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13 Californian islands you should definitely visit in summer

NEWPORT BEACH, CA — When vacationing in California, don't miss the islands that line the coast from Orange County to the northern border. California's islands vary in size, landscape and rock formations. Some have beaches, others have steep volcanic cliffs and still others are near cities like Newport Beach, San Diego or San Francisco. Although they aren't connected to the mainland, some are accessible by bridges while others are only accessible by ferry. All are considered part of California and can be visited without boarding a plane or carrying your passport.

There are only a few islands in the California islands; some are former military bases, while others are popular summer destinations for those in the know. The most famous is the long strip of Channel Islands – all with unique landscapes, some ideal for camping and hiking, others for snorkeling and scuba diving to see the California state fish (Garibaldi), kelp forests and other underwater life. Although the Channel Islands are a national park, they are the least visited of all the parks in the Golden State, with only 323,000 visitors per year.

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Whether you live in Northern or Southern California, consider hopping on a ferry and hiking to these rarely visited places in California.

Aerial view of Alameda Island and San Francisco Bay near Oakland, California. (Shutterstock photo)

Alameda Island – Norcal: An “island city” near San Francisco, Alameda offers parks, beaches and historic sites. South and west of Oakland, the island is about 6.5 miles long and 1 mile wide and separated from the mainland by a channel. When you visit, look for late 19th and early 20th century Victorian homes, beaches and the national landmark, the USS Hornet. Explore art galleries, Shoreline Park, the Meyers House and Garden or spend a beach day at Robert W. Crown Memorial State Beach.

Anacapa Island. Photo credit: NPS/Derek Lohuis
Anacapa Island – This Channel Island, part of the main group of five, can appear like a mirage from a distance, and many say it seems to change shape due to fog and heat. The five-mile-long island has three inlets, all accessible only by boat. Geologists consider it a volcanic island with towering cliffs and caves. Its frequently photographed Arch Rock is the symbol of the Channel Islands. When you visit, look for the historic lighthouse, wildlife, tide pools, camping, kayaking or scuba diving amidst the kelp forests – see the state fish and the wreck of the steamer Winfield Scott. Learn more about Anacapa Island – Channel Islands National Park on the website.
Angel Island, with San Francisco in the distance. Photo credit: Courtesy of California State Parks, 2024.

Angel Island – Norcal: If you love military history, this island is for you. Angel Island is known for its stunning views of the San Francisco skyline – the island is 1.1 square miles and Mount Caroline Livermore rises 770 feet above sea level. The island is great for viewing wildlife and wildflowers, and you can see seals and sea lions that frequently visit Pinniped Point. If you're interested in Bay Area history, take the ferry from Tiburon and take a day trip. For more information, visit Angel Island State Park on ca.gov.

Balboa Island in Newport Harbor in Orange County. (Shutterstock photo)

Balboa Island – It's all about fun and games on this charming island off the coast of Newport Beach, packed with shops, restaurants and nearby famous surfing beaches like The Wedge. A short ferry ride takes you to Balboa Island, one of Orange County's most popular quaint towns. Marine Avenue, the main street, is home to restaurants and shops, art galleries and museums. Balboa Fun Zone amusement park is a popular summer destination with a Ferris wheel, arcade games and more. Festive events are held here year-round. Learn more about things to do on Balboa Island in Orange County.

Catalina Island. Image credit: Shutterstock

Catalina Island – Take a ferry from Long Beach, Newport Beach or Dana Point to visit Catalina Island. Here you can find overnight accommodations like Two Harbors or Avalon and plan your trip as an adventure or relaxation. If you love adventure sports like snorkeling, hiking, ziplining, camping and are a history buff, consider Two Harbors, also known as “Catalina’s Other Side”. Avalon should be your stop if you want to enjoy the city, glass bottom boats, and shops and restaurants. There are unique hotels and bed and breakfasts here, as well as numerous restaurants. For more information, visit www.visitcatalinaisland.com.

Hotel Del Coronado on Coronado Island, Shutterstock photo.

Coronado Island – One of the easiest islands to visit off the coast of Southern California, Coronado is home to a warren of Craftsman homes and mansions, many of which are available for rent through VRBO and Airbnb. A curved bridge provides access to Coronado Island from San Diego, where visitors can shop, dine, or stop at many parks for outdoor summer concerts. It is famous for its beaches, the Hotel Del Coronado, and holiday events. Relax and play the tourist at the Coronado Ferry Landing, or explore the historic side of Coronado and don't miss the opportunity to tour www.hoteldel.com.

