These are the adventures I live for. Adventures that test my comfort zone in the middle of extraordinary natural beauty (without the crowds).
Kayaking around the cliff faces of Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands National Park, California, made me realize we haven’t had such a unique and special natural adventure like this since leaving Australia to live in the U.S.
I’m ready for more of it. And when you visit Channel Islands National Park it will be a highlight of your adventures in California.
Where is Channel Islands National Park?
Channel Islands National Park is located off the coastline of Ventura California. And Ventura County is located 70 miles north of Los Angeles and 30 miles south of Santa Barbara.
Its remoteness helps to give it the title of the least visited of the National Parks in the USA, but undoubtedly it’s one of the best things to do in Ventura Ca.
It’s not that remote – an 80 minute ferry ride from Ventura Harbor on the California mainland. But, enough to only capture the most adventurous of hearts.
There’s nothing over on the Channel Islands for you except beautiful beaches, cliff faces, valleys and canyons for hiking, and sea caves to explore on kayaks.
There’s also snorkeling through the kelp forest, tiny island foxes waiting to grab your lunch, and this divine gum tree.
Yes, a taste and smell of Australia awaits you.
I stood under that tree breathing it in for some time. Oh how I miss that fresh earthy smell that usually tells me I’m home. Thank you Channel Islands California for that unexpected moment of joy.
As they say, home is where the heart is, and my heart felt in the right place on Santa Cruz Island.
The Channel Islands National Park is made up of five islands:
- San Miguel
- Santa Rosa
- Santa Cruz
- and Santa Barbara
We only visited Santa Cruz Island as it’s the perfect place for a one-day trip, and is the easiest island to get to. But our visit provided a striking contrast to the hustle and bustle of southern California we typically experience.
So far it’s one of the most beautiful places in California we have seen.
How to Visit Channel Islands National Park
Not sure how to get to Channels Islands National Park?
You can visit any of the islands by the Channel Islands National Park ferry with Island Packers, by plane with Channel Islands Aviation, or your own private boat.
There are no roads on the island. You can get yourself around by foot or kayak.
And keep in mind that not all islands are accessible year round.
Island Packers Boat Trip to Channel Islands National Park
The Channel Islands ferry ride over from Ventura Harbor is an adventure in itself.
We spotted a group of seals resting on a buoy, large fish swimming to the surface, and dolphins in the distance.
As these waters of the Santa Barbara Channel run pretty deep, Island Packers boat tours to the Channel Islands often see whales: humpback, fig and blue whales!
Yes, the largest animal in the world!!
We didn’t see any whales, but wait to you get to the end of this post so you can read more about how many dolphins we saw on the way back.
Things to do in Channel Islands National Park
Sea Cave Kayak Adventure at Scorpion Anchorage
We were spending the day at Scorpion Harbor on Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the islands.
Our mission was clear – spend a half-day exploring the sea caves by kayak with Santa Barbara Adventure Company who offer several Channel Islands National Park tours.
Since Savannah clutched to me like a baby koala up a gum tree with every bump on the ferry over (which really wasn’t that bad), I thought our kayaking adventure was going to be a disaster.
She has been on so many boats, cruises, and once even kayaked 16 kms through the Noosa Everglades, but lately she’s developed a strange fear of boats.
However that all slipped away once she zipped up in her wetsuit, buckled up her life jacket, grabbed the paddle and jumped in the kayak.
Big sister Kalyra was right with her.
Since Savannah has no problem rock climbing up a 55 foot wall, I’m guessing the thrill of adventure overtakes her and she can’t help but breathe deep and fall in love with the experience.
I can’t tell you how much I love having these experiences with my daughters.
To have a seal pop its head up just meters from your kayak, to craftily paddle through Marg Simpson shaped crevices in the rock face, and navigate past rocks with the white wash give you a push is exhilarating.
“Paddle Kalyra. I’m going to steer and get us through without crashing the rocks, but I need you to keep paddling so we can get on the wave at the right timing.”
We timed our paddle through the narrow gap perfectly.
You just can’t beat having these thrilling team working experiences with your kids.
After paddling through the belly of elephant cave, we learned about the dwarf wooly mammoths that thrived on the island until the last Ice Age ended.
We also learned about the Indigenous history and culture on the island, its past ranching history before becoming a National Park, the restoration projects that happen to protect the flora and fauna, and the different animals that live on the island, including foxes, ravens and nesting birds.
Go into the dark cave to find your power
Then there was the moment where we sat in the darkness of the Painted Cave grappling with our fears and deciding whether to take advantage of the low tide and paddle into the back room with only the light of a flashlight to guide us.
Painted Cave is one of the largest sea caves in the world and stretches 300 meters back into the island.
Savannah wasn’t having any of it, but I managed to help Kalyra find the courage to take the flashlight and help us find our way.
Savannah and Craig waited in the cave entrance, while Kalyra and I paddled beside our guide who expertly guided us into the dark and noisy cave.
