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Guide To Channel Islands Kayaking: Santa Cruz & More

Nicola Burridge
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Explore the stunning beauty of Channel Islands National Park like a true ocean adventurer. 

Nestled off the California coast, this park boasts a rich history, crystal-clear waters, and abundant marine life: the ultimate destination for nature lovers. 

I highly recommend taking a Channel Islands kayaking trip and paddling your way through caves, kelp forests, and secluded coves with abundant sea life, immersing yourself in an unforgettable natural wonderland.

Santa Cruz Island

Courtesy: David Wilson on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Santa Cruz Island is the largest of the eight islands in the Channel Islands National Park. It’s one of only two islands that are accessible all year round by ferry transportation (the other being Anacapa Island). 

Three other islands (San Miguel, Santa Rosa, and Santa Barbara) can be accessed by ferry. But the ferry service to these islands only runs from April through early November, with limited trips made during this time.

The ferries are run by Island Packers, the National Park’s concessionaire. A one-way trip takes around an hour from Ventura Harbor. Ferries run to Santa Cruz daily, with ferries running to other Channel Islands less frequently. 

Ferries and private boats are the only ways to access the Channel Islands National Park. And kayaking or walking are the only ways to fully explore these islands.

Painted Cave

The Painted Cave is located on the wild northwestern coast of Santa Cruz Island. This cave is one of the largest sea caves in the world.

It gets its name from the multiple colors found on the rocks inside the cave, making it look like the caves are painted. These are naturally occurring due to the various types of rocks within the cave, as well as the algae and lichen that both affect the color of the rock.  

Harbor seals and sea lions can often be found in and around the cave.

You can kayak into the Painted Cave, as well as other deep caves nearby. Be aware that these caves can be very dark.

Sea Caves

The rugged coastline of Santa Cruz Island is filled with caves. And you can paddle into many of them, with marine wildlife to spot along the way. I don’t recommend doing this alone.

You can launch from the beaches at either Prisoners Harbor or Scorpion Anchorage. Scorpion Anchorage is one of the main launches for guided kayak tours.

You can also paddle through vibrant kelp forests, around rocky shorelines, and head to the famous Potato Harbor, with its clear, turquoise waters.

Kayaks positioned along the rocky shoreline of a serene beachPin

Class of rapids rating:

N/A – coastal conditions, moderate to difficult.

Where to launch & How to get there: 

Take an Island Packers ferry to Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island (ferry ticket required). Launch from the beach beside the dock. 

Anacapa Island

Anacapa Island is made up of three islets and is the closest of the Channel Islands to the mainland. It takes around an hour on the ferry from Oxnard. 

The ferry docks at the eastern islet, where there is a landing dock (and a lot of steps up to the top of the island). This is the only accessible launch point for kayaking on this part of Anacapa, as the rest of the coastline is made up of cliffs.

West Anacapa has a beach at Frenchys Cove, which is accessible to kayaks but the rest of West Anacapa is closed to visitors because it’s a restricted area and protected breeding ground for California brown pelicans.

The Middle Islet is also restricted but you can access it with a permit and only with a Channel Islands National Park ranger. 

The eastern islet, where you’ll dock, is accessible without a permit and you can camp on the island. However, kayaks are not allowed to be left at the dock, which means hauling the kayak up 157 steps.

Stunning Sea Caves, Wildlife, And Anacapa Arch

A natural stone arch formation on Anacapa Island, CaliforniaPin

Anacapa Island is a great place for snorkeling, with crystal-clear water and an abundance of marine life. It’s in a marine conservation area, so fishing is not allowed. 

This island has more caves per mile than any of the others but there are fewer places to stop for a rest.

One of the highlights of kayaking around Anacapa is being able to paddle under Arch Rock, the natural stone bridge that’s often seen in pictures of the Channel Islands National Park.

Class of rapids rating:

N/A – coastal conditions, moderate to difficult

Where to launch & How to get there:

Take a ferry to Landing Cove on Anacapa Island (ferry ticket required). Kayak launch is at the dock.

Channel Islands Kayak Tours 

A kayak tour can be the best way to safely explore incredible sea caves and the rugged coastline of the Channel Islands. But you also have the option of bringing your own kayak on the ferry with you (subject to additional fees from Island Packers). 

However, unless you’re a very experienced sea kayaker, I recommend booking an expert-led kayak tour.

Channel Islands Expeditions

The Channel Island Expeditions tour company offers guided kayak tours of Anacapa Island and Santa Cruz Island. Both kayaking tour options include snorkeling.

The kayak tour to Santa Cruz takes you into the Painted Cave and includes snorkel gear, kayak rental, wetsuits, and a hot lunch. You should have prior snorkeling experience to participate in a snorkel tour.

The kayak tour to Anacapa is the longest downwind sea kayak tour in the world, covering a five-mile kayaking paddling distance, including paddling through the rocky arch. The tour includes the kayak rental but snorkel gear and wetsuits can be rented separately. 

These guided kayak tours include a private ferry from Oxnard. 

Santa Barbara Adventure Company

The Santa Barbara Adventure Company offers four guided tours of the Channel Islands, one of which includes snorkeling. All of the tour options depart from Santa Cruz Island. 

You can add ferry tickets for the Island Packers ferry at the time of booking the tour or you can pay for the ferry separately. The tours don’t leave from the mainland, so you will need to take a boat ride to the island.

This means you need to make sure you are on the island in advance of your kayak tour time. For example, you need to get the 9 a.m. ferry from Ventura if your kayaking tour starts at 10.30 a.m. 

Check-in for the ferry opens an hour prior to the ferry departure time.

