Just off the coast of California lie eight mountainous islands, collectively forming an archipelago known as the Channel Islands. These islands host unique wildlife, unspoiled nature reserves, and some of the best hiking, snorkeling, and fishing in the country.
The beautiful city of San Diego is located just over 65 miles away from the southernmost island. Although there's no direct ferry from San Diego to the Channel Islands, there are plenty of convenient alternative ways to get there, including ferries from LA and Ventura.
San Diego is a wonderful starting point for exploring the coastline of California and is just a few hours from the Channel Islands ferry terminals. Read on to learn more about the best ferry options to get to The Channel Islands and what to do once you're there.
Is there a ferry from San Diego to the Channel Islands?
There is no direct ferry from San Diego to the Channel Islands. However, you can easily drive to the cities of Ventura and Long Beach to catch one.
The ferry from Long Beach goes directly to Santa Catalina Island. Santa Catalina is the only Channel Island with a permanent settlement.
On the island is the city of Avalon, which is famous for its casino, hotels, and world-famous snorkeling and scuba-diving. There are up to 30 ferries a day that depart from Dana Point or Long Beach.
The northern Channel Islands, off the coast of Santa Barbara and Ventura, are uninhabited and home to Channel Islands National Park. Visitors can hike, camp, swim, and snorkel within the park, and even come face-to-face with animals like whales and dolphins.
Within the Channel Islands National Park, you can explore plants and animals found nowhere else on earth like the Channel Island Fox. Because of this, many locals call them the Galapagos of California.
Island Packers Cruises is the official boat service to visit Channel Islands National Park. There are ferries that leave from multiple ports along the California Coast.
How to reach the Channel Islands from San Diego
The Channel Islands can be reached by ferry from several destinations. For the Channel Islands National Park, you can leave from Ventura Harbor. For Catalina Island only, you can depart from Dana Point, Newport Beach, or Long Beach.
Island Packers Cruises is the official boat service to visit Channel Islands National Park. The main ferry departs from Ventura Harbor, just outside the beach city of Ventura.
The ferry arrives at Santa Cruz Island, Santa Rosa Island, Anacapa Island, San Miguel Island, and Santa Barbara Island. The closest islands are Anacapa and the big island, Santa Cruz.
The ferry takes about 1 to 4 hours depending on which island you're traveling to. The most popular dock is Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island.
There are no cars on the ferries, only passengers. A select few residents on Santa Catalina Island own cars. Most people in the town of Avalon drive golf carts around the island.
You can take a ferry to the Channel Islands year-round. Some of the more remote islands see guests only at certain times of the year. There are dozens of trips and combinations you can book through Island Packers to make the trip you desire.
Driving from San Diego to Ventura Harbor
If you choose to take a ferry, you'll enjoy the breezy trip north to Ventura Harbor. The drive from San Diego to Ventura Harbor is about 190 miles and takes roughly 3 hours and 30 minutes.
The drive is easy and direct and you'll see plenty of beautiful Californian sights along the way, like parts of LA and the Santa Monica Mountains.
You may, however, encounter plenty of traffic, especially in Los Angeles. Once you get past LA, the traffic on the 101 usually lets up unless it's rush hour.
How long does it take to reach the Channel Islands from San Diego?
The closest island to San Diego is San Clemente Island, which is about 65 miles off the coast. Other islands are located closer to Los Angeles, with Santa Cruz Island of the Channel Islands National Park about 29 miles southwest of Ventura.
Santa Catalina Island is another popular island in the Channel Islands, and it is the closest to the shore of the Los Angeles area, about 25 miles south of Long Beach and about 35 miles west of Dana Point, California.
The drive to Ventura takes three hours and 30 minutes. Once you board the ferry, it usually takes 1 hour to reach the first anchorage. From here, it takes an extra hour or two to reach the other more remote islands.
