Channel Islands National Park by Vanguard

By Girls Who Hike Los Angeles Ambassador, Graciela

Tired of the crowds and long lines at some of the more popular National Parks? Want to venture to a remote place where you can experience solitude with an ocean view? Then put Channel Islands National Park high on your list of places to visit. According to the National Park Service (NPS), the Channel Islands are one of the least visited parks in America because of its remote location and limited entry to visitors. Unlike other parks, you can’t just drive to the Channel Islands. You have to take a boat or a plane and once on island, there are no amenities except for a few pit toilets and limited access to potable water. Any visit to the Channel Islands requires you bring all your own gear and food. You must also pack out all of your trash since there is no trash service on island. If that doesn’t deter you and you get excited at being in a place with as close to nothing as you can experience, then the Channel Islands will reward you with hiking, backpacking, kayaking, and opportunities to see life that only exists on these islands.

Getting There

Channel Islands National Park is located off the coast of Ventura and is made up of five islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara. They are all accessible by commercial boat, which is solely operated by Island Packers. You can also take your own private boat to the islands if you happen to own one. Santa Rosa and San Miguel Islands are also accessible by plane operated by Channel Islands Aviation. Trip schedules vary by season and island so check their sites for pricing and schedules.


Each island has one primitive campground with a varying number of sites available for reservation. These campgrounds only have picnic tables and pit toilets so you must bring your own tent/gear, water, food, and pack out your trash. Potable water is only available on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa campgrounds. All
campgrounds have storage boxes so the Channel Island foxes don’t get your food and trash. These curious critters will grab whatever you leave out so don’t leave
food or scented items in your tent. On one of my trips to Santa Cruz, I found my socks buried by some trees and a fox chewed through a friend’s tent to get to some
snacks! You will have to lug all your gear from the ferry to the campsites but the walk is not too far and you can make a few trips if necessary. For those who want to
backpack the islands, there are limited backcountry campsites available only on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands. There is no water available in the backcountry
so you must bring water with you.


There are well-worn hiking trails of varying difficulties on the islands so you can explore and catch stunning views of the ocean and the mainland. However, be aware that the trails are exposed since the terrain is mostly rolling hills of grassland without trees to offer shade. I’ve only hiked on Santa Cruz Island in Spring and Autumn and the weather was comfortable. I’d imagine it would be too hot to be on an exposed trail in the summer, especially with such limited water available.

Backpacking Santa Cruz Island

Last October, I organized a three-day weekend with some GWHLA members and we backpacked from Scorpion Harbor to Prisoner’s Harbor on Santa Cruz Island. The terrain was not too difficult but we had to carry about 15 lbs of water since we were going to be without a water source for a day and a half. That definitely made it challenging on top of the weight of our regular backpacking gear. But it was a great bonding experience and I was glad to be away from the hustle and bustle of the city.


On the first day, we took the roughest boat ride from Ventura to Scorpion Harbor. The water was so choppy and many of us experienced motion sickness and got drenched by the ocean. I took Dramamine and ate ginger chews before we took off and I still threw up. The boat ride is only an hour but when you’re that uncomfortable, that hour felt like four! Once we made it on island, the crew put us all to work as we made a human chain to unload everyone’s gear off the boat. Those
that had the worst of the boat ride were sprawled out on shore trying to recover. Once we were all unloaded, the ranger that lives on-island met us and she reviewed info and safety tips. We were then on our way to the campsite, which was a short walk from the harbor. We decided to just spend the day recovering from the boat ride so some ladies took naps, others made lunch, and we all set up our tents. Some of us went on solo hikes to explore and we met up with the rest of the group in the evening to take a group hike to Potato Harbor to catch the sunset.


On the second day, we got up early, packed up our gear, ate breakfast, and loaded as much water as we could into our packs since we wouldn’t see another water source until we got back to Ventura. We hiked 12 miles to the Del Norte campground, taking pictures along the way, and catching stunning views of the ocean and the western side of the island.  We gained elevation fast as we went up to Montañon Ridge, which is the tallest point on the island, and our first glimpse of the vistas of the western side of the island.


We took breaks wherever we found a bush that offered up some shade but we hardly found any. We ate lunch on a grassy spot, exposed to the sun, but with the blue ocean as our backdrop. Eventually, we all made it to Del Norte, which was just stunning and we were rewarded with a beautiful spot to call home for the night after the day’s hike.


We caught the sunset as we made dinner and shared stories. As night blackened the sky, we could see the Milky Way and we tried to take pictures of it, though no picture could replicate what we saw in person. Tired from the day, we settled into our respective tents to sleep.


On our last day, we hiked 3.5 miles down to Prisoner’s Harbor. It went by so fast and we were on the beach before we knew it. We got there early and had to wait quite a bit for the ferry to pick us up. Some of us jumped into the cool ocean, while others napped, and just hung out.


As the ferry approached, I wondered if we’d have another rough trip back to Ventura. But the weather was less windy and the ride was smooth and pleasant. No one threw up this time. As we left, with the island shrinking in the distance, we reflected on the trip and what we accomplished with nothing more than what we carried on our backs.

So if all of this sounds exciting to you, then definitely make a point to visit Channel Islands National Park! You’ll be one of the few to say you’ve seen this remote and beautiful place.

Graciela is the Ambassador for our Los Angeles chapter. You can join her local meetups and discussions through the Los Angeles chapter by clicking here. To become a member of Girls Who Hike, click here.