The islands of Channel Islands National Park have maintained their pristine beauty, mostly untouched by tourists

The five islands aren’t easy to get to, but that’s what makes them so special

Photo: Laura Austin

Some people find it odd that, as a nature photographer, I live in the not-so-natural-city of Los Angeles. But even though L.A. is the second largest metropolitan area in the U.S., I still find myself surrounded by diverse nature—much of which is just a short drive (or boat ride) away. Over the years, I have extensively explored L.A.’s  surrounding deserts, mountains, and beaches, but one of the places I still needed to check off my list was Channel Islands National Park.

A lone sailboat rests in the harbor in front of Santa Cruz Island.
Santa Cruz Island. | Photo: Laura Austin

Santa Cruz Island

I woke up early one morning and set out on a 1.5-hour drive up to the city of Ventura, where I would be catching a ferry to the islands. There’s something about taking a boat to your destination that makes it feel that much more epic.

After an hour of bobbing through the ocean mist, a faint outline of rocky cliffs began to appear in the distance. The Channel Islands are comprised of a string of eight different islands, five of which make up the national park. Each island varies in what it has to offer, but for my first trip, I chose Santa Cruz Island, as it seemed to have the most ecological diversity—the ideal place for a photographer who wants to capture a wide range of scenery.

An aerial shot of a bay between the rocky cliffs of Santa Cruz Island.
The rocky cliffs of Santa Cruz Island. | Photo: Laura Austin

I didn’t have any real expectations going into this trip. And even if I did, what I experienced on the island wouldn’t have even come close. Without any serious infrastructure in the park (including stores and paved roads), you have to pack all of your own food, water, shelter—whatever you might need for a true outdoor adventure. I enjoy these types of adventures—ones where you need to account for all of your basic needs. It feels very raw and primitive, in a good way.

Hikes for everyone

When you arrive at Santa Cruz Island, you climb up a steep ladder to get onto the dock and make your way to shore. The beach is rocky, the cliffs are high, and the air is crisp. There are six main hiking trails you can choose from, ranging from a strenuous 8-mile hike to an easy half-mile walk. I chose the Potato Harbor hike, a moderate 5-mile hike along the top rim of the island, featuring incredible coastal views.

With all the rain that California has received over the last year, the whole island was bursting with color. At one point during the hike, the trail was surrounded by an endless sea of yellow flowers. I honestly felt like I was in my own little fairytale. When I reached the end of the hike, I found myself at a vista overlooking Potato Harbor, a beautiful cove with sandy beaches. Part of me wished I could just jump down there and set up camp, but I would have to settle for the view from above for now.

A group of about a dozen hikers walks across a hillside full of yellow flowers.
One of many hikes along Santa Cruz Island. | Photo: Laura Austin

Untouched by tourists

Beyond hiking, there are a number of different activities you can enjoy on the islands. On Santa Cruz Island in particular, you can do a guided kayak adventure or rent a boat and venture out on your own through the many sea caves that pepper the edges of the island. You can also rent equipment from the Channel Island Adventure Company and snorkel through the incredible kelp forests, either on your own or with a guided tour group. I also took some time to walk through the campgrounds on the island and found them all to be absolutely breathtaking, tucked away in a valley surrounded by eucalyptus trees. I will definitely be returning to camp at some point.

Since it requires a boat to get to, the number of tourists in Channel Islands National Park is limited. When you’re surrounded by hordes of other people with selfie-sticks, it can distract you from the surrounding beauty, somehow making it seem less special.

As I hiked alone on the island, I came across small groups of people every now and then, giving a friendly wave or nod before continuing on our respective ways. To stand in the middle of these landscapes and not see another soul around, it felt like the island was putting on a show just for me. There were times where I would just stop and sit for a while, appreciating my surroundings with an ear-to-ear grin on my face, thankful that places like this still exist.