Lifestyle

Every Island Off the Coast of California Worth Trekking To

Published On 06/01/2016 Published On 06/01/2016
Anacapa Island
Inspiration Point at Anacapa Island | Tomas Tichy/Shutterstock

If you think the only kind of Islands we have in California serve burgers and a killer Mai Tai, then you’re missing the boat. There’s an entire coastline peppered with islands just waiting to be hopped, most of which are close enough to the shore to visit on a day trip or a weekend escape. From north to south, here’s the breakdown of all the Cali islands you should put on your bucket list this (and every) summer.

Jairo Rene Leiva/Shutterstock

Woodley Island

How to get there: Drive over the bridge from Eureka, or take a private boat to the marina.
Fees and permits: None -- it's free!

Explore the island and Humboldt Bay by renting a kayak, canoe, or stand up paddleboard from Humboats Kayak Adventures, or sign up for one of the guided tours. Go whale-watching on the Whale & Wildlife Tour, check out Indian Island and the Eureka coast on the Humboldt Bay Kayak Eco-Tour, or go for a relaxing paddle during the Sunset Kayak Tour. Once the sun goes down, you can see the lights of Old Town Eureka lit up from across the water. 

While the only restaurant on the island is the Cafe Marina and Woodley’s Bar, which serves mainly seafood dishes, there are local and commercial fishermen docking their boats in the marina, the largest in Humboldt Bay. Depending on the season, you can buy fresh fish and crab right off the boats. 

On the other side of Woodley, you’ll find the Gerald O. Hansen Wildlife Area. The nature preserve takes up most of the island, so if you’re into birdwatching, grab your binoculars and start practicing your best bird calls.

Flickr/bensonk42

Indian Island

How to get there: You can’t, but you can get a closer look on one of the Humboats Kayak Adventures kayak tours.
Fees and permits: Nada, unless you decide to illegally visit the island, which is sure to land you some fines and other trouble.

You probably couldn’t imagine a full-on massacre happening in the county most known for its population of pot-growing hippies, but the 1860 Wiyot Massacre happened on Indian Island right there in Humboldt Bay. Although you can’t visit this particular island, you can see it across the small channel from Woodley Island. It has a rich Native American history, and due to its checkered past and the tragedy that happened there, it’s worth knowing what you’re looking at from the other shore. 

Flickr/Bill Williams

The Brothers

How to get there: A 10-minute boat ride takes you to the island from the Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor in Richmond.
Fees and permits: Rooms are anywhere from $295-$375 a night. Day use is about $20 a person, and includes a tour of the light station, plus the boat ride to and from the island.

There are two islands in the Bay called The Brothers, one of which houses an old light station turned bed & breakfast. East Brother Light Station, about 30 minutes from Downtown San Francisco, has been there for 142 years, although people have only been bed & breakfasting there for the last 35 years. It’s pretty exclusive, since the Victorian-style place only has five rooms, one of which is in the old fog signal building (spooky!). It’s not exactly cheap to stay here either, but the price tag includes seasonal, multi-course gourmet meals, and since the light station is a non-profit, all of the proceeds go toward maintaining the historic property.

If you’re not the bed & breakfast type, but still want to visit the light station for a day trip, Saturdays are your in. You still have to make a reservation, but you’ll get a tour of the light station, and if you bring your own permit and poles, you can try your hand at fishing from the island. 

Flickr/Franco Folini

Angel Island

How to get there: The island is accessible by kayak, private boat, or ferry. Take either the Blue and Gold Ferry service from Pier 41 in SF, or the Tiburon/Angel Island Ferry from Downtown Tiburon.
Fees and permits: Camping is about $30 a night, unless you reserve one of the huge group sites, which is obviously more expensive. Tickets for either ferry are around $15, which includes the state park admission fee to get on the island. You can buy tickets online for the Blue and Gold Ferry from SF, but you can only buy tickets for the Tiburon/Angel Island Ferry in person before boarding the boat, and they only accept cash or check.

The largest natural island in San Francisco Bay, Angel Island is a landmass full of history. Some think of it as the less-welcoming version of Ellis Island: hundreds of thousands of immigrants were processed (and detained) here in the early 1900s. The old immigration station and barracks have been renovated and are open for public tours now. The military has posted up here during every major war, dating back to the Civil War, and when the Nike missile base was deactivated in the '60s, the island was turned into the state park that it is today. 

There are 13 miles of hiking and biking trails to explore, around 20 campsites to stay at, and several beaches to sunbathe on. The campsites are first come, first served, so don’t get all the way to the island only to be turned away with your tent between your legs during peak tourist season. Plan ahead and reserve a spot in advance. 

