The Channel Islands are an archipelago of eight islands off the coast of Southern California. Five of these islands form Channel Islands National Park. Is it possible to visit all five islands in a single day? Theoretically, yes. In actuality, you are most likely to visit only one. Which is great, because each of the Channel Islands offers more than enough sites and activities for one day.
Planning an Essential One Day Itinerary
But before deciding which island to visit, we suggest that your determine what is essential to your Channel Islands visit. As with our approach to visiting Death Valley and Joshua Tree, before planning, set criteria for what is essential to your visit. Does hiking, scuba-diving, or kayaking interest you? It’s difficult to do all of these things during a single day. Thus, it’s critical to decide which activities are most appealing to you. Doing so will not only help you select which island to visit, but will act as a starting place for creating your own essential one-day Channel Islands itinerary.
An Essential Channel Islands One Day Itinerary
For our family, we were most interested in hiking the Channel Islands. Additionally, due to limited time, we preferred a shorter boat trip to the island. After researching the day trips offered by Island Packers, the official Channel Islands National Park Concessionaire, two of the five islands stood out: Anacapa and Santa Cruz. Since these islands are closer to the mainland, the cruise from Ventura Harbor lasts only an hour in length. This is opposed to the 3-4 hours it can take to visit some of the other islands. Anacapa is the smallest of the islands, being just 5 miles long and ¼ mile wide. In contrast, Santa Cruz is the largest of the islands at over 21 miles in length. Based on this difference, we selected the smaller Anacapa. Reasoning that we would be able to hike and see a greater portion of the island in a single day.
The remainder of this post outlines our family’s essential one day Channel Islands itinerary, from the visitor center, to the boat cruise, to hiking Anacapa Island. We even offer a great suggestion for an evening activity upon returning from the islands as well as some tips regarding changes we would make upon future visits. We hope you find our itinerary useful in crafting your own one day Channel Islands essential itinerary!
The Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center
Regardless of the island you visit, you will most likely depart from the Ventura Harbor, which is home to the Channel Islands Visitor Center. While small, the visitor center has some great exhibits on the Channel Island ecosystems that are worth viewing. All of our kids thoroughly enjoyed exploring the displays on marine life, which was nice, since this was the extent of the little kids’ Channel Islands experience. Both toddlers have previously gone on boating excursions, albeit much shorter. Considering that none of us had previously visited the Channel Islands, we weren’t sure what to expect. So Luke and the little kids opted for the Santa Barbara Zoo, instead. Before they left, we of course posed for our customary park sign photo.
A word of advice regarding the visitor center – the hours, 8:30 am – 5:00 pm, are not convenient if you are taking a day-long cruise to one of the islands. The boats often begin boarding shortly after 9:00 am, but return after 5:00 pm. This leaves very little time to explore exhibits in the visitor center. In retrospect, we should have visited the center on the previous day, especially considering how much the kids enjoyed the 30 minutes that we were able to spend there. We recommend planning your stop at the visitor center the day before or after your Channel Islands Cruise.
Cruise to Anacapa
The cruise out to Anacapa was one of the highlights of our day. Along the way, we spotted harbor seals, sea lions, grey whales and a huge pod of dolphins! We have taken wildlife boat tours before. But never have we seen so many marine mammals at one time.
As we approached Anacapa, we were able to see the sea cliffs, sea caves, arches and other rock formations formed from the erosion of its porous volcanic rock.
Island Packers did an excellent job of narrating the entire cruise. From facts about the marine wildlife to the fascinating history of the island. For instance, below is Frenchy’s Cove, where a hermit, named Raymond “Frenchy” LeDreau, lived alone on the island for nearly three decades. He was able to survive on the island by trading lobster to passing boats, for food and supplies, as well as storing liquor during times of prohibition. There is no way I would last any length of time alone on Anacapa. I barely lasted a day, but more on that later.
The boat docks at the East End Landing Cove (shown below), from which we climbed a ladder and 157 steps to reach the island’s plateau 200 ft above sea level.
Hiking Anacapa Island
Upon our arrival, we headed to the island’s small visitor center for a naturalist-led hike. There are over 2.0 miles of hiking trails on tiny Anacapa Island. From the visitor center, our guided hike headed west on East Anacapa, toward Cathedral Cove. If you look closely in the photo of the cove below, you can see the large kelp forest just below the surface. The waters surrounding Anacapa and the other Channel Islands contain over one-third of California’s kelp forests. These forests, which are protected by the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, are home to over 1000 different species of marine plants and animals. While scuba diving and snorkelling are the best ways to experience the kelp forest, we were not quite that adventurous. Maybe next time we’ll try kayaking.
From Cathedral Cove, we hiked across East Anacapa to Inspiration Point, aptly named for its stunning views of Middle and West Anacapa.
As you can see from the photo above, Anacapa is formed by three islets. We are standing at the western edge of East Anacapa, looking out upon Middle & West Anacapa. Of the three islets, the national park allows visitors on East Anacapa. Middle and West Anacapa are reserved for island wildlife.
Anacapa Island Wildlife (or Birds, Birds and More Birds)
Seabirds, and lots of them, are the predominant form of wildlife on Anacapa. Thousands of birds nest on the island due to the lack of any predators. The steep, volcanic cliffs of West Anacapa, which contain numerous caves and crevices perfect for nesting, are home to the largest colony of endangered California Brown Pelicans. All three islets have the largest colony of Western Gulls in the world.
