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Where to Experience Island Life in Southern California

Much of coastal southern California may have a subtropical, semi-arid, Mediterranean climate, but most people wouldn’t equate SoCal life with “island life.”

But you don’t come to — or stay in — southern California if what you really want is an archipelago experience.

And while we do have our islands, they each have their own distinct character, just like the region itself.

Think Catalina is SoCal’s only island? Think again.

Here are five of the best southern California islands to channel your inner Gilligan and live as a castaway for a few hours or even a day or two — from backcountry camping to Hollywood resort town glamour. 

1. Santa Rosa Island, Channel Islands National Park

Santa Rosa Island
Watch Huell Howser visit Santa Rosa Island.

At 15 miles wide by 10 miles long, Santa Rosa Island is the second largest of the Channel Islands, next to Santa Cruz. Since 1844, sheep that supplied wool for Civil War uniforms had overgrazed the hillsides of Santa, and then Vail & Vickers Co. formed a ranching business in 1889, brought in cattle to be fattened up before going to market, and finally, in 1901, bought the entire island. However, after decades of overgrazing (and the “nutrient overload” of the livestock pooping in the creeks and streams), the National Park Service designated Santa Rosa Island as part of Channel Islands National Park in 1980, though the agency didn't actually own it until 1986, when it purchased it from Vail & Vickers for $30 million. The NPS has only had full run of the island since 2011, when the ranchers' lease finally expired.

And those ranchers left a lot of stuff behind. Fortunately, the NPS considers the extant structures — including a red barn and a tiny schoolhouse — historic, so it’s going to turn them into some kind of interpretive display for visitors. The centerpiece of the former ranch is the white ranch house from 1855, the oldest wood-frame home in Santa Barbara County. This is where the Vail family lived while they operated their ranching business on the island until 1996 and their game-hunting business until just four years ago. With plans to reopen it as a visitors’ center, the NPS has already painted the house complex and cleaned it up a bit and is currently in the process of stabilizing it and logging any artifacts its archaeologists find.

Santa Rosa island is so incredibly diverse, from oaks, Torrey pines, and cypress to Island red buckwheat, Island red paintbrush, Island monkey flower, and everything in between. But because the island is so far from the mainland (a three-hour boat ride, depending on wind and the current), not many visitors come — especially not just for the day. As a result, the island is remarkably still, with only the ravens circling above, some wild horses galloping on a distant hillside, and the wind whipping around, as it tends to do on the island. Keep your eyes open for rare, endemic wildflowers underfoot and an appearance by the endangered Santa Rosa Island fox, which will most certainly rifle through your pack if you leave it unattended. Day trips and camper/overnight transport are available on weekends and some weekdays via Island Packers, departing out of the Ventura Harbor.

Santa Rosa Island | Sandi Hemmerlein
Sandi Hemmerlein
Santa Rosa Island | Sandi Hemmerlein
Sandi Hemmerlein
Santa Rosa Island | Sandi Hemmerlein
Sandi Hemmerlein

2. Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park

The largest and most rugged of the Channel Islands, Santa Cruz Island has a similar history to Santa Rosa Island in terms of ranching, habitat devastation thanks to feral pigs and sheep, and endangered and nearly extinct species of both flora and fauna (including the island fox) — but, also like Santa Rosa, it's on the road to recovery. This island, however, is considered one of those great "day trip destinations" of the Channel Islands, despite requiring a 25-mile boat ride out just to get to the nearly 96-square-mile island.

You can visit only the eastern 24 percent of the island without a permit — Nature Conservancy tightly controls the remaining 76 percent. When you arrive via Prisoners Harbor, climb the Pelican Bay Trail up to Harvey's Lookout, where 19th and early 20th century island watchmen would look for ships in the channel through a telescope. It's just one indication of the historical commercial use of Santa Cruz Island, which more or less started when a bunch of prisoners were dropped off here as part of a plan to colonize California. Those convicted criminals were the pioneers of the modern settlement of Santa Cruz Island, and they quickly went to work. Named by the Spanish after a "sacred cross,” Santa Cruz also contains some historic ranch buildings that are accessible from the Prisoner's Harbor pier, including a red brick double barn that dates back to 1887.

