what to do in channel islands national park with kids

Guide to Visiting Channel Islands National Park with Kids

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Planning a day trip to Channel Islands National Park with kids and wondering what to do in Channel Islands with kids? You’re come to the right place! We will give you tips on what to do when visiting Channel Islands with kids, where to stay and what to bring. Keep reading to help plan your trip to Channel Islands National Park!

How to get to Channel Islands National Park

The visitor center for Channel Islands National Park is located on the mainland, in Ventura and Santa Barbara. However, to get to the actual park, you will need to book a boat trip. We didn’t plan ahead, in fact we booked our boat trip the day before and made this a spur of the moment trip. Ventura Harbor is 1.5 hours from our home, so this worked out well for us.

We took an Island Packers boat from Ventura Harbor to Scorpions Cove on Santa Cruz Island. This island is best when visiting for a day trip, with the most activities and some amenities. The boat ride takes approximately one hour each way. Alternatively, you can book a private boat but that will be much more costly!

If you are flying in to visit Channel Islands National Park, the closest major airport is LAX, is about 1 hour away depending on traffic.

what to do in channel islands national park with kids

Best time to visit Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park is open year round, and the best time to visit Channel Islands National Park is really any time of year. Spring brings beautiful wildflowers and you are likely to see island fox pups since they are born in the spring. Summer is the ideal time for kayaking and snorkeling. In the fall, ocean temperatures can reach 70 degrees making it the best time to be in the water. Whale watching is best in the winter months, making it a great time to go. As you can see, there really is no wrong time to visit the islands. We visited in late August and had great weather.

On the boat ride over, we saw hundreds of dolphins both ways. We also saw lots of seals, so you are probably going to see lots of wildlife on your boat ride over. The dolphins were unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, check out the video below.

what to do in channel islands national park with kids
Lots of seals on the way to the island!

Where to stay when visiting Channel Islands National Park

There is no lodging on any of the islands. Since most people visit the Channel Islands as a day trip, you will most likely be booking your hotel in Ventura, Oxnard or Santa Barbara, near the boat docks. There are lots of family friendly hotels near the Channel Islands National Park in the 3 cities I mentioned.

Camping near Channel Islands National Park

Primitive camping is permitted on all 5 islands and each island has one established campground, where you will need advance reservations. We saw lots of tents scattered in the campgrounds but you are pretty much on your own from there. Our family does not do camping of any kind and I am doubtful we’d survive a night of primitive camping!

Best family-friendly hotels near Channel Islands National Park

Since we were leaving out of Ventura, I found the closest hotel to the dock. We stayed at the Four Points by Sheraton Ventura Harbor Resort, just down the street from where the boat leaves in the morning.

how to get to channel islands national park
Our room at the Sheraton.

Things to bring when visiting Channel Islands National Park with kids

There are no restaurants, shops or really any amenities on the island so bring everything you could possibly need for the time you are there.

  • Packable rain coat: It gets chilly on the boat and you may get sprayed with sea mist, so bring a light coat for the ride over.
  • Hiking boots: Since you’ll be doing lots of hiking, be sure to wear good quality boots!
  • Sun hat: Since you’ll be spending lots of time in the sun, it’s important to pack a sun hat for the kids!
  • Lunch and snacks: As mentioned, there are no places to purchase snacks or food, so be sure to pack your own!
  • Packable beach blanket: You’ll most likely lounge by the beach for at least some of your time here so bring a blanket to sit on.
  • National Parks Journal: This is the journal we bring on all of our National Park trips. Don’t forget to get your stamp!
  • Dramamine: If anyone in your party gets sea sick, be sure to bring some non-drowsy Dramamine! Both Milana and I got super nauseous in the Galapagos Islands and we didn’t want to risk it on this boat ride, so we took this 30 minutes before leaving and didn’t feel any sea sickness. The best spot to sit if you are prone to sea sickness is at the back of the boat, outside and on the lower level.
  • Swimming Gear: If you plan on going into the frigid waters, make sure to bring a change of clothes!

