channel islands national park

Ultimate Guide: Visiting and Camping on the Channel Islands National Park

Less than 50,000 people set foot on the Channel Islands each year, making it one of the least visited National Parks in the United States. However, since moving to Santa Barbara, hardly a day goes by we don’t get a glimpse of the islands some 30 miles away. So when the opportunity arose to embark on a Channel Islands National Park camping trip, we jumped at it.

However, it took a little time to figure out what we needed to do to secure a trip to the Channel Islands. So, if you need help planning an expedition to the Channel Islands National Park, I’ve got you covered!

Ultimate Guide to Plan a Camping Trip to the Channel Islands National Park

channel islands national park

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

It’s pretty grand year-round. Summer will be the warmest, but you might have to contend with foggy conditions, which could limit visibility in the morning and evenings. I went in early March, and we had TREMENDOUS conditions.

The good part about Central California is weather is consistently great, and you shouldn’t have significant weather issues.

Three things to do to visit and camp at Channel Islands

Follow the below steps to camp on the Channel Islands.

1. Reserve Campsite: If you plan to camp, this is the first thing to do. Each island has one established campground, but we’ll focus on Santa Cruz – the largest and most frequented. There are 31 campsites that can be reserved ahead of time.

As you can imagine, these are very popular and go quickly. So before you book any ferries or activities, ensure your campsite is locked in. There IS water available at the Scorpion Canyon campground on Santa Cruz.

There IS NOT water anywhere else on the island. You have to bring your own to those locations.

2. Find a ferry: Next up is finding a ferry. Island Packers has the monopoly here, so you have to go through them. They have multiple ferries to and from Santa Cruz each day. They’re less frequent to the other islands, and you’ll have to check online or call.

I’d recommend calling, as when I talked to them, they said their website wasn’t the most up-to-date. This is a significant second step in planning a trip to the Channel Islands.

3. Choose your activities: If you’re looking to snorkel or take a sea kayaking trip while in Channel Islands National Park, this is when you book those. You’ll want to use Island Kayaking, and it’s a great time!

visit channel islands

Where should I stay on the mainland before my trip?

To limit your drive time, you should stay in Ventura or Oxnard. You can also find a place in beautiful Santa Barbara if you want. However, that will be a 45-60 minute drive depending on traffic/construction.

Plan a trip to channel islands california channel islands national park camping

Other Important Information about Channel Islands National Park

Can I buy food once I land in the Channel Islands National Park?

There are no food or services on any of the Channel Islands. The last chance to order food or drinks is on the Island Packers ferry. They do have alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages available for purchase. They will announce a ‘last call’ of sorts as you get close to the Santa Cruz harbor.

How many days do you need in Channel Islands National Park?

I strongly recommend 2-3 days on the Islands. This will give an excellent opportunity to go hiking, kayaking, and see locations few tourists can visit. For our two-day, one-night camping trip, we saw a lot in 28 hours.

How do you spend a day in Channel Islands National Park?

While I recommend camping if you only have one day, here’s how I’d plan it.

First, book the earliest and latest ferries. Then, do a five-mile or so hike to Potato Harbor. This will show you a beautiful section of Santa Cruz Island. Then, be back around noon and book a kayaking or snorkeling trip.

Expect your ferry to leave around 4 pm. Your tour guide will ensure you don’t miss it!

channel islands kayaking

What should I pack for camping on Santa Cruz Island?

I pack light during camping trips, so we only brought our backpacking gear. But hilariously, some groups had grills, massive coolers, and huge tent sets ups. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. But considering how it’s only a half-mile walk to the campground, I guess you can manage the weight for that amount of distance.

Here’s everything we brought with us:

channel islands national park hiking channel islands national park camping

What to do on Santa Cruz Island

To keep things transparent, we didn’t leave the Scorpion Ranch area, so those looking for Del Norte information won’t find much help here. We arrived on the island around noon after taking the 10 am ferry.

They say it’s only an hour, but we stopped for dolphins and saw some whales too. (It’s a free whale-watching trip.) Once the ranger had given us a speech about protecting the island and following rules, we had free reign.

