From the water’s edge at Malibu Beach Inn, it can look like the Pacific Ocean goes on forever, uninterrupted, a placid field of blue extending to the horizon. But in the short distance, out to the west, lies one of California’s most underrated national parks, one that promises a mostly untouched terrain and gorgeous ocean vistas.

Channel Islands National Park is one of the least-visited reserves in the United States, which is unsurprising considering the planning that goes into a visit. But sitting less than 50 miles off the Pacific Coast, the park is a gorgeous visit for nature lovers, especially those already staying along the coast. Here’s how to get there and what to experience while on the stunning islands.


There are no rest stops on the Channel Islands, no convenience stores in case you’ve forgotten anything (and, as you can likely imagine, no place to charge your phone). There are also few places to refill water bottles outside of the campgrounds; a gallon of water per person is a good place to start if you’re not planning on camping out. Essentially, bring everything you could need for 24 hours – food, water, toiletries, and sunscreen.

Here to There

There’s just one official transport to the Channel Islands: Island Packers, the official “Boat Concessionaire” of the park, which runs out of harbors in both Ventura and Oxnard. With little competition, it makes space on the shuttles out to the islands scarce, especially morning trips to the Channels (so that you can come back in the evening and be back at the Inn for a late dinner). Plan the trip well in advance; tickets can sell out weeks in advance, especially during high season. For those prone to seasickness: the waters between the shore and the isles can be choppy, so bringing whatever might settle your stomach is advisable.

Boats outside of the channel islands

What to expect

One of the biggest appeals of the Channel Islands is how untouched they feel, lands before time. But look closer, and you might see one of the 150 or so species of living things that cannot be found anywhere else but on these rocky shores. There are more than 2,000 species living on the Channel Islands as a whole, marking a very strong level of biodiversity. If departing from Ventura, a stop at the Robert J. Lagomarsino Visitor Center is a must, as exhibits there give visitors some sights for which to look out.

What to Do

What you do while in Channel Islands National Park will depend in part on which island you visit. Santa Cruz Island, for instance, has some of the best hiking available, and the walk to Smuggler’s Cove is a favorite for many.

But it’s the kayaking available around the islands that attracts many to the park’s shores. Outfits like the Channel Islands Adventure Company lead guided kayaking tours, while Channel Islands Kayak Center rents the titular boats to those who feel comfortable heading out on their own. The former also rents out snorkeling gear, while the latter has stand-up paddleboards. Add in the potential for fishing (after gathering the right permits), and there are plenty of ways of playing with the water.

There may be no other national park in the continental 48 states that takes so much advance thought to enjoy. But the Channel Islands reward the patient and the planner with unique wildlife, fun water activities, and vistas that look and feel like they’re from another time.