Channel Island Backpacking: Hiking The National Park


Jason is an adventure travel writer with a passion for exploring the world's most beautiful and remote destinations.

Just off the shores of Southern California sits the Channel Island National Park. The five unique islands can only be accessed by ferry and there are just 30,000 visitors every year, so if you’re looking for a backpacking trip with incredible views, wildlife spotting, and a rugged camping experience with no crowds, this is a must-do trip for you. 

But it can be difficult navigating a trip to the Channel Islands with so many regulations and restrictions in place. Not to mention the spots on the ferries tend to fill up fast. 

To help you plan a life-changing Channel Island backpacking trip and make the most of your time there, this guide will give you everything you need to know. 

Want another unique trip to add to your hiking list? Check out our guide on visiting Death Valley in just one day.  

Best Time to Backpack Channel Islands National Park

The Channel Islands are open to the public year-round, but there are some considerable differences each season brings. 

From the stark difference in weather conditions to the different events and outdoor activities, you’ll need to choose the time of year that suits your plans best. 

Here’s what you can expect from each season to help you choose when you plan your backpacking trip:


Spring is one of the most popular times of year to visit the Channel Islands since the weather is mild and the wildflowers are in full bloom. 

You’ll also get to see the migration of the spring birds, the fox pups running around, and the California sea lions start to gather on the rocks. 

Anacapa Island also has live programs throughout spring if you’re interested in learning more about the islands on your trip. 


For outdoor activities including sailing, snorkeling, kayaking, diving, and swimming, summer is the best time to go.

The weather is much hotter, so don’t forget to pack sunscreen, and the vegetation behind to dry out so the wildlife isn’t quite as vibrant. However, the underwater video program is live on Anacapa Island which is interesting to see. 

Don’t worry, you’ll still see the California sea lions and whale watching season begins for blue and humpback whales. 

Summer is the most popular season on the Channel Islands so be prepared to see some crowds, but it is a great time of year to visit. 


Ocean temperatures are still around 70° (F) in the fall, so you can still snorkel, swim, and kayak in the clear waters around the islands. In fact, the waters are so clear, visibility can reach around 100 feet in places. 

Whale watching comes to an end in the fall, but you’ll catch a glimpse of northern elephant seals gathering. 

It’s a quieter time of year since the weather begins to become chillier, so if you’d rather explore the islands in peace, this is a good choice for you. 


Although it gets cold on the islands in the winter, it’s the best time of year to watch the sunset. This is also the time of year that gray whale watching begins which is a great trip. 

In the late winter months, the islands begin to blossom with wildflowers once more, so the scenery is beautiful. Because the weather is much milder, the islands are also much quieter, so you can enjoy them with minimal crowds. 

What to Pack for Channel Islands National Park

a woman with a backpack during sunset

The time of year you decide to visit the islands will dictate what you need to pack. When packing, be conscious of the weight of your packs. There is a limit of 45 pounds per bag of gear to minimize people leaving things behind when they visit. 

Here are some tips on what to pack and what you’ll need on the Channel Islands:

  • Layer up: If you’re visiting in the colder months, take long-sleeved thermals, jackets, gloves, and hats to avoid the chill. Warmer months need light clothing to make hiking much easier. 
  • Sunscreen: There is minimal cover on the islands so don’t forget sunscreen in the summer.
  • Food and water: There are no facilities on the islands so you’ll need to pack enough food and water for your trip and emergencies. 
  • Mouse-proof food storage box: You’ll be thankful mice and other small rodents can’t get into your food when camping. 
  • Waterproof bags: There is no pier at San Miguel and you’ll land by skiff so expect your shoes and packs to get wet.
  • 2.5-gallon water containers: The only water is in the campground of Santa Rosa Island but most people don’t like the taste. But you are limited to this size water container. 
  • Camping gear: There are campsites available for overnight stays so pack a lightweight tent and sleeping bag. 

Which is the Best Channel Island to Backpack?

Each island is unique with something different to offer visitors. The downside is that there’s no easy way to island hop. To get between islands, you need to take a boat ride back to Ventura Harbor, and then take another ride to the next island the following day. 

For this reason, most people only visit one or two islands on their trip. But you can camp on all five islands by making a reservation in advance (there’s a $15 reservation fee per site). 

There is no accommodation on any of the islands so you’ll be camping and need to take all your own supplies. 

If you’re struggling to choose which islands to visit, here’s a quick breakdown of each one to help you decide. 

San Miguel Island

If you’re excited to see the sea lions, this is the island for you. It has the largest congregation of seals and sea lions in Point Bennett. It’s a 16-mile round trip hike to see them, but it’s definitely worth it. 

You’ll also spot some elephant seals and even great white sharks in this area too, so it’s a great choice for those eager to see the wildlife. 

It takes around three hours to get to this island by boat, which runs from July to September. Island Packers also offer a one-day trip to San Miguel in October but this sells out incredibly quickly. 

When you visit San Miguel Island, you’ll get detailed instructions from the Island Packers before you set off because the landing is done by inflatable boats. All hikes are also escorted by a naturalist or national park service member to protect the wildlife. 

Santa Rosa Island

If you’re visiting the islands for the beaches, Santa Rosa Island is the best option. It’s the second-largest of the islands and takes around two and a half hours to get to by boat. 

Although it’s known for its beaches, the weather can get chilly even in the summer so pack layers just in case.

Island Packers don’t go to Santa Rosa from December to February and the trips are limited throughout the week so you need to plan well in advance. 

There’s a single campground which is about a mile and a half from the dock and is open from mid-august to the end of December. From the ferry landing, there is a nine-mile backpacking hike that lets you explore the island and beaches before camping. 

