The Galápagos of North America Is a Marine Wonderland Hiding in Plain Sight

Come for the tiny foxes. But watch out for land mines.

Looking down on Smugglers Cove on Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park, California
Smugglers Cove on Santa Cruz Island. | Natalie Ruffing/Getty Images
Smugglers Cove on Santa Cruz Island. | Natalie Ruffing/Getty Images
Welcome to National Parks Uncovered, where we’ll help you discover the beauty of America’s most underrated—and least-crowded—national parks—from sweeping landscapes where you can get up close and personal with mountains, glaciers, and volcanoes to sunny paradises hiding out near major cities like Chicago and LA. To find out what natural wonders you’ve been missing out on, check out the rest of our underrated national parks coverage.

Known as “The Galápagos of North America,” Channel Islands National Park is home to nearly 150 endemic species that can only be found on (and below) its five idyllic islands. It’s a place of unreal oceanic kayaking and hikes along solitary beaches. Yet it remains vastly overlooked—which is odd considering it sits about 90 minutes north off the coast of Los Angeles.

Despite having tens of millions of potential visitors in the surrounding counties, Channel Islands attracted only about 320,000 visitors in 2021 (or about 1/10 of Yosemite, making it the 47th-most visited of America’s 63 national parks). Many in nearby metropolises like LA, San Diego, and San Francisco haven’t even heard of it.

Make no mistake: This is a far cry from nearby Catalina Island—there are no cars, gift shops, restaurants, or other creature comforts. But what Channel Islands lacks in wine mixers it makes up for in some of the most pristine, largely untouched nature you’re ever likely to experience—all a short ferry ride from busy Ventura.

“Traveling out there is like taking a step back in time 100, 150 years,” says Channel Islands chief of interpretation & public information officer Yvonne Menard. “You see the mainland kind of disappear on the horizon and then you enter one of the richest marine environments in the world as you cross the Santa Barbara Channel… It’s definitely a hidden gem.”

On these islands, you’ll find miles of secluded beaches, dramatic cliffs, historic ranches, gorgeous natural sea caves, and a mind-boggling assortment of animals from whales and bald eagles to sea lions and rare miniature foxes. Skip the nature documentaries and experience one first-hand here in one of America’s best-kept secrets.

Channel Islands
Dolphins are a constant in the waters leading to Channel Islands. | Antonio Busiello/Moment/Getty Images

The best time to visit Channel Islands National Park

While the Channel Islands never really get too “crowded” in the traditional sense, most visitors do tend to make their way over in the peak summer and early fall months when the ocean is at its warmest and most ideal for popular water activities such as kayaking, snorkeling, and diving. Many people believe fall to be the best season due to slightly fewer crowds and still great weather, while wildflower enthusiasts flock in spring, and sunset fanatics call winter the sleeper hit season.

How to get to Channel Islands National Park

Unless you’re friends with a wealthy Santa Barbaran who is also a sea captain, book a ferry ride via park concessionaire Island Packers, which makes regular ferry runs to the islands from Ventura.

Day trips are popular for those visiting some of the closer islands like Anacapa and Santa Cruz, while the more remote islands like Santa Rosa and San Miguel are a longer haul and better suited for multi-day trips with overnight camping (campsites are available on every island). You’re looking at $63 minimum for a round trip, with rates as high as $168 to the outer islands with camping.

The ferry ride starts the adventure as you transition from the urban to the natural worlds—you’re likely to spot dolphins and the occasional whale on the one-hour ride to Anacapa or Santa Cruz islands. (Those visiting the further islands can expect to be on the boat for 3-4 hours each way.) If you do end up taking a private boat, just beware: The Santa Barbara Channel is infamous as one of the most dangerous in the world. Experienced boaters only—and if you’re one of those, you should already know this.

Things to know before you go

This ain’t your typical national park experience full of tacky gift shops and long queues of selfie-stick-wielding tourists. This is a wild and blustery natural environment that may take some getting used to for nature-seeking newbies not used to life outside their screens. But that’s what makes it so awesome. Pack layers, exercise common sense, don’t approach strange animals, and, uh, depending on which island you visit, watch out for land mines. (More on those briefly.)

Emergency services are quite limited and there are no supplies on the island. So if you’re imagining breezing in last minute to grab some craft beers and a nice steak dinner before resting your head on a 1,000-thread-count sheet at a five-star island resort, think again. Those who want to try their hand at kayaking also should employ the buddy system, as the waters can get quite rough, especially for the uninitiated. Other than that, have fun!

islands
The view from Inspiration Point. | benedek/Getty Images

Anacapa Island

The closest island to the coast, Anacapa Island is also the most popular, as the small landmass offers spectacular views at nearly every turn with minimal work. Hike the lone 1.5-mile figure eight-shaped trail from the Anacapa Island Light Station (one of the last lighthouses built on the West Coast in 1932) to the famous Inspiration Point for one of the most spectacular views in the entire park. For those wishing to get a quick hit of nature with sweeping coastal views, Anacapa is your best bet.

Anacapa is also known for being home to some of the best diving and kayaking (book kayaking here) in the world, thanks to a rare underwater kelp forest and gorgeous sea caves. You’ll also spy rock formations like the iconic 40-foot Arch Rock just off the island.

Thousands of sea birds make their home here, in addition to seals and sea lions, plus tidepools brimming with life such as sea stars and urchins. Most folks wander the well-marked island, which lacks trees and beaches, for a few hours and then hop back on the ferry, but overnight camping is available here.