How much does it cost to travel to the Channel Islands?
|Channel Islands National Park||Passenger ferry||Island Packers||$31.50|
|Catalina Island||Passenger ferry||Catalina Express||$42|
|Catalina Island||Passenger ferry||Catalina Flyer||$78|
*Prices calculated at the time of writing for 1 adult, round trip
The ferry to Channel Islands National Park costs $31.50 round trip for an adult. On board, there are snacks, bathrooms, and plenty of seats.
The Catalina Flyer is a fast option to Santa Catalina and costs $78 round trip. There are clean bathrooms, comfortable seats, and plenty of windows to watch whales and other ocean wildlife.
The Catalina Express leaves from Long Beach and costs $84 round trip. On board, you have plenty of amenities to keep you comfortable on your journey.
Which port should you choose as your destination in the Channel Islands?
Depending on your destination, you have several ports to choose from that are only a few hours from San Diego. If you're going to Channel Islands National Park, you'll drive to Ventura Harbor.
If you're going to Santa Catalina Island, you can choose between Dana Point, Long Beach, or Newport Beach. The Catalina Express departs from Long Beach and Dana Point. The Catalina Flyer leaves from Newport Beach.
Things you need to know about traveling to the Channel Islands from San Diego
Depending on the island you visit, the Channel Islands can either be remote natural areas or vacation destinations. Santa Catalina Island has every amenity of a large town, from shopping, restaurants, bars, hotels, and golf courses.
Channel Islands National Park, however, is very remote. There are no amenities aside from campsites and occasional outdoor toilets.
If you're going to Channel Islands National Park, make sure to bring food, water, and other necessities. It's good to be prepared for cool foggy weather and blistering sun on the same day, so bring a sun-screen, warm weather clothing, and a warm jacket just in case the fog comes in.
Best time to visit the Channel Islands
The Channel Islands are the perfect year-round destination, with crystal clear water and nice weather. The only islands that offer year-round access though are Santa Cruz and Santa Catalina.
You'll save money on booking your accommodation and ferry tickets at certain times of the year. Weekends are more expensive than weekdays and the winter off-season is cheaper.
If you love nature, keep in mind that whale season is from December through March. Be prepared for plenty of tourists on board the ferries this time of year.
When is the best time to travel to the Channel Islands?
For pleasant temperatures and fewer tourists, spring and fall can be the best times to visit. The Channel Islands National Park has open campsites and good hiking in the National Park.
Hotels and tours are also less crowded on Santa Catalina Island in spring and fall. You'll likely get cheaper accommodation and have more of the island to yourself during these months.
Things to see once you reach the Channel Islands
Even though the Channel Islands are relatively small, there is so much to do and see during your visit, so plan accordingly. Here are our top suggestions for the amazing things you can enjoy on the islands:
- Santa Cruz Island - A beautiful island with views and facilities, hiking trails like Pelican Bay Trail, smugglers cove, scorpion canyon loop, and Torrey Pines on Santa Rosa. Santa Cruz Island is a nature lovers' paradise.
- Whale watching - Take the ferry or a private cruise in the waters surrounding the islands for whale watching for Humpback whales, pilot whales, and blue whales, as well as dolphins and other sea life.
- Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary - You can snorkel and scuba dive or explore with a kayak or private boat charter this marine sanctuary teeming with wildlife and kelp forests including sea lions, harbor seals, and colorful Garibaldi. You can book a snorkel from Santa Cruz Island after you arrive on the ferry.
- Catalina, Avalon - This is the busiest city on the islands and has gorgeous views of the water and sailboats and lots of dining and shopping and wineries to enjoy. Rent a golf cart or stroll around on foot to explore. Stay the night at a B&B, and head back the next day.
- Two Harbors - On Catalina Island, you can visit this small fishing village with one restaurant and bar for a boat charter or just enjoy the quaint solitude of the slow-paced island life. You can also camp near here and enjoy hiking trails to Cat Harbor overlook or the Catalina Rock-Climbing Wall.