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2 Days in Channel Islands National Park

Spending 2 days in Channel Islands National Park is the perfect off-the-grid weekend getaway. Although it’s not far off of the California coast, Channel Islands National Park feels like thousands of miles away and is one of America’s least visited national parks. This marine sanctuary is a great spot for a weekend spent outdoors- with kayaking, snorkeling, hiking, and amazing scenic views!

The Channel Islands consist of 5 uninhabited islands: Santa Cruz, Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Barbara, and Santa Rosa. For your first visit, I recommend going to Santa Cruz Island- one of the biggest and closest islands. Although it is possible to do a day trip here, I recommend spending at least one night in order to get the full experience.

SEE ALSO: Catalina Day Trip: the Best Things to Do on Catalina Island in One Day

2 Days in Channel Islands National Park: Overview

  • PTO/Vacation Days Needed: 0-1
  • Nights: 1-2
  • Cost: $

2 Days in Channel Islands National Park: Itinerary

  1. Day 1: Ferry to Santa Cruz Island, kayak tour, snorkeling, sunset hiking trails
  2. Day 2: Hiking trails, ferry ride back to Ventura    

How to Get to Santa Cruz Island:

The only way to get to Santa Cruz Island is by boat; either private boat or ferry. Assuming that you don’t have access to a private boat, you’ll need to take the Island Packers Ferry to Santa Cruz- Scorpion Anchorage from Ventura Harbour:

  • Travel Time: 1 hour
  • Cost: $79/person round trip

Time Options:

  • Departing: 8:00am (recommended),9:00am 12:00
  • Returning: 12:00, 4:00pm or 5:00pm

If you’re lucky, you may encounter dolphins, seals or whales on the way over- which the ferry driver will point out. They sell drinks (including alcohol) and snacks on board. If you tend to get seasick, you may want to take something beforehand as the ride can get a little bumpy.

Where to Stay the Night Before Your Trip

If you are traveling from further away, it makes sense to get a hotel or VRBO in Ventura area so that you can get a good sleep before departing on your morning ferry to the island, like this cute Mediterranean Bungalow near the beach!

Lodging on Santa Cruz Island:

There are no hotels, houses for rent, restaurants, or anything on Santa Cruz Island- just a campground, which makes this hidden gem a great spot to get away from the hustle and bustle of LA.

Make sure you book your campsite in the Scorpion Anchorage campground a few months in advance, and have your campsite booked before you book your ferry! You can book a campsite at recreation.gov. 

If all campsites are booked for your preferred dates, you can sign up for Outdoor Status to track cancellations for your dates instead. They text you if a campsite becomes available, at which point you can log on and snag it! I’ve used Outdoor Status several times with a great success rate.

Day 1: Kayak tour, hiking trails

If you take the 8:00am ferry, you’ll arrive to Santa Cruz Island at 9:00am. First, you’ll have to walk about 0.5 miles from the dock to your campground with your stuff, and set up camp. Next- head back towards the dock at 10:30 to get set up for your guided sea cave kayak tour around the island! You should book this tour in advance through Santa Barbara Adventure Co. There are a few different kayak tour options, but we opted for the shortest tour- Discovery Sea Kayak Tour- to give us more time to explore the island after.

  • Cost: $109/person
  • Distance/length: 1.25 miles, 1.5 hours of kayaking

The kayak tour is a great way to explore the edges of the island, check out the kelp forests, and paddle through super cool cave formations! Although it is pricey, it was definitely worth it and was a highlight of our weekend.  

You can also rent a mask and snorkel for $13. Once your kayak tour is over, check out the kelp forest, colorful fish, and rock formations while you snorkel around and past the dock. If you’re lucky you might see a Garibaldi- the state fish of California- which is native to this area!

Head back to your campsite to change into dry clothes, and then take the trail that starts near the visitor center called “Cavern Point Loop Trail” for some of the best views on the island. Continue on to North Bluff Trail to Potato Harbor (5 miles rt) which loops back around to where you started from. If you don’t want to hike the whole thing- just bring some wine and sit down to enjoy the sunset from the top of Cavern Point! (hint: wine in a can from Trader Joe’s is great to bring for camping)

2 Days in Channel Islands, Day 2 :Hike to Smugglers Cove

Wake up early and start the 8 mile roundtrip hike to Smugglers Cove, where you will encounter sweeping ocean views along a coastline trail that eventually ends at a secluded beach. If you don’t want to trek the whole 8-mile trail, or are pressed for time, even just doing the first half of the hike is worth it! Make sure you keep an eye on the time, though, to get back to the dock area in time for your ferry back to the mainland.  

Additional Tips and Things to Note for your 2 Days in Channel Islands National Park:

  • Get a hotel in Ventura the night before you head to the island, since you have to be at the ferry dock an hour before your 8:00am departure
  • There are wild foxes all over the island! They are small and cute (the size of a small dog or cat- see pic below), but make sure you do not leave any food or clothes, or shoes outside your tent. We left our socks and shoes outside our tent and woke up the next morning with holes in them.
  • Campfires are not allowed on the island, so if you want to cook food at night, make sure to bring a campstove
  • There is no trash service on the island- make sure to bring a trashbag and pack out all your trash
  • Potable water is available at the campsites
  • You will likely not have cell service on the island
  • Pro tip: ask your kayak guide for their favorite hike on the island- they might tell you the way to a secret cove

When to Go to Santa Cruz Island

The campground is open year-round. I went in late September- the weather was perfect. The water was cold, but we went snorkeling anyways. I would suggest going in August to catch some warmer water temps. But remember- this is a trip you need to plan months in advance since the campsites book up super fast!  

If You Have More Time:

If you are on a longer California road trip, I recommend continuing to drive up the coast to Big Sur (about 4 hours north of Ventura). Check out tips here for your Big Sur road trip!  

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