Besides Prisoners Harbor, other areas open for recreation at Santa Cruz Island include Scorpion Bay (another boat landing/anchorage point, where you can also swim or snorkel), Del Norte Camp, Potato Harbor, and Smuggler's Cove. During your visit, keep an eye — and ear — out for the endemic Island Scrub Jay and look for the giant, tree-trunked coreopsis plants that bloom yellow in the spring. And, as with the other Channel Islands, beware of the pesky, clever, and unforgivingly adorable island fox — here, a separate species known as the Santa Cruz Island fox.

Santa Cruz Island | Sandi Hemmerlein
Sandi Hemmerlein
Santa Cruz Island | Sandi Hemmerlein
Sandi Hemmerlein

3. Anacapa Island, Channel Islands National Park

It can take a while to finally make that trip out to one of the Channel Islands — but, once you do, you won’t be able to wait to go back. One of the most picturesque and photogenic of the Channel Islands — at least, from the view by boat – is Anacapa and its arches, the landforms birthed out of the San Andreas Fault thanks to ancient volcanic eruptions. At the eastern end of Anacapa Island, you can also see a Coastal Lookout Station that was the last built by the Coast Guard's United States Lighthouse Service on the West Coast, in 1932. It still acts as an active beacon, operated by National Park Service since 2008. Below the lighthouse at Cathedral Cove, you’ll find lots of nesting birds — including the brown booby, a seabird of tropical waters that’s made its way a little farther north than usual.

Learn more about the Channel Island Fox from "SoCal Connected."

Anacapa is actually three islets that, true to its name, appear almost as a mirage. Less than 15 miles from Oxnard, it’s the closest of the Channel Islands to the mainland, but it's got no fresh water source — and, hence, no endemic foxes. The only way the ranchers' grazing sheep survived was by licking the condensation that formed from the fog; but, later, the Coast Guard built a system to collect rainwater and store it in tanks made of redwood that were stored in the ecclesiastical-looking water tank house. But that didn't keep intrepid explorers (and loners) from trying to make a go of it — including the namesake of Frenchy's Cove, Raymond "Frenchy" LeDreau, a hermit fisherman who lived on Middle Anacapa for nearly 30 years.

If you want to get onto this “cliff island” yourself, you’ve got to climb up 150+ steps up from Landing Cove and follow directional signs pointing you to the camping area, nature trails, lighthouse, and ranger station/information office. You’re sure to pass some gulls (and maybe even some hatchlings or fledglings) and coreopsis along the way, and you might even see a golden eagle or two. Unfortunately, the exact timing of wildflower and bird-breeding season can be tough to predict with much precision, but it’s best to plan your trip to Anacapa ahead, as the vessels that take you there have limited capacity and often sell out. You’re pretty safe booking a trip anytime between February and April to witness the rites of spring, but Anacapa is lovely to visit during the hot summer months as well. (Just be prepared for no shade on the trails.) Like all the Channel Islands, Anacapa sometimes creates its own weather patterns, but that just comes with the territory. After all, it delivers on its name, which loosely translates as "ever-changing."

Anacapa Island | Sandi Hemmerlein
Sandi Hemmerlein
Anacapa Island | Sandi Hemmerlein
Sandi Hemmerlein
Anacapa Island | Sandi Hemmerlein
Sandi Hemmerlein

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4. Naples Island, Long Beach

Venice of America is perhaps the most famous home for southern Californian inland islands — famously paved over, that is. The island that once existed at Windward Avenue is no longer surrounded by water and is now the centerpiece of an automotive traffic circle. Gondolas no longer encircle the triangular-shaped United States Island, though now you can walk past the houses that remain there. But fortunately, not only are there other canals in the Southland region — in a tiny area of Long Beach by Alamitos Bay at the mouth of the San Gabriel River, known as Naples – but they still run between islands there as well.

Across the Rivo Alto Canal, along Corinthian Walk, you’ll find Naples Island – home to the Naples Fountain, a.k.a. La Bella Fontana Di Napoli, which has recreated the feel of an Italian piazza with water overflowing its three tiers since 1971. Known in 1933 as “Circle Park Naples,” the Belmont Shore Development Company donated the island park to the City of Long Beach, whose Park Commission renamed it “Bella Flora Park” the following year. There are actually three islands at the Naples Canals in total, all part of an area developed by Arthur Parson as the "Dreamland of Southern California" (though its Mayberry & Parker design is primarily Italianate). Arthur Parson was to Naples in 1903 what Abbott Kinney was to Venice in 1905, though he didn’t complete his canals of Napoli until the 1920s, and he had to rebuild them after the 1933 Long Beach earthquake.

