Dive into the Enchanting Channel Islands—Just a Stone’s Throw from Southern California.

Channeling the islands.

  • Category
  • Written by
    Ginny Prior
  • Above
    Photo by Lottie Keenan

Bison, bobcats and bears. These creatures are common in our national parks. Garibaldi, island foxes and island scrub jays—not so much. Yet the waters off Channel Islands National Park are teeming with the bright orange garibaldi—the California state marine fish. And the tiny foxes and scrub jays are among Channel Islands species found nowhere else on the planet.

Rare Torrey pines forest on Santa Rosa Island. Photographed by Doug Mangum.

The Channel Islands consist of eight bodies of land that stretch near the Southern California coast, located anywhere from 12 to 70 miles off the mainland. Five of them make up Channel Islands National Park. The wildlife is abundant, and the crystal clear water makes it one of the best cold-water diving spots on the planet. In less than two hours from the South Bay, you can be on a boat bound for this enchanting offshore world.

Getting to the islands is often half the fun, because you’re almost certain to see whales, dolphins and scads of seabirds en route.

Within the national park, San Miguel Island is known for its tens of thousands of seals. Santa Rosa Island has stands of rare Torrey pines, and Santa Barbara Island is a sanctuary for nesting seabirds. Anacapa, the nearest island to the mainland, is a haven for the world’s largest breeding colonies of western gulls and brown pelicans. Santa Cruz, the second-nearest and largest of the islands, has hundreds of sea caves to explore.

Independent kayakers can paddle in and among these caves, but guided tours with the park’s official concessionaire, Channel Islands Adventure Company, are recommended. Once in the caves, you’ll see purple sea stars and tiny crabs scurrying across the dripping rocks. You may even spot a sea lion resting on a rocky outcropping.

Above Brown pelicans on Anacapa Island. Photographed by Lottie Keenan.


Painted Cave on Santa Cruz is one of the largest sea caves in the world—big enough to house a blimp. Even if you don’t opt for a kayak tour, you can see Painted Cave on a boat tour with Island Packers Cruises, the park’s official boat concessionaire. The family-owned company takes passengers from Ventura Harbor to Santa Cruz and Anacapa islands year-round, and the outer islands from March through November.

Island Packers co-owner Cherryl Connally says each island has its own charm, but one of her favorite spots is on Anacapa. “Inspiration Point is a great place to breathe and rest and enjoy the ambience,” she says. “It’s outrageously beautiful.”

Santa Rosa Island, she shares, is popular for camping. Santa Cruz is known for its vast kelp forests off Scorpion Anchorage, where the diving and snorkeling are amazing. “It’s a protected marine sanctuary, so snorkeling there you’ll see a lot of fish,” says Cherryl. Channel Islands Adventure Company offers snorkel and wetsuit rentals, and guided snorkeling and kayaking tours from the sandy beach at Scorpion.

Each island offers scenic trails for hikers. One Anacapa trail leads to a 1932 lighthouse, and another to Inspiration Point.

Elephant seals on San Miguel Island. Photographed by Chuck Graham.

On Santa Cruz Island, Prisoners Harbor is known for its native plants such as giant coreopsis and island buckwheat. More than 2,000 species of plants and animals live in Channel Islands National Park—145 of which are endemic to the area, according to the National Park Service.

You can camp on any of the five Channel Islands. It’s a shared experience—you’ll cohabit with thousands of birds, seals and sea lions on Anacapa; island scrub jays and the indigenous island fox on Santa Cruz; marine birds and an island fox subspecies on Santa Rosa; and the prehistoric-looking brown pelicans on both Anacapa and Santa Cruz.

Getting to the islands is often half the fun, because you’re almost certain to see whales, dolphins and scads of seabirds en route. “For many years we didn’t have the whales in our channels,” says Cherryl, “but because we have a sanctuary and the ocean has changed, we pretty much have them year-round.”

If all of these adventures haven’t piqued your interest in the Channel Islands, there’s the appeal of romance. With the water so clear, you may be able to see male garibaldis luring ladies into their kelp dens during the spring-to-fall reproductive season. When their eggs have been laid, the females swim away, leaving the males to raise the fry. It’s just one of nature’s many wonders in Channel Islands National Park.

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