Kayaking the Channel Islands, California’s Unknown National Park

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Eighteen million people live within sixty miles of Channel Islands National Park but that’s nothing compared to the number of animals that make their home there.

Just like the Galapagos, long-term isolation created a home for unique animals and plants.  The Channel Islands and the surrounding waters are preserved the way coastal southern California once was and hopefully will continue to be.

By Baldhur at de.wikipedia (Transferred from de.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Map of the Channel Islands by Baldhur (used under Creative Commons License from Wikimedia Commons)

Anytime I hear wildlife + sightDOING opportunities, I am definitely interested.

On a stunning Saturday morning, my husband and I set the alarm and made our way to Ventura Harbor, where we boarded an Island Packers ferry for the cruise to Santa Cruz island.  The hour-long trip is more than just transportation: it’s the chance to relax into nature and the beautiful setting.

santa cruz channel islands
Santa Cruz Island as seen from the approach

Just moments after embarking, I was chuckling at goofy sea lions.  To my right, a young boy was barking back at them, trying to converse with these magnificent creatures.  The sea lions kept barking, perhaps to him, a funny looking landlubber who didn’t really speak their language.

With pods of dolphins playing nearby and a shark fin circling some sort of underwater prey, it didn’t take long to escape the bustle of southern California.  Some lucky visitors also see migrating whales in these waters which can be up to 800 feet deep, but as is often the case with nature, there are no guarantees.


Most travelers come to the Channel Islands for the sea life en route, but we joined Channel Island Outfitters for their classic kayaking adventure.  You never know what wildlife you’ll encounter in nature, but the dozens of sea caves are a dependable attraction.  With kayaks, we’d maneuver our way in and around the caves on the island perimeter, crossing our fingers we’d get up close and personal to sea life!

Acing our kayak techniques, we pushed off from shore onto water smooth as glass.

channel islands kayak
Kayaking in the Channel Islands

Past island coves with hills rising at a distance, we paddled over kelp forests, always looking for a seal head that might pop up between kayaks.  Leaving the sunshine behind, we rounded a corner and headed into our first sea cave.

Since the tides impact which caves are safely accessible, having a guide wasn’t just a nicety; it was an essential.  We pretended we were pros, thanks to the insider tips on where to watch for rocks hidden under the surface so we didn’t flip.  In the dark, we ducked our heads at just the right moment to avoid a bump from the cave.

It was almost too easy and the guides knew it.  Just to remind us who was the expert, they led us right into the splash zone of one cave.  It wasn’t long before the swelling waves sprung out like a jack-in-the-box, releasing the cold salty water from its blowhole.

channel islands blowhole
Splashed by a blowhole!

Since Channel Islands Outfitters guides usually camp on the island for most of the tourist season, they are also intimately familiar with where wildlife tends to hang out.  We found resting harbor seals, lots of nesting seabirds, and a popular starfish hang-out.


Our three hours on the water was just the right amount of time to see the best of Scorpion Marine Reserve on Channel Islands National Park.  There were miles of coastline left to see, but even in smooth conditions, you work up an appetite as your paddle gets heavier with every stroke.

Arms like jelly, I almost didn’t head back out to the water after lunch.  Several other tour participants used their afternoon free time to hike up the ridgeline.  The water called my name, taunting me for more and tantalizing me with the possibility of swimming with seal pups.

Even with a wetsuit, the frigid seas were barely tolerable.  I grimaced as my stomach hit the water and teared up a little under my snorkel mask when I put my face in.  Anywhere else in the world, anywhere with limited visibility, would have caused me to retreat to the sunshine on shore.  But kelp forests and the mystery of an unfamiliar world rewarded my plunge.


Before I knew it, I was saying my final farewells to the wildlife on Santa Cruz Island.  If only we had planned ahead of time to camp overnight.  If only we had time to island hop to neighboring Anacapa.  If only I wasn’t dreaming of that return visit before we even left.

Channel Islands Fox
Channel Islands Fox

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If you go to Channel Islands National Park…

Day trips are the most popular way to visit the Channel Islands since camping is the only overnight option.  Maximize your time on the island by choosing the earliest arrival and latest departure; you’ll want every minute you can squeeze in.

Visitors arrive via Island Packers cruises which depart from Ventura Harbor (in Ventura, CA) or Channel Islands Harbor (in Oxnard).  On such a long day, I don’t recommend commuting in from elsewhere.

I’ve stayed at both the Homewood Suites and Embassy Suites Mandalay Bay in Oxnard, and recommend both for their tremendous service.  Only the Embassy Suites has beach access, but both have pools if you need to relax after all this adventure.

If your day trip starts to early to take advantage of the included hot breakfast, try a breakfast burrito at Corrales in Ventura.

If you found the recommendations in this article helpful, booking your hotel through my links supports this site.

My visit was arranged by Channel Island Outfitters, and you’ll also get the chance to see the island’s unique features and wildlife by joining the Caves and Coves Classic Tour by Channel Island Outfitters (use code AMPED to save $10).  You’ll get the chance to see the island’s most unique features and hopefully, some wildlife as well.  If you plan on snorkeling, they also a combination tour or you can go on your own like I did.

Hint: Want to snorkel?  Pre-reserve a thicker wetsuit (with sleeves), booties, and a hood to stay warm.  In retrospect, I bet that’s worth every penny.  Otherwise, the best advice I have is to dive right in and don’t think twice before heading directly toward the bridge and then beyond it into the kelp forests.

Tweet: The Channel Islands are a treasure of California and surprisingly, one unknown to most people. https://ctt.ec/75aCx+

The Channel Islands are a treasure of California and surprisingly, one unknown to most people.

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Although Island Packers and Channel Island Outfitters provided media rates for my trip, I was blown away by the Channel Islands and all opinions are my own.

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