To experience Naples Island(s), you can glide between them on a gondola, peddle on a hydrobike, paddle through on a kayak or stand-up paddleboard, or even swim alongside them (since the waterways are technically public). But if you prefer dry land, you can walk along the streets with Italianate names on two of the three islands (as the smallest, Treasure Island, is gated and access is restricted). You’ll find all the restaurant action along E. 2nd Street on the biggest of the islands — a stretch that was meant to become another canal but, after the money ran out, was never dredged.

Naples Island | Sandi Hemmerlein
Sandi Hemmerlein
Naples Island | Sandi Hemmerlein
Sandi Hemmerlein
Naples Island | Sandi Hemmerlein
Sandi Hemmerlein

5. Coronado Island, San Diego

No visitor could possibly be through with San Diego until they’ve visited Coronado Island, across the San Diego Bay, at least once. Though technically a “tied” island connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land called the “Silver Strand,” it’s as isolated and distinct as any of our other “true” islands. There, you can see the 1888 Hotel Del Coronado, known best for as a shooting locale for key scenes from the Marilyn Monroe-Tony Curtis-Jack Lemmon madcap comedy classic, "Some Like It Hot." But did you know that this was also the place where L. Frank Baum wrote "The Wizard of Oz?" And that the hotel's architecture itself perhaps inspired his creation of Emerald City? Turns out the legacy of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Lion, and the Tinman goes way beyond the movie shoot (and off-screen antics) in Culver City! Grab lunch by the beach, and then work it off by walking along the beach and digging your toes into the empty mussel shells and getting gold rush glitter all over the tops of your feet. The sand there is firm and cold, textured and striated, and sparkles in the afternoon sun.

There’s plenty to do at the “Hotel Del” — including getting a luxury spa treatment, like the “Some Like It Hot Stone Massage” — but make time to venture elsewhere on the isle. A must-see is the Coronado Historical Association and Coronado Museum, whose exhibits explore the island’s history, dating back to its founding in the 1880s. You can also sign up for one of their regular walking tours there.

And though you can drive to and through the “Crown City,” it’s actually best to arrive via a water taxi to the Coronado Ferry Landing (with departures every half hour) and then let your feet do the exploring. Or, rent a kayak and paddle under the Coronado Bridge (available year round), rent a bicycle or even a golf cart, and then sidle up to the bar at Coronado Brewing Company’s Brewpub, where you’ll have your pick of locally-brewed IPAs, pilsners, pale ales, stouts, and more.

Coronado Island | Sandi Hemmerlein
Sandi Hemmerlein

Bonus: Terminal Island

Though Terminal Island — across from San Pedro, where the Port of Los Angeles meets the Port of Long Beach — is actually a manmade island known primarily for industrial purposes like wartime shipbuilding, canning, and water reclamation, it’s played an incredibly significant role in the island history of southern California. From the Japanese fishing villages that the WWII-era “War Relocation Effort” eradicated in one fell swoop (with all the fishermen and their families being shipped off to internment camps like Manzanar) to the historic tuna canneries at Fish Harbor, a former Naval Air Station and an abandoned airfield, and even a legacy of street racing at Reeves Field, Terminal Island has plenty to explore, if you know what to look for. All that talk of tuna making you hungry? You’ve got one option on the island for an old school-style bite to eat: Harbor Light Restaurant and Market.

To get there, you’ve got to cross one of L.A.’s many bridges — the one that’s known as "San Pedro's Golden Gate," the official landmark that welcomes you to the City of L.A. The Vincent Thomas Bridge, built in 1960–63 and named after California assemblyman Vincent Thomas, is worth the trip to Terminal Island even just on its own. After all, it was the first welded suspension bridge in the country and is the fourth-longest suspension bridge in the state. You can drive across it, of course, but once a year you can also walk (or run) its length during the Conquer the Bridge race on Labor Day.

Terminal Island | Sandi Hemmerlein
Sandi Hemmerlein
Terminal Island | Sandi Hemmerlein
Sandi Hemmerlein
Terminal Island | Sandi Hemmerlein
Sandi Hemmerlein

Top image: Panegyrics of Granovetter/Flickr/Creative Commons License

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