Santa Barbara Island

The smallest of the islands, Santa Barbara is usually open from April to October. It takes around three hours to get to the island by boat and there’s also just one campground here. 

Be warned, it’s a steep, quarter-mile trek to the campsite and there’s no water here at all so being enough for your whole trip. Also think about taking microspikes if you want to make the rocky terrain a little easier. 

You can’t do a single day trip here because of the ferry schedule, so plan to be there for three days before returning and pack enough food and drink with a contingency for a delayed ferry.

Anacapa Island

If you want to spend just one day exploring the islands, Anacapa Island is a great choice. The entire island is just one square mile and is home to a massive flock of nesting birds. 

There’s a campground just half a mile from the boat landing, which has about 150 steps you need to climb up to get to the island. 

Anacapa is actually three islets (East, Middle, and West Anacapa). The boat will drop you at East Anacapa and the other two are only accessible by private boat which you’d have to plan yourself. 

Channel Island National Park Rules & Regulations

Channel Islands National Park cliffs, shore

There are some strict rules and regulations you need to follow when visiting the Channel Islands, with both federal and state laws protecting the Channel Islands and the wildlife. It’s important to know them in advance so you don’t break any on your trip. 

Read the entire government website to get familiar with the details, but here are the highlights:

  • Everything is protected so you can’t feed, collect, disturb, or harm any of the wildlife, plant life, or natural features. 
  • Hiking is only allowed on the designated trails and usually requires a guide. 
  • You must take all your waste home with you and keep all food secure. 
  • There is no fishing allowed and no pets but service animals are welcome when vaccinated. 
  • You can’t light campfires due to the extreme risk of wildfires. You can only use enclosed camp stoves for cooking. 
  • No smoking is allowed unless in a designated area.
  • You can only land on the designated rocks and islets by regulated boats. 

No matter where you’re hiking, whether it’s Boulder Chain Lakes, the Big Pine Lakes Trail, or the Channel Islands, you need to follow all the rules and regulations, so get familiar with them before your trip.

Cavern Point Loop

  • Distance: 2 miles
  • Trail type: Loop
  • Difficulty: Moderate

This is one of the most popular trails at the Channel Islands National Park and a must-do if you want to see the wildlife. 

At its peak, you might be lucky enough to spot some whales so don’t forget your binoculars.

To avoid a steep incline, head clockwise on the Santa Cruz trail which starts off at the campground and loops back to Scorpion anchorage. 

At the end, the downward trek back can be a little tough so bear this in mind if you’re not an experienced hiker.  

There are no water sources anywhere on the hike, so fill up at the campsite before heading out and make sure to stay on the designated trail. 

Scorpion Canyon Loop

  • Distance: 4.5 miles
  • Trail type: Loop
  • Difficulty: Moderate-Difficult

This loop starts at Scorpion Beach and is a great trail if you’re looking for some unbelievable views. 

It’s a hilly trail but you can go at your own pace depending on your experience level and take in the views as you go. Start out clockwise if you want to avoid the steepest incline to the campground. 

It’s not a shady trail so pack sunscreen and it can get overgrown in places so watch out for insect bites. 

Smuggler’s Cove Trail

a cliff near the sea at Smuggler’s Cove Trail
  • Distance: 7.7 miles
  • Trail type: Out & Back
  • Difficulty: Difficult

This is a great day trip hike for those looking for something a little more rugged. This one also starts at Scorpion Beach and has some expansive views of the Pacific. 

This route is known for wildlife spotting and it’s not uncommon to see an island fox, lizards, and the stunning wildflowers on this hike. 

There is a pretty steep incline to start the hike but it levels off after a few miles. It eventually ends with a lovely picnic area on a rocky beach which is Smuggler’s Cove. There are spots to stop and eat as well as toilet facilities here. 

If you want to relax on the beach for a few hours before heading back you can, or you can carry on to separate trails including Yellowbacks, Smuggler’s Canyon, or San Pedro Point Trail to extend your hike.

Don’t forget to pack plenty of food and water and remember that the hike back is also pretty demanding, so this one is best for experienced hikers only. 

Historic Ranch Trail

  • Distance: 0.5 miles
  • Trail type: Loop
  • Difficulty: Easy

This is a lovely short walk for beginners looking to enjoy the scenic views of the islands without the strenuous hikes. 

The trail is flat and takes you through Scorpion Ranch which dates back to the 1800s. There are no steep inclines or descents, and you’ll get a chance to see the visitors’ center to learn more about the history of the islands. 

Water Canyon

  • Distance: 3 miles
  • Trail type: Out & Back
  • Difficulty: Moderate-Difficult

This is a popular trail at Santa Rosa Island which takes you to the mouth of the water canyon. You can also choose to go for another six miles to the Soledad Peak where the trail officially ends.

The hike ranges in difficulty, with some areas classed as difficult. It’s also an off-trail hike so be prepared for some tricky terrain. 

It’s totally worth it though to see the sandstone canyon and water flowing through it.  

Water Canyon Beach

  • Distance: 3 miles
  • Trail type: Out & Back
  • Difficulty: Easy

This is more of a coastal walk than a hike, but offers some beautiful pacific views. In fact, Water Canyon Beach is known for its white sand and bright turquoise waters.

It’s important to check the wind speeds before you head off. Although it’s an easy hike, high winds can make it difficult so check with one of the packers to see if it’s worth going. 

A Must-Do Trip for Backpackers

The Channel Islands are a unique backpacking trip for hikers of all skill levels. With stunning wildlife, a range of hiking trails, and unbeatable views, this is a trip of a lifetime. 

All you need to do now is decide which islands you want to visit! They all have their own unique charms but you can’t go wrong with your decision. They are all incredible to hike and camp at. 

Looking for a new adventure? Check out our complete guide on solo trekking in Nepal

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