Just off the coast of South California sits Anacapa Island, part of the Channel Islands National Park. With soaring sea cliffs, ocean caves, and natural bridges, Anacapa offers something of interest for visitors of all ages. This includes a great view of the local sea lions, whale watching, swimming, kayaking, a kid-equipped visitor’s center, and hiking.
Anacapa Island in Southern California
At first glance one might think that Anacape Island is only for great adventurers. Waves have eroded the volcanic island of Anacapa, creating the rocky shores that are perfect breeding areas for California sea lions and harbor seals. With soaring cliffs, lush flora and fauna, and underwater kelp forests Anacapa’s rough exterior might dissuade families from taking the 12-mile boat trek to the island. But there is more than meets the eye here as we soon discovered.
Guests wanting to explore the Island will board a boat at the Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard, CA. When we boarded the boat for our day trip to Anacapa Island we could hear an infant crying. Some of us passengers were thinking, “Oh, great! A baby on a 12-mile boat trip! Are you nuts?” The Island Packer boat, Vanguard, began its hour-long journey through the calm waters. Out into the open sea, we started to rock and bob – and the infant was asleep within seconds. The rest of us faced forward, eyes wide open, awaiting a glimpse of elusive Anacapa Island. Those of us beyond the rhythmic lullabies of babies could take solace in the postcard-perfect weather – light breeze, blue skies, and warm sun – as we embarked on our half-day journey to a land nearly forgotten by time.
A Island Getaway…With Kids
Ages of children on this trip ranged from infant to teenage and clearly everyone was having a good time. While camping is permitted on the island if arranged beforehand, families with young children may find Anacapa easier to experience as a day trip from nearby Oxnard. Though you know your brood best, don’t be deterred by thoughts of the boat trip and harsh nature of Anacapa Island. There’s plenty to keep kids interested coming and going, and in between. Educational offerings by the National Park Service clearly have kid and parent visitations in mind, and so should you.
Leave the electronic gadgets at home, or at least turned off while exploring the island — a day without video games won’t result in any permanent psychological damage. With just two miles of trails, Anacapa’s landscape is easy hiking and perfect for younger visitors – even parents packing a baby. The visitor’s center provides welcome shade and picnic tables for a lunchtime break. The center also has great interpretive displays and houses the original crystal and brass Fresnel lens from the island lighthouse. The landing cove offers great opportunities for snorkeling, swimming and kayaking – even for the younger set. The water temperatures are warmest during the summer months, topping out at around 65° F (18°C). It’s a good idea to monitor exposure to the water or come equipped with dive suits.
Kids and parents will enjoy a thrilling below-water view through Anacapa’s underwater video program. Viewed by television from the island’s landing dock at or the mainland visitor center, this unique program features an interpretive dive through one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, the kelp forest. Kids can talk directly to the ranger interpreter and ask questions about the watery world below. This amazing program is available every Tuesday and Thursday from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Exploring the Wild Life
Offshore, California sea lions and harbor seals are frequently seen and heard barking up a storm at overlooks Cathedral Cove and Pinniped Point. You can also catch sight of them during the Channel crossing – bobbing along and seemingly waving as you pass. Several varieties of whales and dolphins are spotted year-round on trips to Anacapa – and with luck you may find a pod of orca or common dolphin playing in the boat’s wake. Two of the children on our trip were fascinated by the marine life. They were undaunted on the hike and enjoyed viewing the dive team and sea lions at Pinniped Point. Their excitement at first-time views of the island’s marine life added to the joy of our visit. One child’s favorite part was “the channel crossing and seeing the dolphins up close as they swam near the boat.” For another child, “cliff top views of the ocean and other islands” were the highlight of his trip.
Despite obvious signs of human habitation, Anacapa retains much of its natural rugged beauty. Anacapa consists of three small islets, East, Middle and West, which are inaccessible from each other except by boat. Visitation is limited to the East islet and Frenchy’s Cove on the West islet. Most of the island is primarily wilderness set aside for nesting Western gulls and the endangered California brown pelican. In the spring, kids and adults marvel at the throng of nesting gulls. Later in the season, downy baby gulls wait quietly, or not, for doting parents to feed them. And undulating brown pelicans soar overhead or line the cliffs overlooking the landing cove on East Anacapa.
The closest to the coast of the five islands that make up the national park, Anacapa is only a half mile wide and about five miles long, with 200-foot cliffs. Though fairly stark in its natural state, nonnative ice plant, a brilliant red, now blankets much of the island. Originally planted to prevent erosion, the creeping, mat-forming succulent is being removed as part of an environmental rehabilitation of the island. In the spring, forests of giant yellow coreopsis seem otherworldly. Other wildflowers – pale pink island mallow, vivid red paintbrush, and tiny island morning glories – create an eye-catching palette of colors across the island. In general, the island has a Mediterranean climate, but the weather can be unforgiving and dense fog is common during late spring. Calm winds and seas are more frequent at summer’s end. Consider seasonal changes when planning a trip to Anacapa or any of the Channel Islands.
It’s fitting that Anacapa is the only Channel Island to retain its American Indian name, “Eneepah,” derived from a Chumash word meaning island of deception or mirage. But this island is no mirage. It’s a dream come true for kids of all ages – grown-ups too! The beauty of this remote outpost could be the beginning of a lifelong appreciation of our wild places.