Books and games about Channel Islands National Park

Things to do in Channel Islands National Park with kids

Best kid-friendly hiking trails in Channel Islands National Park

One of the best things to do in Channel Islands National Park with kids is hiking. Santa Cruz Island is small enough to explore on foot, with some nice views along the way. If your kids have the Junior Ranger activity booklet, they can even do a scavenger hunt on the island.

  • Scorpion Canyon Loop Trail: This is a 4.5 mile loop trail, though most people don’t do the entire trail. We did since we had a few hours to kill! It was a fairly easy hike, though some spots had steep climbs.
  • Potato Harbor Trail: Another popular loop trail, this one 4.9 miles long. Do this one early as there is no shade and it gets quite hot!
  • Cavern’s Loop Point Trail: This is probably the most popular hike on the island. If you start it near the dock, you will be climbing uphill. To avoid that, go to campsite 22 and start hiking clockwise from there towards Scorpion Anchorage. This trail is 2 miles and great for all skill levels.
best hikes in channel islands national park
View from Potato Harbor Trail
best hikes in channel islands national park
Bring layers! It can be quite chilly in the morning, especially on the boat ride.
best hikes with kids in channel islands national park
Scorpion Canyon Loop Trail
best hikes in channel islands national park

Kayaking in the Channel Islands

Another popular thing to do on the island is to take a kayaking tour. Channel Islands Adventure Company has lots of different tour options with the most flexible times, depending on what time your ferry arrives from the mainland. They have changing rooms and a place where you can leave all of your stuff so that it doesn’t get wet. There are many different tours to choose from, from all day to just one hour long.

what to do in channel islands national park with kids

Junior Ranger program in Channel Islands National Park

Just like all of the other National Parks, Channel Islands has a Junior Ranger program. Be sure to pick up an activity booklet before you head out! The official visitor center has them however they were pretty tiny and awful. Island Packers had bigger and much better ones, so we got a second one when picking up our boat tickets. And, when we arrived on the island, the ranger mentioned that they have them as well so if you end up not having time to grab one on the mainland, they do have them on the island.

what to do in channel islands national park with kids
Channel Islands Junior Ranger activity booklet

Look for wildlife

There are lots of different animals that call the Channel Islands home and your kids will have fun trying to find them! The most popular is the Island Fox, endemic to only the Channel Islands and quite adorable! We found one at the campground, stealing someone’s food from a cooler. If you are camping, be sure to lock up your food. There are fox boxes all over the island so that this doesn’t happen but we saw lots of campers being careless with their food.

best things to do in the channel islands with kids
Island Fox

Hang out by the beach

Before heading out to the mainland, we spent some time at the beach. It’s rocky but filled with lots of shells to look at. We didn’t feel like we needed water shoes to walk around the shoreline, though some people did have them.

best things to do in the channel islands with kids
Checking out the shells.

Where to eat with kids near Channel Islands National Park

As mentioned before, there are no restaurants, snack bars, etc. on the island so you have to bring in all of your food. If you are leaving out of Ventura, Harbor Cove Cafe is located right next to where the boats leave from and you can order packed lunches to bring to the island. You can order on their website then just run up and pick up your island ready lunches. You’ll get a sandwich, chips, cookie, apple and water. There is a water refill station at the campground, so keep that in mind if you are running low on water.

what to do in channel islands national park with kids
Packed lunch from the Harbor Cove cafe.

Channel Islands National Park is one of the more elusive National Parks but so worth the visit! It’s one of the best National Parks to visit with kids, with tons of learning opportunities along the way. Have you been to Channel Islands National Park with kids? If so, we’d love to hear about it! Want to read this later? Pin one of the images below!


  • Jyothsna

    Hey, thank you so much for all the tips. I have 2 girls 6 and 3 years old. Planking s trip for this summer break. I hope we enjoy as much as possible. I am sure we can’t do the kayaking. But I guess we will just hike and enjoy by the beach.

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