Channel Islands National Park is located right off the coast of Ventura, CA, but feels a million miles away from the rest of Southern California. The park has a different vibe than most: the main visitor’s center is located not in the park, but in the Ventura Harbor, where visitors depart for the islands, and the islands themselves remain remote, isolated, and almost completely undeveloped. Don’t let the Channel Islands, and the logistics of exploring them, deter you: this national park is perfect for kids. Families simply need to know what to do in the Channel Islands, how to get to Channel Islands National Park, and where to stay prior.
All the Channel Islands are accessible, but the most easily accessed (and with the most to do for families) is Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the five. Protected coves allow for great snorkeling here, and the camping is easiest (on other islands, backpacking may be necessary). Santa Cruz Island is also the most affordable to travel to, making it ideal for larger family groups.
Camping or day trip?
The next thing families need to decide is whether to make their Channel Islands adventure a day trip or an overnight. Camping at Channel Islands is reserved by ReserveAmerica, and the most popular camping experience for families is located at Scorpion’s Cove on Santa Cruz. This campground is walk-in (meaning backpacking is not necessary) and the lower campground is only .2 mile from the beach. Running water and pit toilets are available, and each site has a picnic table and food storage box.
For families deciding not to camp, a day trip to Santa Cruz Island can be more than enough to experience the National Park. Santa Cruz (the most easily accessible island) is undeveloped; in addition to the campground, there are only a few ranger cabins (rangers are on-site), evidence of the island’s ranching history, and hiking trails. A dock exists at Scorpion’s Cove, where passengers disembark. For a day trip, we recommend taking an early boat (9 am) out to Scorpion’s Cove, and returning at 4 pm or 5 pm. This gives visitors enough time to experience the island’s snorkeling, kayaking, and hiking.
How to get there:
Island Packers is the official transportation to the islands. They’re located in the Ventura Harbor adjacent to the Channel Islands visitor center (follow the brown National Park signs to the end of the drive along the pier) and reservations should be made in advance. The boat ride over takes approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes, and is certainly part of the fun. We spotted dolphins during our passage, and when the water is choppy, as it was on our visit, the ride is downright exhilarating. Kids can stand at the deck and feel the spray of the ocean, or interior seats are also available. The Island Packers crew and staff are all friendly, laid-back, and fun. The cost of an Island Packers passage varies by island and whether your passage is a day trip or camping trip. At the time of my visit, day trip passage was $56 round trip for adults and $39 round trip for children (up to age 12). Overnight passage was $75 for adults and $54 for children.
Snorkeling, kayaking, and hiking on the islands:
Snorkeling at Scorpion’s Cove, we swam with harbor seals, and spotted multiple fish species, sea urchins, sea stars, and kelp forests. Snorkeling gear can be rented by the day at Ventura Sports, located in the Ventura Harbor, but be advised: they don’t have adequate sizes for kids under age 10. While their staff was friendly, they rented us a wetsuit that was far too large for our seven-year-old, with no warning that it wouldn’t work for him. (Wet suits are usually necessary in all seasons on Channel Islands.) In addition to snorkeling, kayaks can be rented in the harbor and transported for the day or the duration of your camping trip by Island Packers, or guided kayak tours are available on the island (reserve ahead of time). When not on or in the water, numerous hiking trails (of about 2 miles in length at most) are available on Santa Cruz Island, and offer beautiful vistas of the island and sea.
Where to stay in Ventura:
If you’re coming any distance to visit the islands, you’ll need to stay overnight in Ventura the evening prior. We recommend the Holiday Inn Express Ventura Harbor, which overlooks the Ventura Harbor and is less than a quarter mile from Island Packers. I call this Holiday Inn Express an ‘express plus’, because it’s directly tied to the Four Points Sheraton next door, and guests have access to their very nice outdoor heated pool and hot tub (hot tub for adults only). A pedestrian bridge connects the two hotels, and the Holiday Inn Express includes one of the best complimentary breakfasts we’ve ever experienced. Bottom line: the Holiday Inn Express Ventura is a great value for families, and you’ll be close enough to enjoy the Ventura Harbor prior to your Channel Islands trip. Tip: alternatively, the Comfort Inn is near Channel Islands, and received a Kidscore of 77. (Learn more about Kidscore.)