20 something man in dive gear next to his red kayak at Santa Cruz Islands in Channel Islands National Park.
Feel free to dive right in. | JFCreative/Getty Images Images

Santa Cruz Island

The second best-known island in this archipelago, Santa Cruz Island features a wildly diverse landscape comprising 96 well-utilized square miles, including 77 miles of pristine coastline and peaks that rise 2,000 feet above the water. Here you’ll find the historic Scorpion Ranch and spectacular sea caves of Painted Cave, as well as the largest campground in the park (book here).

You’ll find hiking trails across a diversity of terrain from beaches to forests. And if you’re lucky, you’ll spot an island fox, which is about one-third the size of a typical fox. Santa Cruz and the two islands to the west are the only places on the planet where you can find this cute critter. Santa Cruz is also home to the rare island scrub-jay (just one of 387 species of birds in the park), which is only found on the island and attracts birders from across the world.

For those wishing to get a good overview of what Channel Islands is all about with a multitude of experiences all in one trip, Santa Cruz is your best bet. “It’s a really great place to have kind of a combination of hiking, camping, kayaking, or just spending time in the marine environment and also learning about the history,” says Menard.

trees and the ocean
Santa Rosa Island is home to the rare Torrey Pine. | Jennifer Wan/Getty Images

Santa Rosa Island

Perhaps the most underrated of all the Channel Islands (which is really saying something), Santa Rosa Island is a rugged and mostly unmarked 53,000-acre wilderness paradise. This remote, windswept island is home to the incredible two-mile-long Water Canyon Beach, which you will most likely have all to yourself. Outside the island’s campground, you’ll rarely encounter another living soul for a true off-the-grid-wilderness experience.

Santa Rosa is also home to the rare Torrey pine tree, which only exist in one other location outside the island, San Diego’s Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Many of the park’s resident 60 bald eagles can also be spotted on Santa Rosa, and the island is popular with adventurous surfers who frequent the killer breaks on the remote south side.

Stunning backcountry beach camping is also allowed on certain parts of Santa Rosa from August 15-December 31. And if that’s not enough, Santa Rosa is also where the remains of the Arlington Springs Man, the oldest-known human skeletal remains ever found in North America dating back 13,000 years, were discovered in 1959.

A harbor seal in the underwater kelp forest at Anacapa island in the Channel Islands National Park
You never know who you might meet. | Douglas Klug/Getty Images

San Miguel Island

Those looking to visit the most remote and westernmost of the Channel Islands should be aware of the land mines. Formerly used as a bombing range during the Cold War era, the US Navy owns San Miguel and all visitors must sign a waiver due to the (extremely unlikely!) possibility of encountering unexploded ordnances on the island. (Menard assures us that there have never been any incidents of this happening in the history of the park, but still—where else do you need to worry about land mines in a national park!?!)

Besides phantom land mines, intrepid visitors to San Miguel can observe one of the largest congregations of seals and sea lions in the world, with up to 30,000 lazily hanging out on the island at any given time. All visitors to San Miguel must be accompanied by a ranger and can only hike on established trails (again... because of the land mines).

The most iconic trek is the 16-mile round-trip hike to the seal-packed Point Bennett. San Miguel also boasts the stunning tropical-looking waters of Cuyler Harbor in addition to a number of rare finds from the trippy Dr. Seuss-like coreopsis plant to the eerie caliche forest.

Young male sea kayaker fishing near cliff
Rugged cliffs and dreamy kayaking trips await on Santa Barbara Island. | ©JFCreatives/Getty Images

Santa Barbara Island

The smallest of the Channel Islands, the remote, one-square mile Santa Barbara Island features rugged cliffs, ample birdwatching opportunities, and excellent kayaking and diving, much like Anacapa. While it’s currently not being serviced by Island Packers due to recent damage to the dock, private boaters may still choose to visit, so as long as you can get here independently, you’re welcome explore.

Regardless of where you are, be ready for weather to get merciless: There is no excuse (or remedy) for poor planning in such a largely undeveloped environment. Bring extra meals in case the ferry is delayed by fog or gale force winds, secure all food away from curious ravens and foxes, stock up on layered clothing and a wind-resistant tent, and, above all, leave no trace. It’s also a good idea to download the park’s new app so you have all the info you need downloaded on your phone before your trip.

Where to stay near Channel Islands National Park

The best overnight experience, by far, is camping on one of these gorgeous islands while listening to the sounds of the waves crashing against the beach underneath a glowing full moon. Still, we readily admit that camping isn’t for everyone, so if you’re from out of town and want to make a weekend of it, you have options.

For those looking for a taste of camping life without—you know, actually camping—the fun and cheery Waypoint Ventura has all your Insta-approved glamping needs covered with chic vintage trailers near the beach and downtown.

For something a bit more romantic, the Cliff House Inn sports a dramatic oceanfront location that can’t be beat, along with the beloved Shoals Restaurant overlooking the water. Those who don’t mind a little extra drive can also find plenty of upscale digs in high-end Santa Barbara, including the uber-fancy Ritz-Carlton Bacara. Just don’t sleep in too late and miss the ferry.

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Jay Gentile is an award-winning freelance journalist specializing in travel, food & drink, culture, events and entertainment stories. In addition to Thrillist, you can find his work in The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN Travel, Chicago Tribune, Lonely Planet, VICE, Outside Magazine and more. Follow @thejaygentile