Unlike the pelicans, the gulls nest on open ground, creating nests with vegetation or scavenged items. During the naturalist hike, we learned that gulls can get rather aggressive, and rightfully so, if you approach their nest. However, a good portion of the nests are fairly inconspicuous. As hikers, the naturalists advised us to stay on the trails at all times so as to avoid walking directly into a nest.
Additionally, the naturalists warned that if a gull perceives you to be a threat, they might dive-bomb. Yes, that’s right, Anacapa is home to literally thousands of birds, who if threatened can dive bomb. The naturalists encouraged us to wear hats when hiking, in case of dive-bombing birds. Although thinking back, I’m not sure how much protection a baseball cap or sunhat really offers against a birds beak. Thankfully, we did not have the pleasure of finding out. Nevertheless, I think we were all a little off-put by the large presence of birds.
Anacapa Island Lighthouse
After the naturalist-led hike, we ate lunch and explored the visitor center. While very small, it does include the massive, original Fresnel lens from the Anacapa Island Lighthouse. Built in 1912, the lighthouse is that last major lighthouse to be constructed along the west coast. Since then, the original lens has been replaced with an acrylic solar-powered lens, which still actively guides navigation through the Santa Barbara Channel.
We had roughly an hour before departing for the mainland so we decided to go for a quick hike up to the lighthouse. The tower is nearly 40 ft and sits upon the highest point on Anacapa Island. However, the national park restricts visitors from reaching that point due to noise concerns from the lighthouse foghorn. That’s ok, one of the best views of the lighthouse is from the top of the East End Landing Cove stairs, as shown below.
Return Cruise to Ventura
After spending over 4 hours on the island, we boarded the Island Packers boat for the return cruise to Ventura. However, before crossing the Santa Barbara Channel for Ventura, the boat briefly cruised around the island providing us with some beautiful views of Anacapa’s shoreline. The island is made of volcanic rock, which has been heavily weathered by erosion. Over time, erosion has resulted in some interesting rock formations, including the island’s famous Arch Rock, a 40 ft natural bridge at the eastern tip of the island.
El Matador State Beach
After returning to the mainland, if you still have energy to burn we recommend visiting a nearby beach. California’s beaches are all public, including hundreds of state, regional and local beaches. At a loss with regards to which beach to visit? Try El Matador State Beach, with it’s stunning rock formations, just to the south of Ventura.
One thing to note, the beach was quite crowded at dusk on a weeknight. We had assumed that the beach would be less busy during the week, but we assumed wrong! Thankfully, the further you walk from the stairs, the fewer people there are.
As you can see, the kids all had fun climbing on the rocks and chasing the waves in and out. At the same time, we were able to enjoy a gorgeous California sunset. Not a bad way to end a full and fun day enjoying the California coastline.
The temperature dipped as soon as we departed from the Ventura harbor. Regardless of the temperature on the mainland, we recommend packing cold-weather jackets, such as fleece or light-weight down. Additionally, bring a winter cap. Maybe it’s just that we had spent that last four days in the California desert, but man did that boat ride feel cold! While we were wearing hats, none of them were insulated. Looking back, we would have definitely benefited from wearing lightweight fleece hats on the cruise.
Just as it was on the water, the weather on the island varies from that on the mainland. One moment the boys were chilly and in the next they were hot from the full sun. Basically, we recommend dressing in layers and bringing a brimmed sun hat or cap…you know, just in case of dive-bombing gulls. Additionally, due to the abundance of birds, you will need to carry your gear with you at all times. This includes food and water since there are no stores or services on Anacapa. An unattended backpack will quickly be approached by inquisitive birds. We were told that the birds are adept enough to open zippers!
Itinerary In Retrospect
Looking back upon our day-long visit to Channel Islands National Park I wish we had spent more time in selecting which island to visit. Normally, we spend hours researching a park before deciding which places we will visit. But let’s just say that being a pregnant mother of four limited my time.
I was aware that Anacapa is a nesting area for gulls. I had read that nesting typically beings in late April, with chicks hatching in May and June. Since our visit was during the first week of April, I did not anticipate there being so many birds. There were birds EVERYWHERE!
Literally, thousands upon thousands of birds. Live birds, dead birds, even birds eating birds. Yep, you read that correctly. There were birds eating birds. To be specific, there were gulls eating chicken. In fact, the entire island had chicken bones strewn about. When I asked the naturalist about the bones, he informed me that the gulls bring them back from trash dumps on the mainland. Imagine, flying over 12 miles with a chicken bone in your beak! And where there are birds, there is bird poop. So much bird poop that it was difficult to find a spot, that wasn’t covered in bird poop, to eat lunch. Not exactly the most pleasant of picnic spots, but we managed.
At one point Matthew used the pit toilet bathroom. When he was done, I asked him how it was (since park pit toilets are notoriously smelly and frequently dirty). He responded, “Good, there were no birds!” Way to look on the bright side, Matt!
In retrospect, we would most likely have chosen to visit another island, such as Santa Cruz. We chose to visit Anacapa over Santa Cruz because of size. Anacapa has a total area of about 1 square mile, whereas Santa Cruz is approximately 96 square miles in size. We felt the smaller size of Anacapa would allow us to hike more of the island during a single-day trip. That said, Santa Cruz offers a greater variety of flora, fauna, and geological features. If we are ever to return, we plan on visiting and hopefully camping on Santa Cruz.
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