While you're there, make the climb up the massive Mount Livermore. At 788ft, it might not be Everest, but it is the highest point on the island and has incredible views of the Bay from the top. 

If you’re just visiting for the day, join one of the island tram or Segway tours, then grab lunch at the Angel Island Cafe. From weekends in June through October, the Cantina hosts the Angel Island live music series on its deck. There are also plenty of places to picnic, but if you don’t want to haul an ice chest full of food out there, you can always order box lunches that'll be waiting for you when you get off the ferry. 

Flickr/Paul Hamilton

Treasure Island

How to get there: You can take the bus from SF to Treasure Island, or you could brave the drive over the Bay Bridge yourself. You're also allowed to arrive by boat at the Treasure Isle Marina.
Fees and permits: If you’re driving west over the Bay Bridge from Oakland, you’ll have to pay a $4 or $6 toll, depending on the day and time. If you’re cool enough to get there by boat, the guest slips are $1.50/ft/night in the Treasure Isle Marina.

This man-made island off the coast of San Francisco is known for two things: the Treasure Island Music Festival and a huge monthly flea market. Even if neither of those things are going on during your visit, there's still plenty to do in this roughly 400-acre escape. Foodies will love the brunch spots and multiple bars for wine tastings. Folks who are looking for an outdoor experience can go fishing from the jetty, rent a bike to ride around the island, and/or picnic at Clipper Cove. Just figure out where to find the best cocktails on the island before you go.

Anacapa Island | Asif Islam/Shutterstock

Anacapa Island

How to get there: Public boat transportation to the Channel Islands is provided by Island Packers. Private boats are also allowed to visit all five islands, but private planes are not.
Fees and permits: Day use is $59, overnight camping is $79, and the wildlife cruise to Anacapa is $38. Camping fees are $15 per night for family-use sites, and $40 per night for group sites, on top of the $79 overnight transport fee.

As part of the Channel Islands, Anacapa sits closest to the mainland. While it's made up of three islets, only the most eastern one is open for exploring and camping (the other two are part of a marine conservation area and are off limits). Since it's basically a floating plateau with giant cliffs on all sides, you’ll have to climb a ladder from the boat and walk about 157 steps up a staircase to get to the flattened top. This also means that there isn’t any beach access, because there isn’t a beach to access. 

Although you can still kayak and snorkel, you’ll have to lug all of your gear down that ladder to the water and back up when you’re finished. There’s not much on this islet aside from a historic lighthouse and a visitors center, but its remoteness is part of the allure. There’s 1.5 miles of trails to wander and seven reservable primitive overnight campsites. Keep in mind that “primitive” means exactly that: there is no potable water, no toilet, and no trash cans. Bring everything you’ll need for your stay, and pack out all of your trash when you leave.

On certain days between November and April, you can visit the tide pools at Frenchys Cove on the south side of the middle islet. You’ll go from the tour boat to the shore via skiff, so prepare to get wet. Since this is an educational tour, it’s popular with the kiddos trying to get their learn on, so prepare for the possibility of spending your day tide pooling with a bunch of kids. 

Flickr/Craig Stanfill

Santa Cruz Island

How to get there: Public boat transportation to the Channel Islands is provided by Island Packers. Private boats are also allowed to visit all five islands, but private planes are not.
Fees and permits: Day use is $59, overnight camping is $79. Camping fees are $15 per night for family-use sites, and $40 per night for group sites, on top of the $79 overnight transport fee. 

Santa Cruz is not only the largest of the Channel Islands, it’s the largest island in all of California. Explore the three impressive mountain ranges on this 96-square-mile piece of land. The terrain varies from sea caves, tide pools, cobblestone beaches, and low-lying wetlands, to deep canyons full of springs and streams. Spot whales from the island's highest point (2000ft!) during their migration from December through mid-February. If you want to see something you literally cannot see anywhere else in the world, then seek out the eight species of plants that only exist on this island. 

Hike, kayak, snorkel, and explore the tide pools on a day trip, or camp out overnight at one of the 35 reservable campsites at Scorpion Anchorage or Prisoners Harbor. Thirty-one of those sites are located at Scorpion Anchorage where there are both vault toilets and potable water. 

Depending on how much you enjoy backpacking, just getting to Prisoners Harbor will feel like a punishment. You have to walk three and a half miles uphill with all of your gear to get to the four campsites here. Since there is no potable water, you’ll be carrying everything you’ll need for your stay, including plenty of drinking water. But the benefit of staying overnight, here or back where you have toilet access, is the chance to hike some of the longer trails that you wouldn't be able to finish if you were only there for the day. 

