Family Travel Bucket List : Visiting California's Channel Islands

No kayaking experience required to visit the sea caves and see the sea lions. Photo by Ralph A. Clevenger/ Santa Barbara Adventure Company
No kayaking experience required to visit the sea caves and see the sea lions. Photo by Ralph A. Clevenger/ Santa Barbara Adventure Company
3/18/21 - By Anna Fader

Despite its location so close to Los Angeles, Channel Islands National Park is one of the least visited national parks in the country. Accessible only by boat, the Channel Islands’ isolation makes them something of a well-kept Southern California secret, where visitors can enjoy a uniquely SoCal ecosystem on an unpopulated island. Make the trip at the right time of year, and you could even spot some whales along the way.

The islands are welcoming visitors again this spring, and boats are making trips to the islands several times a day. For intrepid campers, the campgrounds are also open. Read on to find out why a trip to the Channel Islands should be on every family's travel bucket list.


Remote and naturally encouraging social distancing, visitors won't notice too many differences on the islands in 2021. The park's mainland and island visitor centers are temporarily closed, but the islands are open for day hiking and overnight camping. Islands Packers has resumed boat service to the islands. Please remember that face masks are required at all National Parks if physical distancing cannot be maintained.

Stretching from nearby Anacapa to distant San Miguel, the islands that make up this national park offers a haven where day-trippers and campers can enjoy hiking, picnicking, swimming, snorkeling, and bird watching. As part of a weekend getaway to Ventura, we joined a sea kayaking tour to Santa Cruz Island with the Channel Islands Adventure Company, and it was awesome. Although the kayaking was moderately strenuous, paddling around the coast for over two hours, you don’t need any kayaking experience for the sea cave tour we took.

Kayaking California's Channel Islands: Spotting dolphins on the way to the island.
Spotting dolphins from the Island Packers ferry.

When visiting the Channel Islands, getting there can be half the fun. An hour ferry voyage provided by Island Packers is as much a wildlife cruise as a trip from point A to B. The channel is full of sea life, and our boat stopped to watch huge pods of dolphins and to experience humpback whales breaching. It was actually one of the best whale watching trips I’ve experienced, even though that wasn’t the main purpose of the ride.

The folks from Channel Island Adventure Company were knowledgeable and friendly. Once we hit the water, our guide taught us about the history and ecology of this special place. The Channel Islands are home to bald eagles, elephant seals and sea lions, pelicans, peregrine falcons, as well as a species of island foxes unique to the location.

The little island fox is native to the Channel Islands.

The island fox is native to the Channel Islands.

We learned about (and paddled through) a sea kelp forest where sea lions played and navigated into sea caves. My favorite part was paddling into the caves, sometimes riding the surf to shoot through, and finding more sea lions resting in the back.

Santa Cruz Island does have restroom facilities that are open, but there are no concessions or other amenities on any of the islands—what you need you bring, right down to drinking water. Bring more food and water than you think you'll need, as all that activity can make everyone hungry and thirsty. If coming to the islands is a day trip, bring an insulated lunch bag from home, packed with favorite snacks. If your family is vacationing and staying at a local hotel, you can stock up on sandwiches, nuts, and energy bars at local grocery stores. Ralphs and Trader Joe's are the closest stores, and they are at the same complex as a Walmart, where your family can purchase insulated lunch bags for the trip.

Kayaking California's Channel Islands: So many dolphins!
The large pod of dolphins we spotted on the way home. 

Back on land, the perfect end to a tiring day was settling into a big plate of seafood at Andria’s Seafood Restaurant and Market, a local institution right at the Ventura Harbor Village. We dug into a plate of some of the famous fish and chips with a side of harbor views. We were too tired to explore the other shops and restaurants of Ventura Harbor Village, so we headed back to the Four Points by Sheraton in the Harbor Village area.

Ventura is a fun town with a walkable historic downtown and offers some interesting shops and eateries to enjoy. The 50s themed Busy Bee Cafe is a favorite spot for milkshakes. The San Buenaventura Mission is one of the state's historic missions and worth a visit for the pretty garden and interesting history. For a view of the Channel Islands, visit the Ventura Botanical Gardens and hike through the various gardens to the top of the hill which had beautiful views of the ocean, islands, and Ojai’s Topa Topa peak. Capping your day by chilling at the pier Beach House Fish restaurant and watching the sunset over some fish tacos and a beer is pretty great, too.

Kayaking California's Channel Islands: A view from Ventura Beach
Sunset view from Beach House Fish.

Ventura and the Channel Islands National Park are a great getaway for families with kids of all ages from tots to teens. Unless you have a strong kayaker, the kayaking is probably best for children 10 and up, but younger children can still enjoy these islands for all the wildlife spotting (the island foxes are adorable), playing on the beach, hiking, and exploring an island that has no roads. Put this on your bucket list!

This article was originally published February 23, 2018