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Day Trip to California’s Channel Islands National Park

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Channel Islands National Park: California's Galapagos

Step out onto raw, largely unscathed landscape and back in time.  Dubbed "California's Galapagos," discover flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world! Tidepools and kelp forests are yours for discovering too, should you plan for kayaking, snorkeling, swimming or scuba diving.

There are five main islands that make up the Channel Islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara. Anacapa and Santa Cruz, the most popular islands, are about a one hour boat ride from Ventura's Harbor in Ventura, California.


Meet the Island Fox. A small fox that lives on six of the eight Channel Islands of California. The Island Fox is not found anywhere else in the world. There are six subspecies, one for each island it lives on.  Sit on that for a moment.

Learn more about the intriguing history and culture, times when people lived and ranched on Channel Islands here.

Courtesy of  werner22brigitte

Courtesy of werner22brigitte

Sea lions, Dolphins and Humpback Whales

When you book an Island Packers Cruise (helpful tips below) crossing the channel from the harbor at Ventura, California to Channel Islands National Park, it's likely you will see sea lions, and maybe dolphins feeding, and quite possibly Humpback Whales! If you for sure want to spy whales, book a boating excursion designed just for that. Just know, you won't disembark on any of the islands.

While crossing the channel on our way back from Santa Cruz, we lucked out and happened upon a megapod of dolphins feeding. Minutes later, we discovered several  Humpback Whales feeding among the dolphins and we were in heaven! The captain joined in our excitement and slowed the boat down so we could linger and watch in amazement to our hearts' content.  


What to do on Santa Cruz Island

Hike up to Cavern Point

Our boat left Ventura at 9 a.m. and landed about an hour later at Scorpion Beach on Santa Cruz Island.  From there, we opted for the hike up to Cavern Point led by Katherine, a naturalist who volunteers with Channel Islands National Park. Of course, you can choose any of the hikes listed here on your own. 

A moderate hike but easy enough for our kids ages 8 to 15 at the time, the Cavern Point Loop ended with amazing views of the rugged coastline. Even with the marine layer, it was breath-taking.

From Cavern Point, our two teenagers and I continued on to Potato Harbor, while my husband and the younger two headed back for snorkeling and exploring along Scorpion BeachPotato Harbor provides more spectacular coastal views and the sun appeared as we made our way there.

Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy it on one of the points!

Camp overnight

We went back and forth about camping overnight on Santa Cruz. As we gathered our intel on the island, we felt we didn't know enough about the trip or how long of hike to the campground. 

We opted to stay in a very cool, modern Best Western Plus Inn of Ventura instead. Newly renovated with outdoor pool, and close to Ventura's beach, downtown and the original Patagonia store, it was a perfect fit.

However, FOMO* occurred as soon as we set foot on Santa Cruz and realized it is a relatively short, flat, half-mile walk to the Scorpion Ranch campground. You just have to get all of your gear there yourself. And you can't miss your boat ride back.

Find helpful camping information here. If and when we go again, we are totally camping overnight on Santa Cruz. 

*fear of missing out

Snorkeling, scuba, and kayaking

The beach at Scorpion Anchorage is great for swimming, sunning, and picnics.  Don your snorkeling or scuba gear, or jump in a kayak and explore the kelp forest below the water's surface.  Learn more about kayaking excursions here.

We all brought our snorkeling gear, and two of the six of us actually braved the cool waters, sans wetsuit. Since we are not experienced sea kayakers and knowing the ocean waters could be rough, we decided not to rent kayaks with our crew this time around.  Maybe next time. 


Book a day trip with Island Packers

Let me make this really simple for you. There is only ONE WAY to book a boat ride out to the Channel Islands. Channel Islands National Park contracts with one company to provide excursions.  The one and only is Island Packers Cruises.

Do not waste your time searching and hoping for a cheaper alternative to transporting your family out to the Channel Islands.  You won't find one.

Island Packers aim to please and they are a stellar operation.  With their knowledgeable captains and helpful staff, their excursions are worth every penny.

Island Packers have been "cruising the California Channel Islands for education, recreation, and research since 1968." Along with a smart captain as your tour guide on the waters, there will most likely be a volunteer park guide. 


Tips for exploring Channel Islands National Park

  1. Definitely plan ahead! Island Packers excursions fill up way in advance. We booked ours about 4 weeks out and were lucky to find space on a trip for six people. I suggest booking 2 months out if you can.

  2. Visit Island Packers online to learn about their excursions and reserve your seats and space for kayaks etc. For families, we suggest a day trip to Santa Cruz. It cost our family of six $312.

  3. Just do it. It's worth every penny.

  4. Visit the Channel Islands National Park Visitor's Center before or after your trip. Learn more about the islands and add to your experience. Buy a sticker. Stamp your national park passport book.

  5. Arrive at least 30 minutes early to check in with Island Packers.

  6. Look at the weather forecast and pack layers. We went in June and there was a heavy marine layer until 2 p.m. Chilly boat ride, but when the sun came out we were peeling layers off.

  7. Take a picnic lunch, lots of water, and snacks. There are water spigots and vaulted bathrooms on Santa Cruz.

  8. Bring a towel, swimsuit, and snorkel gear if you're feeling super adventurous. My husband and son dared the cold waters and had a blast seeing the world underneath.

  9. Wear hiking shoes and bring water sandals if necessary. Do not skimp on footwear. These islands are rugged.

  10. Bring your best camera. You'll be taking pictures left and right. You may get really lucky and see all kinds of wildlife on the boat ride there and back...

  11. Wear a watch. You do not want to rely on a cell phone that may die and you do not want to miss your boat ride back to the mainland!


Simply be prepared

We LOVED our day trip to Santa Cruz island with Island Packers. Plan ahead and know your tastes for adventure and you'll have a great time!

Learn more about Channel Islands National Park in Fodor's Complete Guide to the National Parks of the West. We didn't even know "California's Galapagos" existed until we read about it. Our guide is tattered and worn.


Have you been to Santa Cruz or Anacapa or any of the islands part of Channel Islands National Park in southern California?  Tell us about it by commenting below, we'd love to know!