Flickr/Ken Lund

Santa Rosa Island

How to get there: Public boat transportation to the Channel Islands is provided by Island Packers. You can take a plane from the Camarillo Airport to Santa Rosa Island with Channel Islands Aviation. Private boats are also allowed to visit all five islands, but private planes are not.
Fees and permits: The day use fee is $82; camping is $114. 

Island Packers only takes visitors to Santa Rosa Island between April and November, but it’s well worth planning the trip. This island is the second-largest in the Channel Islands, with beautiful white sand beaches, a canyon creek that runs all year, plus camping and hiking. 

The boat schedule is designed to accommodate two or three day camping trips, but there are day-trip options available, too. There are 15 campsites with water, flushable toilets, and showers, but remember to pack extra food in case the weather turns and Island Packers can’t come back to pick you up at the scheduled time. Backcountry camping is also an option, but only for experienced backpackers. 

You can often see dolphins and whales on the ride to and from the island, and if the conditions are safe, you can stop to check out Painted Cave, one of the world’s largest sea caves, on the boat ride back to Ventura. 

Flickr/Citrix Online

Santa Barbara Island

How to get there: Public boat transportation to all of the Channel Islands is provided by Island Packers. Private boats are also allowed to visit all five islands, but private planes are not.
Fees and permits: The day use fee is $82; camping is $114. 

It’s 47 miles from the mainland to Santa Barbara Island, so between July and October there are only two boats a month that will take you on the three-hour journey. This is another one of those cliff islands, so you’ll have to climb a ladder from the boat to actually get onto the land. Once you’re up there, you’ll find five miles of trails and 10 primitive campsites. There’s no beach, but you can bring your snorkel or a kayak to explore the sea caves and the island’s coastline.

Flickr/Felix's Endless Journey

San Miguel Island

How to get there: Public boat transportation to the Channel Islands is provided by Island Packers. You can take a plane from the Camarillo Airport to Santa Rosa Island with Channel Islands Aviation. Private boats are also allowed to visit all five islands, but private planes are not.
Fees and permits: The day use fee is $105; camping is $147.

Even though the island is open as of mid-May, Island Packers isn’t taking visitors to San Miguel right now. The Scorpion Anchorage pier on Santa Cruz Island was damaged during a storm, and until it’s repaired, all of the skiffs used to get ashore on San Miguel Island are being used to get people onto the more popular Santa Cruz Island instead. Sorry, guys. 

Thanakorn Kunta/Shutterstock

Catalina

How to get there: The Catalina Island Ferry, helicopter, private plane, or private boat.
Fees and permits: The hour-long ferry ride from San Pedro, Long Beach, or Dana Point is about $74 round trip, but it’s free on your birthday. The helicopter ride is about 15 minutes, and you can catch a flight from Long Beach for $250 round trip, San Pedro for $300, Santa Ana for $390, and Burbank for $750. Camping in Two Harbors ranges from $22-$70 per person per night, depending on the campsite and the time of year. Group sites at Brisas Del Mar and Bahia Azul campgrounds are $725 per night. 

Last, but certainly not least, is the beautiful Catalina Island. Arriving on the Avalon side of the island feels like you’ve somehow landed on a Grecian coastline. Boats are majestically moored in perfect semi-circle rows in the cove, and the hillside is dotted with white houses and terracotta rooftops cascading toward the water. 

Avalon has something for everyone: adventurous types can sign up for a dolphin excursion, go ziplining, take a glass bottom boat tour, or hop in a Hummer to explore the remote parts of the island (try to spot the elusive buffalo that live in the hills). Afterwards, relax on the oceanfront cabana at the Descanso Beach Club, or have dinner at one of the fine dining restaurants along Crescent Ave. Very few cars are allowed on the island, but you can easily walk from one end of Avalon to the other. Cruising the town on a bike or in a golf cart rental is the way to go. 

Two Harbors, on the other side of Catalina, might as well be a world away from the posh accommodations in Avalon. This is the part of the island where you can camp, hike, bike, kayak, snorkel, and truly get away from it all. There are five campgrounds to stay at, including some secluded boat-in sites and tent cabins. Campsites need to be reserved in advance, and you need a permit to hike, but it’s free. 

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Sara Norris is a freelance writer and photographer who would love to spend the summer island-hopping. Follow her on Instagram to see if she makes it @saraknorris.

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