Old officers' dormitory on Mare Island, near Vallejo, California. (Shutterstock photo)

Mare Island – Norcal: More of a peninsula than an island, about 23 miles northeast of San Francisco off the Napa River near Vallejo, this area is experiencing a renaissance from its former days as a naval shipyard. Here you'll find Mare Island Historical Park, the historic shipyard and the Mare Island Brewing Company. “The Mare Island Historic Park Foundation offers two-hour tours of Mare Island. St. Peter's Chapel, as well as two historic mansions on Officer's Row, can be used for weddings. For more information, contact the Mare Island Historic Park Foundation at .” For more information, visit www.cityofvallejo.net.

Hiking near Webster Point on Santa Barbara Island. Courtesy of California State Parks, 2024.

Santa Barbara Island – Santa Barbara Island is the smallest island in the Channel Islands chain, measuring only about 1 square mile in size. An extensive native vegetation restoration project has been undertaken here, and when it's open, you can admire seabirds and flowers in the spring. “After the winter rains, the island's native plants burst into new life and color. The odd tree sunflower, or black-eyed Susan, blooms in bright yellow flowers. Other plants, such as the Santa Barbara Island endemic everlasting, shrubby buckwheat, chicory, and creamcup, add a pop of color to the island's palette. From time to time, the park service closes off access to the island to view nesting brown pelicans. Learn more about Santa Barbara Island – Channel Islands National Park.

Santa Cruz Island: The largest Channel Island – Santa Cruz – is known for hiking and camping opportunities for those looking to get away from it all. Historically, “La Isla de Santa Cruz” means the Island of the Holy Cross. According to the National Park Service, after landing at the pier, visitors often take excursions to Scorpion Anchorage or Prisoner's Cove. Make arrangements in advance as the island has limited resources. Channel Islands Adventure Company, the authorized kayak guide and outfitter in the Scorpion Anchorage area, offers guided sea kayak tours. Note: There are NO kayak rentals on the island, limited convenience item sales (no food), snorkeling equipment rentals and guided snorkeling tours only at Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island. Visitors must bring all of their own food and supplies. For more information on Santa Cruz Island – Channel Islands National Park, visit the website www.nps.gov.

San Miguel Island, a Channel Island in California. (Shutterstock photo).

San Miguel Island: The westernmost of the Channel Islands, San Miguel Island consists of 9,500 acres of high plateaus with two rounded hills covered in lush native vegetation. Here you will find grazing animals and vegetation that is currently re-establishing itself as native plants. There are thousands of pinnipeds on the beaches and island foxes on land. Visitors have the opportunity to spot many dolphins, porpoises and whales from these rocky shores. Photo Gallery (US National Park Service) (nps.gov)

Santa Rosa Island. (Courtesy of California State Parks, 2024.)

Santa Rosa Island: Another Channel Island – visitors can hike, camp and enjoy wildlife – a unique opportunity to explore pristine landscapes – temporary closure of beaches and dunes at China Camp and Cluster Point – backcountry beach camping – not for inexperienced campers or kayakers – there is a water canyon campground with advance reservations – WAG bags required – pack and unpack your trash – Things to do: Santa Rosa Island – Channel Islands National Park (US National Park Service) (nps.gov)

An aerial view of the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island with the city of San Francisco in the background. (Shutterstock photo)

Treasure Island: Northern California: This man-made island near San Francisco is a popular spot for visitors. Flea market, stunning views of the Bay Bridge, this is a locally owned man-made island – restaurants, wineries, breweries and more – skate park, sailing center, sports fields, a mix of historical significance and attractions – a favorite of locals and tourists. www.sftravel.com/neighborhoods/treasure-island

Yerba Buena Island: Northern California: Both are connected to Treasure Island and linked to San Francisco via the Yerba Buena Tunnel, which is part of the Bay Bridge. The one-square-mile island is part of the quintessential San Francisco experience – restaurants, cafes, culinary experiences – a visionary neighborhood. yerbabuenaislandsf.com.

Whether you love remote islands off the coast of California for their rugged beauty and rare glimpses of wildlife, or you prefer to stay close to major cities to enjoy island life just a short ferry or bridge ride away, consider adding an island visit to your summer plans.