Catalina Island & the Channel Islands

Less than 50 miles of the coast of southern California lie eight peaceful hilly islands with lots of things to explore. Let’s visit the California channel islands!


The most well-known of the channel islands is Santa Catalina Island, also known simply as Catalina. This 75 square mile island lies about 22 miles off the coast of the mainland, just west of Orange County. The main town on Catalina is Avalon, with about 4,000 residents and a million visitors per year.

The history of the island is fascinating. Catalina has been inhabited for around 8,000 years. The first residents were Native Americans who called the island Pimugna or Pimu and referred to themselves as Pimugnans or Pimuvit, according to Wikipedia. The native tribes were related to those from the San Pedro area on the mainland. It is interesting to imagine them crossing the 22 miles of open ocean in small canoes.

Portuguese explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo was the first European to arrive on the channel islands, and claimed it for the Spanish. After that, smugglers, pirates, fur traders and gold miners all inhabited the island at one point or another. Beginning in the 1800s various entrepreneurs tried to make Catalina into a leisure destination, and it remains so today.

In 1975, nearly 90% of the island was deeded to the Catalina Island Conservancy to protect and restore the natural habitat. They work to eradicate introduced plants and educate the public about the natural world. There are nearly 150 miles of hiking trails on Catalina Island and numerous campgrounds. 

Two Harbors is a smaller town on the north end of the island. This little town is popular with the sailing set as the harbor here is a great place to anchor.

Things To Do on Catalina Island:

There are many hotels and B&Bs on the island, and Catalina is a very popular destination for yachters from the mainland. Check the Catalina Visitors Bureau website or Hotels Combined for options about where to stay on the island or check out some of these places:

You can reach the island by ferry, helicopter or private boat. There are four ports in southern California and it takes about an hour to get to the island by ferry. Check this link for more information on transportation to Santa Catalina.


While Catalina Island gets around a million visitors a year, the other channel islands get a fraction of that. There are a total of eight channel islands and five of them are part of the Channel Islands National Park.

Hiking, boating, camping and diving opportunities abound on these islands, but you won’t find any services other than basic campgrounds.You can reach these islands by private boat, small aircraft, or commercial ferries run by Island Packers. Once on the island you must get around on foot or by kayak. This means these islands are quiet and unspoiled, with the cruise ships and day trippers staying in Avalon.

Each island has at least one campground, and on some islands backcountry camping is also allowed.

Anacapa Island is the closest to the mainland. It is most famous for its beautiful natural arch. The island is split in three sections by erosion, with ocean in between. East Anacapa has about two miles of trails and a historic lighthouse. The islands are home to nesting seabirds and lots of seals and sea lions. It is a perfect place to explore by kayak.

Santa Cruz Island is the largest in the group and is mostly owned by The Nature Conservancy. It is almost 100 square miles and has high peaks, sea caves, waterfalls and lots of unique flora and fauna. It was originally inhabited by the Chumash peoples, who are native to coastal California from Morro Bay south to Malibu. There is one National Park campsite on the island.

Check out the kayak adventures offered by Santa Barbara Adventure Company and Channel Islands Adventure Company around Santa Cruz Island including visits to sea caves and snorkeling.

Take a full day sailing trip to and from the islands from Oxnard. You can also enjoy three day eco tour of Santa Cruz island onboard a luxury yacht.

Santa Rosa Island is rugged, windy and quiet. The remains of fossilized pygmy mammoths were found here! Santa Rosa Island also has a beautiful canyon that leads down to the beach.

San Miguel Island is a low sandy island with a lot to offer the adventurous visitor. Unique specimens can be found here, and the island’s environment is very fragile. In addition, the island was a former bombing range and there may be unexploded ordinance hiding somewhere. For this reason a permit is required before visiting this island, and a ranger must accompany all hikers.

Santa Barbara Island is the smallest in the National Park chain. Pelicans nest on the island and you’ll be sure to spot seals and sea lions on the beaches. The island is also one of the best for kayaking, diving and snorkeling but there are no services on the island.

*some photos courtesy Channel Island National Park

Here are some books you might like about Catalina & the Channel Islands:

Taking a trip to California? Check out our guide to Central California. Be sure not to miss Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara and Big Sur!

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