You can check the ferry schedule in advance of your trip and you can contact the tour company for the exact ferry return time for the date of your kayaking tour.

Some of the kayak tours run dependent on the weather and ocean conditions, as choppy seas can make a kayaking trip dangerous, particularly cave exploration.

All of the tours include sea cave kayaking, with the shortest tour being 2.5 hours long and the longest adventure being five hours. All tours include an hour of orientation, gearing up, and paddle safety.

Some of the sea cave kayaking opportunities can be arranged through the Channel Islands Adventure Company. This is owned by the Santa Barbara Adventure Company and both companies offer the same tours.

A beginner-friendly tour is the Discovery Sea Cave Kayak Tour, which is the shortest of the tours and suitable for all levels, though the minimum age is five.

The Adventure Tour is also suitable for beginners to advanced paddlers and is the most popular tour. It takes you around the island’s pristine coastlines, with a guide to show you the unparalleled natural wonders and tell you about the local natural history of the Channel Islands.

Channel Islands Kayaking And Small Boat Laws, Regulations, And Permits

It’s important that you follow the rules and regulations to keep yourself safe and protect the pristine shoreline and marine ecology. 

For safety, you should always wear a PFD (Personal Flotation Device). A life jacket is a requirement for any vessel on ocean waters and I strongly advise you to wear the PFD at all times on these waters.

You should also always wear a helmet when paddling near cliffs and in caves. A whistle is also required for safety.

It’s recommended that you also carry a marine radio (VHF radio) in your kayaking group.

Regulations For Kayaking In The Channel Islands National Park

  • Do not exit your kayak in the caves.
  • It’s illegal to feed, harass, touch, or intentionally disturb wildlife.
  • Artificial lights in caves are not recommended.
  • Climbing or landing on rocks is not allowed. You’re not allowed to land on any off-shore islets in the National Park.
  • Check with the island ranger for beach closures or restricted-access areas. 
  • Pets are not allowed in the National Park.

Landing Permits

Landing permits are not required to land on any National Park property. However, there are restricted areas on all of the islands. This means you can only land in designated areas on the islands. 

There are also parts of the islands that require a permit from The Nature Conservancy (TNC).

Santa Cruz Island

You can land on the eastern side of Santa Cruz between Valley Anchorage and Prisoners Harbor. The other three-quarters of the island will require a permit from the TNC. 

Anacapa Island

Eastern Anacapa is accessible without a permit, as is Frenchys Cove on the western islet. However, the rest of the western islet is closed to all visitors. The middle islet requires a park ranger and a permit. 

Santa Barbara Island

Santa Barbara Island does not require a permit for landing or hiking. But landing is only permitted at the landing dock.

Santa Rosa Island

Kayakers can land on beaches on Santa Rosa Island without a permit. The beaches are day-use only.

San Miguel Island 

San Miguel Island is owned by the US Navy so there are times when the island is closed to visitors. You’re only allowed to land at Cuyler Harbor and a permit is required beforehand. This can be obtained on the Island Packers ferry. 

How To Plan Your Trip

Despite breathtaking scenery, exploring sea caves by kayak in the Channel Islands National Park can be dangerous. 

Coastal conditions can change rapidly. This can affect the water levels in the caves, making cave exploration treacherous.

It can be useful if you have some previous kayaking experience but there are tours that cater to complete beginners. 

What To Wear For Channel Islands Kayaking Trip

If you’re on a guided tour, you will usually be provided with a wetsuit for the trip. If not, I find it’s a good idea to wear one.  

The waters of the Pacific Ocean are generally cold, even in the summer, so it’s important that you’re prepared for the temperature of the water. You can wear swimwear if it’s particularly hot.

Sunglasses and a hat can also be a good idea (and don’t forget the sunscreen!). It can be windy, so a hat that can be secured to your head is a better idea. 

I also recommend you bring a pair of water shoes for kayaking. 

Check out our guide on what to wear when kayaking

Best Time Of Year To Visit The Channel Islands National Park

Obviously, you want the weather to be nice and the water to be calm when kayaking in Channel Islands National Park. The best time of year for calm seas and minimal wind is usually between August and October.

However, windy weather can happen at any time of the year. There’s also the possibility of Santa Ana winds at any time of the year. However, these winds can be more likely from early fall through spring. 

What To Bring To The Channel Islands National Park

There are no stores or facilities on the islands, so you’ll need to bring all your essentials. You will also need to bring drinking water with you, as there is no access to potable water on the islands, except one location at Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz.

You should bring a towel and a change of clothes if you plan to hike after your kayaking trip. I recommend that you also bring sufficient food and water for the length of your trip, as well as camping gear if you plan to extend your trip.

Because there are no trash cans on the island, you’ll need to bring a garbage bag to take your trash home with you.

Don’t forget about a dry bag for storage on your kayak (and snorkel masks if you want to see below the ocean’s surface). A waterproof phone case can also be useful, so you can still take photos without fear of losing your phone in the ocean.

Final Words

The Channel Islands is home to a rich underwater world and what better way to explore it than by kayak? 

Remember to plan ahead, regarding the weather and ferry transportation. And I recommend that you always wear your life jacket while kayaking around the islands. 

Heading to the Channel Islands? Let us know how your trip goes?

> Kayaking in California guide

Guide To Channel Islands Kayaking: Santa Cruz & More - Pinterest ImagePin

1 thought on “Guide To Channel Islands Kayaking: Santa Cruz & More”

  1. A very nice article. I am curious where the picture was taken for the “guide to the Channel Islands kayaking” doesn’t look like any of the Channel Islands that I have paddled


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