51 profile image

      cupid51 7 years ago from INDIA

      It appears as a very attractive place to visit! Your descriptions made me visualize the place! Thanks for the great hub!

    • wytegarillaz profile image

      wytegarillaz 7 years ago from Australia

      We like your hub, looks beautiful !