How to Visit Channel Islands National Park

How to Visit Channel Islands National Park

Santa Cruz Island Channel Islands National Park

Santa Cruz Island View from Potato Harbor Trail

How do you get to Channel Islands National Park?

The Channel Islands National Park is a wonderful day trip from Los Angeles, Santa Barbara or anywhere within a 2 hour drive. Ventura and Oxnard California offer harbors with Ferry services operated by Island Packers. Island Packers is the contracted ferry service for visitors to the protected islands of the Channel Islands National Park.

We incorporated a trip to visit Channel Islands National Park  after a weekend visit to Ojai, California. It worked out well for us, as we were able to tour the charming town of Ojai and then book our trip over to the Channel Islands on a Monday. Ojai is 25 minutes away from the Ventura harbor where we caught the ferry.

Here is a 1 day itinerary for visiting Ojai, CA – what to see, do and eat in this charming town
Channel Islands Ferry

Ventura California Ferry to Channel islands National Park

Booking the ferry and logistics

Read more about taking the ferry over and where to hike by clicking read more
Booking the ferry to Channel Islands National Park was a bit confusing.  We were unsure of what destination we wanted to visit (which one of the 5 protected islands).  I called the Island Packers office, and the representative was extremely helpful.  She recommended visiting Santa Cruz Island (not to be confused with the city of Santa Cruz). She also suggested Scorpion Ranch on Santa Cruz as our drop off point to visit.  Scorpion Ranch hosts the  welcome center (only one in the park), volunteer docent led hikes, and is the all around the best choice for a first-time visit.

What to bring & other tips

  • Pack for all types of weather, marine layer in a.m., bright sun in afternoon, wind on the boat.
  • Bring water as there is no easy source for water on the island
  • You can bring a cooler, a sun shade for the beach, wet suits, food, etc. There is a day storage container if you want to hike without these items. There is a weight restriction. Check the website.
  • Leave no trace! As in all National Parks pack in and out what you bring. Be careful not to drop food and do not feed the animals. Our volunteer docent was extremely addamant about that fact.
  • We had calm seas, but if the seas are rough people do get seasick on the ferry.
  • There is a 72 hr cancellation for the ferry with no penalty (check for current rules) and they cancel & reimburse you if the weather is too rough.
  • According to our guide, there are no poisonous snakes on the island..and the top of the food chain is a cute but sly island fox.
  • The water is crystal clear..I wish I had brought my bathing suit for after the hike.
Channel Islands National Park Ferry

Ferry to Channel Islands National Park

The Ferry ride experience


Throughout the year it is possible to see Gray Whales, Humpback Whales, Blue Whales and  Minke Whales, Orca Whales, Common Dolphin, Risso’s Dolphin, Bottlenose Dolphin, Pacific White Sided Dolphin and Dall’s Porpoise.

We saw many common dolphins in pods. The  dolphins surfed the wake of the boat and entertained us for a good 20 minutes on the way over!

Unfortunately we did not see any whales, but if you check out the board to the left, you can see it is possible.

Arrival at Scorpion Ranch – Santa Cruz Island – Channel Islands National Park


Rocky Beach on Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz Island – Scorpion Ranch
The Ferry took about 1 hour including stops for marine life viewing. We disembarked with about 75 other visitors and decided to participate in the docent led hike to Potato Harbor Lookout. It was a very educational hour with the volunteer. We learned about the history of the island and some facts about the endemic species to the island.

​After 1 hour with the guide, we continued on hiking on the Potato Harbor Trailhead that was a 4.9 mile loop with 600 feet of elevation. This is rated an easy to moderate hike in regards to mileage & elevation. It was the perfect amount of hiking, in order to allow time to get back to the visitors center, sit on the beach and chill, and wait in line to board the ferry at 4 p.m.

Channel Islands National Park

Potato Harbor Trail Santa Cruz Island

A few facts about Channel Islands National Park

  • Channel Islands established in 1980
  • Of the 8 Channel Islands, 5 are protected (Santa Cruz Island(biggest), San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Anacapa, & Santa Barbara Island)
  • The 8 islands create an archipelago that extends for 160 miles from San Miguel in the North to San Clemente Island in the South.
  • Santa Catalina Island or better knows as Catalina (a popular resort city by boat from LA) is part of the Channel Islands but is not protected.
  • 150 unique species of plants found only there and nowhere else in the World including the island fox
  • Water surrounding the islands makes up the Channel Island National Marine Sanctuary
  • Channel Islands were colonized 13,000 years ago
  • The oldest North American human remains found were on the Channel Islands from the time period.

Will I visit Channel Islands National Park again?

Kayaking Santa Cruz Island

Kayaking Santa Cruz Island
Yes! One more day trip to Santa Cruz Island – Scorpion Ranch to take a kayaking tour of the caves. I would like to go back to kayak and hike on the Southwest side of the island. Otherwise, I would not opt to visit the other protected islands within Channel Islands National Park. They have the same landscape, and I have way too many other National Parks to visit!!

Love National Parks? 

Here is a 4 Day itinerary for Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada
A list of 61 National Parks of the United States in alphabetical order

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Published by Judy Hughes

I am a small group trip leader for 2 travel clubs. We check out cool and off the beaten path places around the World. Adventure is our specialty. I love to take notes and share the travel tips with you in my blog! Hope you check it out!

4 Comments to “How to Visit Channel Islands National Park”

  1. This looks amazing. I have been only to SF and Napa, but would love to explore more of Cali. The caves and water looks so spectacular. I do enjoy taking tours and learning about the places we visit. Sounds like you had a great time!
    jess xx

    1. Judy Hughes says:

      Thanks Jess…a fabulous trip from LA would be to spend a couple days in LA..have a blog post about it. Drive up through Malibu to Ventura on the PCH stay in Ojai CA (blog post about it) and then take the ferry over to the Channel Islands. There is so much to do in the mid-coast of CA it is mind boggling!

  2. Wow!
    What an amazing trip and breathtakingly beautiful park.
    Your photos definitely make me want to experience in sights in person.
    I have not had the opportunity to explore California outside the major cities.
    But, this is an add to my travel bucket list, come retirement!

    Distinctly Southern Style

    1. Judy Hughes says:

      Thanks Rosemary! It is an incredible State to see!