Getting to the Campsite at Channel Islands

While they say the campground is a half-mile away, I’d say it’s even less. While we just brought our standard backpacking gear, others had multiple duffel bags/coolers/stoves for their trip. So go for it if you can carry it half a mile for camping at Channel Islands. We, however, wanted to keep it simple and authentic.

Each campsite is pretty large (the official site says 6-15 people can be at each), but we could see 5-8 campsites from our spot. It is not the most private, but no National Park campground ever is.

Hiking in Channel Islands National Park

potato harbor channel islands national park
channel islands national park hikes channel islands national park camping

There are plenty of hiking options ranging from short 1.5-mile hikes to 10 miles or more. We chose the middle. We hiked up to Cavern Point from the back of the lower campground. This overlook is near the dock and is the most popular destination. From here, we hiked to Potato Harbor, a gorgeous view best for sunset.

Overall, we did five miles on this loop with modest elevation change but nothing too rigorous. If we’d had another day on the island, we would have loved to hike towards Smugglers Cove and see that side of Santa Cruz island.

Channel Islands National Park Camping at Scorpion Ranch

One of the campsites while camping at channel islands national park.

The campground is thankfully in a valley, which means it’s protected from strong winds. However, it is not protected from the island foxes, which are unique to the Channel Islands National Park. And because of this, they are on the top of the food chain and aren’t scared of humans.

Please use the food storage boxes provided at each site. If not, the foxes and ravens will get into your food. To get the whole experience, I strongly recommend Channel Islands National Park camping.


Related: What to see and do in Santa Barbara


Kayaking around the Channel Islands

channel islands kayak adventure
Plan a trip to channel islands kayaking

One of the more unique aspects of Channel Islands National Park is its numerous sea caves. Naturally, this piqued my interest, and thankfully there were openings with Island Kayaking to take their Adventure Sea Kayaking trip.

If you can afford it and it fits your schedule, I highly recommend getting out onto the open ocean and seeing these incredible natural formations. However, we did have a bit of an oopsie when we went into a very narrow cave, and the tide rolled in and flipped our kayak.

Thankfully, we were safe, though slightly scratched up.

FAQ: Camping at Channel Islands National Park

Are the Channel Islands worth visiting?

Heck yeah, they are! The Channel Islands are one of the least visited National Parks in the country. Yet, they’re also home to plant and animal species not found anywhere else on Planet Earth. Talk about a gem!

Due to its pristine nature and rare species, it’s one of the most remarkable National Parks America offers. Continue reading to see how you can plan a trip here.

Can you drive to Channel Islands National Park?

You cannot drive to the Channel Islands. The only way to access it is on a ferry via Island Packers. Their ferry system can take you to all islands – though Santa Cruz Island is the only one with daily trips.

How long is the ferry ride?

The ferry ride from Ventura Harbor to Santa Cruz Island was two hours. This included a whale-watching pause as some migrating grey and humpback whales were breaching. This is a perfect opportunity if you don’t get a chance to make a dedicated whale-watching trip while in the area.

How much does the ferry to Channel Islands National Park cost?

The ferry ride costs $63 round trip for adults, $58 for seniors, and $45 for kids old. If you are camping, it’s $84, $70, and $61, respectively. (You have to pay to have your stuff transported.)

Wrapping Up – Visiting & Camping at the Channel Islands National Park

I suggest two days of Channel Islands National Park camping if you can make it happen.

Aim for the main campground if you want a more glamping camp experience. On the other hand, if you’re okay backpacking while carrying a gallon of water, Smugglers Cove or Del Norte would be a great experience.

Kayaking exhausts you if it’s windy.

Be prepared for wind in the spring.

Until next time adventurers, take care and be safe.


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Author: Alec Sills-Trausch

Title: Founder of Explore with Alec

Expertise: Hiking, Backpacking, Photography, and Road Trips

Bio:

Alec Sills-Trausch is a hiker, backpacker, landscape photographer, and syndicated travel writer. He enjoys showing off the beauty of the world through his photos, videos, and written work on ExploreWithAlec.com. Alec is also a 2x cancer survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient, showing the world that there is a future from this terrible disease.

He lives in Washington, where he gets to enjoy the stunning PNW mountains in addition to all the other places he attempts to visit each year! You can see more work on IG at @AlecOutside