The sound of the water rushing in and hitting the walls to deepen the cave spooked us.
I felt small and vulnerable.
These moments with Mother Nature remind you of your aliveness and that your smallness is part of something so significant.
It’s almost as if in that moment She passes over to you some of her power.
Snorkeling amongst the Kelp Forest
Since the water temps are pretty chilly in California, we decided on the ferry ride over that we probably wouldn’t snorkel.
But, once we peered over the kayak to watch the bright orange Garibaldi, the protected state fish of California, swimming amongst the kelp forest, I knew I could not turn my back on this once in a lifetime opportunity.
Don’t worry, if you fear cold water, it really wasn’t that bad. It was much colder when we swam with the sea lions in South Australia.
The Channel Islands Adventure Company has thick wetsuits you can wear, including a full head feature.
I know, I’m setting sexy snorkeling fashion trends here.
I really didn’t need it but how could you say no to this look?
Kalyra jumped in beside me and we explored the kelp forest around the pier together.
The underwater rainforest danced around us as we peered between the giant kelp to discover what lies amongst and under them.
Elise, our awesome guide, helped us by bringing out sea stars, sea cucumbers and bright purple sea urchins for us to have a look at.
I decided to swim back to shore to see if I could spot any sand rays. Except I took a wrong turn and ended up on top of the kelp forest trying to swim my way across in my heavy wetsuit!
That was such hard work, but I made it and did not see any rays, over the short strip of sandy bottom I managed to crawl my way over to.
It’s all part of the Channel Islands Ca adventure!
Elise was very patient and friendly, making sure we were comfortable and having a good time.
We enjoyed our time with her kayaking around the cliffs and seeing Santa Cruz Island from the water (and under it!)
Picnic time on Santa Cruz Island
Once our Channel Islands kayaking tour was over, we found a picnic table to sit with the sun, and the creeping foxes to enjoy a picnic lunch from Channel Islands Provisioners.
Owner, Chef Neal met us at the Ventura Harbor terminal to pass us each an insulated lunch pack. Chef Neal gave us lots of great tips about the island before we got onto the boat.
Chef Neal makes everything in your prepacked lunch from scratch and has a selection of island gourmet fare from sandwiches to salads.
Our salads were definitely gourmet, the food so fresh and flavorful, the girls’ sandwiches were equally gourmet and delicious.
Craig and I are gluten free and Chief Neal can cater to food allergies.
In the lunch pack you also get a trail mix – perfect for taking on the kayak – fruit and a water bottle filled with icy chilled water.
Neal also provided breakfast for us to eat on the boat ride over to Santa Cruz Island.
There are no shops or food vendors on the island, so be sure to bring your own lunch, or if you want a hassle free Channel Islands experience, grab a prepacked meal from Channel Islands Provisioners.
Be sure to order at least 3 days in advance!
Hiking trails on Santa Cruz Island
We had little time after we finished our lunch before the ferry left to go back to Ventura.
But, we had just enough time for some Channel Islands National Park hiking.
We followed one of the trails from the visitor center up to a viewpoint to look out over Scorpion Anchorage.
It’s a loop walk that takes you further around to look over the cliff faces you just kayaked around.
We’ll save that adventure for next time we visit the Channel Islands National Park with kids.
But wait, check out this incredible encounter
And if the day couldn’t be more perfect, on the way home, our boat stopped and turned around.
Right there coming to remind us of how precious and special nature is, was a pod of about 100 dolphins. I have never seen so many dolphins in my life.
We stayed with them for some time watching them chase fish and dive in and out of the water.
Visiting the Channel Islands National Park with kids is just pure magic.
What to take to Channel Islands National Park
- GoPro camera – perfect for your kayaking adventure
- Waterproof phone case – I took my phone on the kayak with one of these to take video. Don’t take your phone with you without one.
- Dry bag – if you want to take things on the kayak with you
- Sunscreen – the sun in California is quite a burning sun. Protect yourself
- Hat and sunglasses
- Swimming costume and rash shirt
- Keens, or similar hiking sandals that are waterproof
- Ample food for your day
- Warm jacket for the boat ride back, it can get breezy
Be sure to take off your own trash, there are no receptacles on the island.
You can also go camping on the island.
So, if you love adventure, natural beauty, and remoteness without being too isolated, these islands would have to be one of the best places to visit in California.
Video of the Channel Islands National Park
Related Post –
- 17 amazing things to do in Ventura County
- 10 Day Itinerary – Best Places to Visit in Southern California (beyond Disneyland)
Planning a Trip to Ventura County
Other California National Parks
Looking for tips on other national Parks in California? Start here:
- 18 best things to do in Yosemite NP
- 8 awesome things to do in Joshua Tree National Park
- 5 incredible national parks in California
- The extraordinary Death Valley National Park
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Are you planning to visit Channel Islands National Park? Let us know if you have any questions? Or if you’ve already been, share your tips!