How to spend a day in Channel Islands National Park

Five ecologically rich and unique islands off the coast of Southern California are collectively known as Channel Islands National Park. Visiting requires a bit more planning as you need to pick an island and reserve a seat on ferry or plane to get there. For our first time visiting we chose the largest of the islands, Santa Cruz, three times the size of Manhattan and the largest island in California there would be plenty to do. We chose to book a ferry with Island Packers leaving from the NPS Visitor’s Center in Santa Barbara and it was a wonderful scenic trip.

On a grey foggy day the drizzle couldn’t dampen the dolphins mood, gleefully frolicking by our boat.

Arriving on the island there are plenty of hiking trails, but for camping and kayaking you must plan in advance. Kayaking could prove to be incredible because one of the largest sea caves in the world is located on the island – Painted Cave – and there is an abundance of marine life nearby.

Since it was our first time and we weren’t staying overnight, we chose to simply hike and explore. Smugglers Cove was first on the list a 7.5 mile trail leading to a remote beach.

Along the way we had a chance to admire the flora and fauna, while we didn’t see the endemic scrub-jay (there are 60 species found only on this island), we did see plenty of hummingbirds (my favorite!).

The hike offered varying terrain and phenomenal views of what I dubbed the Hershey Kiss islands not far off the coast.

The rolling hills were a great work out and the final downhill stretch brings you to a secluded beach with chunky multicolored stones and turquoise water – the perfect private picnic spot.

Our way back was filled with a different perspective on the rugged mountain range.

Santa Cruz has the highest peak of all the islands at 2,450 ft – Diablo Peak. We meandered off a herd trail to look down over to the stoic cliffs and sea arches, and spotted some adorable sleepy husky seals.

With extra time to spare we decided to do a second hike, Cavern Point Loop trail at 2 miles. Quickly gain some elevation – but then it’s a smooth hike from high above. Feast your eyes on seriously gorgeous sea cliffs, stark and unforgiving.

I swear one looked exactly like the profile of a man gazing out into the ocean, but I always love finding faces in the stones.

An incredible panorama peaking into the caves, just be careful by the edge because it’s a long way down.

Not wasting a precious moment on this island, our last venture was to explore the historical remnants right near where the ferry would be departing. The island has a long history of human inhabitation for thousands of years by Native Americans and more recently by European settlers as a sheep ranch.

This was the last national park on west coast road trip and although California has many bigger names in the NPS, Channel Islands was an unforgettable experience filled with natural splendor – far away from the crowds, yet so close to Los Angeles, our final destination.

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