The Channel Islands

By Ann Dermody

Want that vacation feeling of being overseas without the headache of a long airplane ride? The Channel Islands off California are about as good as it gets!

Photo of a sailboat navigating the Channel Islands off California

We say it all the time, the Channel Islands National Park is close to the mainland, but a world apart," says Yvonne Menard, Chief of Interpretation and Public Information Officer for the park, tossing out her workplace's catchphrase for what you imagine is the umpteenth time.

It's not an exaggeration. Just 11 miles off the Southern California coast, at their nearest point, Menard says the islands are about as close to what prospectors and pioneers found in that region when they marched west all those years ago. "They probably represent what California looked like over 100 years ago in terms of remoteness," she says.

But visitors shouldn't confuse seclusion with dullness, because these islands are arguably home to one of the richest marine environments in the world. "We have over 145 different, unique, or endemic species," says Menard. "There's just a fantastic diversity of life." She's talking plant, mammal, and human history here. The oldest human remains in North America were found on Santa Rosa Island in 1994, and the most intact skeleton of a pygmy mammoth on the planet was also unearthed there.

Fossil and botany lesson aside, how do you get your trailered boat there? Well, first up, it's important to mention that this is one of the more challenging national parks to access with a smaller boat, so make sure you're experienced and confident handling some of the bigger conditions you can expect in the Santa Barbara Channel. But if you take precautions, time the weather, and prepare well, you'll be richly rewarded.

Photo of a grey whale breaching in Santa Barbara Channel

For the shortest route launching from the mainland, head to the Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard, or Ventura Harbor six miles further north.

The only two islands smaller boats should tackle are those nearer to the mainland, Anacapa and Santa Cruz. But don't think you'll be missing out on anything because they're also two of the best. The others, including Santa Rosa and San Miguel, are not advisable for boaters in vessels under 23 feet. Westerlies of 15 to 20 knots are considered normal, and the area further north isn't considered to be a trailerable boat realm. "When you look at the wind and sea conditions further to the north, it can be very, very demanding, and powerboats of that size, that are more day-boat use, can easily get in trouble if they go up toward the northern islands," says Menard.

The Santa Barbara Channel is one of the most dangerous in the world and wind conditions can change rapidly, warns Menard. Add to that dense fog, particularly in the summer, and the fact that the channel has one of the busiest shipping lanes in California, with great hulking carriers bearing down at 25 to 30 knots, and you'll need more than your wits about you.

Luckily, the busiest and most favored anchorages seem to be on Santa Cruz with some hardened cruisers claiming there are more great places to drop your hook here, per square inch, than anywhere else from Oregon to Mexico. Fry's anchorage on Santa Cruz is popular so you'll need to get there early if that's your anchorage of choice. The other great alternative, a little further out on the east side of Santa Cruz Island, is the very well-liked Smugglers Cove anchorage. Smugglers Cove is a bay located 20.6 miles from Channel Islands Beach in California, and fish here include trout, crappie, and striped bass.

One of the better anchorages on Anacapa is Frenchy's Cove Beach about halfway up Anacapa Island's north side. Located almost 15 miles from Channel Islands Beach, it's also a good fishing spot for California halibut, sturgeon, and coho salmon. The south side of the island also offers some anchorages. In high boating season, don't think you're necessarily going to find a deserted island. The park gets between 200,000 and 300,000 boat visitors annually, but it's so big you'll easily be able to spread yourselves out.

Know Before You Go

Get Your Own

Remember there are no services like food stores or gear rentals on the Channel Islands, so you must bring your own supplies. Potable water is available at the Scorpion Canyon Campground on Santa Cruz Island. Public pit toilets are available on all islands.

Prepare To Fish

To fish in Channel Islands National Park, possession of a valid California state fishing license is required, and all California Department of Fish and Game Regulations apply. In addition, 12 Marine Protected Areas surround the islands, where special resource protection regulations apply.

No Personal Watercraft

PWCs are not allowed in the park.

Tell A Friend

Boaters should file a formal float plan with the harbormaster and family or friends before departing. List the names and addresses of the boaters, as well as their emergency phone numbers. Also include: the number of boats and boaters on the trip; the color, size, and type of craft used; any survival and special emergency equipment (EPIRB, VHF, food rations, flares, etc.) onboard; and the place, date, time of departure, time of return, and intended destination.

Give Way To The Big Guys

Major shipping lanes lie between the islands and the mainland. Stay aware of their location and use caution when crossing them. All boaters should listen to the Coast Guard Notice to Mariners broadcast on VHF Channel 22, as the waters in and surrounding the park are sometimes closed for military operations.

Set Up Camp

There are no entrance fees to visit the park, but a reservation fee of $15, per night, per site, is charged for camping on the islands. Advanced reservations are required for all campgrounds and can be made online or by calling 877-444-6777.

Keep Moving, Baby

Only the National Park Service, the Coast Guard, and the park concessionaire may use the moorings near the landing cove at east Anacapa Island.

The islands are also blessed with excellent diving. "It's one of the top 10 diving spots in the world," says Menard. "We've one of the richest marine ecosystems, so whether you're a boater, kayaker, into snorkeling, diving, or just hiking, you're in for a treat." Tide pooling is another favorite on the islands. Due to their relative isolation and protection, the tide pools in Channel Islands National Park are some of the best within Southern California. Get ready to see sea stars, anemones, urchins, limpets, periwinkles, chitons, barnacles, mussels, and many other beautiful species at numerous pristine tide pool sites.

Arguably the best time for boaters to visit is midsummer through the fall, due to the conditions and water clarity. Dwight Willey, a veteran boat captain for the park, says, "Trailered boats have a limited range in the Channel Islands that boaters should be aware of. The conditions can be very challenging, and in winter or spring, I'd advise not going in your trailered boat at all. Even in summer and fall, conditions can turn on a dime."

Preparation is the name of the game. In summer there is the potential for heavy fog, and in the fall when the warm Santa Ana winds can whip up off the mainland without warning, there's the potential for real danger. Smaller boats should approach east to west, says Willey, who has captained for the park for the past 24 years and has been cruising the islands since 1973. The distance from the Channel Islands Harbor on the mainland to Anacapa Island, the closest of the islands, is 11 miles and it's considered the safest route for a smaller boat, except when the Santa Ana winds are blowing.

"The first thing anyone thinking of making the crossing should do is a careful analysis of the weather," says Willey. "A question I get a lot is, 'What side of the island is the fuel dock on?' There is no fuel dock! Or another is: 'Which island is this?' If you don't know, you shouldn't be out there. These are challenging waters. You need to know and you need to be careful!" That's something Menard emphatically seconds: "I keep emphasizing you need to be prepared. You need good communication, and good backup communication, and all of the required safety devices. Honestly assess what your seamanship level is. If you don't have the experience, you shouldn't be out in the channel. We get a lot of boaters in distress." 

This article was published in Winter 2010 issue of Trailering Magazine.

Channel Islands Tips

West Marine has some great laminated waterproof charts of the islands.

I think the biggest concern is the ever changing weather in the Santa Barbara Channel. It can start out a beautiful, flat, calm day and by early afternoon, the wind may come up and build short steep seas that can be dangerous to small trailerable boats.

The other thing we frequently see, especially with small boats, is lack of knowledge about the ocean. People with lake boating experience think they have it under control but don't realize how different things can be on the open ocean.

Captain Paul Amaral
Channel Watch Marine



  • On-the-road assistance for your trailer and vehicle
  • Only $38 Annually! ($24 Membership + $14 TRAILER ASSIST)