Hi travelers! Welcome to my guide on the beautiful Channel Islands National Park located off the southern coast of California. My name is Emily Pennington and I’m a writer and photographer. I grew up in suburban Houston – of all places – as the child of a Swedish immigrant (my mom).
I was lucky to get the opportunity to travel all over Western Europe when I was kid. In fact, I was put on my first flight with my family at just six weeks old! That inspired a formidable sense of wanderlust in me. Today, I love traveling around the US and discovering the beauty of our country. One unique place that I visited recently was Channel Islands National Park.
Awesome Day Trip to Channel Islands National Park
When I went to Channel Islands National Park, I took the classic all-day trip out of Ventura Harbor led by Island Packers Cruises. Considering the current construction at Scorpion Anchorage (slated to be complete later in 2021), it was a perfect way to see the largest of the islands in the park, go for a solid afternoon hike and try to spot a few endangered island foxes.
We left early and checked in at 8:45am to board a boat that left at 9:30am. Along the 1.5-hour boat ride out to Santa Cruz Island, we spotted a few lazy sea lions lounging in the sun and an enormous pod of over 100 dolphins leaping up and out of the water around the boat. It was just awesome.
Once on the island, my friend Ave and I opted for the 5-mile round trip hike to Pelican Bay. It undulated up and down steep hills, through live oak and grasslands, and ended at a rocky cove. The views of the Pacific Ocean were tremendous the entire way there. And we even saw four little foxes!
The boat ride back coincided with the winter sunset and, though it was frigid and windy on the boat, it felt completely dreamy to be whisked away across the water as the sky turned a hundred shades of tangerine.
Why the Channel Islands should be on your Bucket List
For those who don’t know, the Channel Islands are a series of rocky islets off the coast of Southern California. They are incredibly important habitats for nesting seabirds as well as eagles and the endangered island fox which was over-hunted by golden eagles and then reintroduced in 2004.
Channel Islands National Park is an excellent place to go camping in Southern California – especially if you want to feel a million miles away from home while only being a short boat ride away. Anyone living in California, or those traveling through, should definitely visit the Channel Islands!
Falling in Love with Pelican Harbor
I absolutely fell in love with Pelican Harbor. It was the perfect spot for a lunch break after a challenging hike. The sound of the small waves crashing, the craggy sea caves, and the curious little fox who came through the rocky beach are certainly snapshotted in my heart.
Whenever people ask what my spirit animal is, I tell them a fox. I have a fox tattoo on my back and seeing these incredible creatures in the wild always feels like a treat to me. Seeing a Santa Cruz Island Fox picking its way through the rocks and shells at Pelican Bay in the late afternoon light was such a magical experience. I smiled so much that my cheeks hurt!
How to Best Experience Channel Islands National Park
If you have only got one day to spend at the Channel Islands then the Prisoners Harbor day trip by Island Packers Cruises is absolutely the way to go! Every trip includes whale/dolphin watching on the way to and from the island – plus ample time to hike, explore and eat the lunch you brought.
I recommend checking out either Scorpion Anchorage or Anacapa Island if you wish to stay overnight. They are both said to be incredible in March and April when the wildflowers start to blossom and the weather warms up.
To really experience an adventure book a 2-3 night trip at Scorpion Anchorage and tack on a sea cave kayaking trip with Santa Barbara Adventure Company. It’s a great way to break up the hikes with some awesome water-based activities. How you choose to experience the stunning Channel Islands is up to you as there are plenty of options.
Where to Stay at Channel Islands National Park
Channel Islands National Park is largely a wilderness area but the Scorpion Campground on Santa Cruz has the most amenities and is the most accessible of the campgrounds in the park. Further south, Catalina Island (which is not part of the national park) has plenty of hotels and hiking opportunities. Hotel Atwater is one of the best on Catalina Island.
How to Reach the Channel Islands
Prices depend on where you are headed and if you are going for a day trip or overnight trip. Right now, a day trip to Prisoners Harbor (like the one I took) is $63 for a round-trip ticket. Only one company – Island Packers Cruises – offers trips out to the islands and they work closely with the park.
Need to Know Before you Go
Because of its close proximity to several large cities, the campgrounds in the Channel Islands fill up quickly. If you are looking to go on a weekend trip – especially during spring and summer – try to book six months in advance. I know that sounds like a lot but you don’t want to miss out.
It’s also a good idea to download topographic maps/GPS/trail info onto your phone before you get onto the boat. You likely won’t have any cellphone service on the islands. Plan everything in advance and wear a watch so you don’t miss the boat when it leaves after your hiking adventures.
Thanks for reading everyone and enjoy your trip to the Channel Islands!