The Golden State has plenty of superlatives under its belt (most geographically and culturally diverse! Amazing weather! The best bagels!), and you can add California’s islands to the list. From resort-style beachy getaways to intrepid adventures, see below for our picks of the best California islands up and down the West Coast.
8 Drop-Dead Gorgeous California Islands You Need to Visit ASAP
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Every year, more than one million people take a 15-minute ferry ride from San Francisco to visit Alcatraz Island. However, during one of its former lives as a maximum-security federal prison (1934–1963), inmates wanted nothing more than to escape…even if it cost them their lives.
Prepare to be spooked by the self-guided audio tour (included in the price of your ferry ticket), which incorporates voices of actual prison guards and inmates, set to a soundtrack of prison life. (Think: A cacophony of footsteps, clinking keys and clanging metal doors.) Book at least a week out to ensure a spot, especially during summer and holiday weekends.
The Brothers Islands are two small islands situated between San Francisco and San Pablo Bays. East Brother Island, the favorite child, is home to a historic lighthouse that was built in 1873 and now operates as a charming, Victorian-style bed and breakfast where overnight guests are treated to champagne and hors d'oeuvres upon arrival and gourmet meals at morning and night.
Alas, the cable that powers the light station failed in June of 2021—and though power has since been restored and accommodations are once again available, more work is needed to secure the fate of this treasured tourist attraction. Bottom line: If you’re planning an overnight stay on the island, consider donating to the preservation of its standout lodging.
The Channel Islands are also known as the “Galapagos of North America.” Channel Islands National Park consists of eight gorgeously rugged and surprisingly remote islands; they’re located a mere 20 miles north of Los Angeles but see little traffic, and boast 100 exclusive plant and animal species, including the island fox.
Sunbathe, kayak, hike and dive in Santa Cruz and Anacapa Islands after arriving in one to three hours by boat, or 30 minutes by plane. Hardier adventurers and water sport enthusiasts should keep in mind that a permit is needed to hike, camp and surf on San Miguel, Santa Barbara and Santa Rosa Islands. It’s also worth noting that, no matter which island catches your sense of adventure, the National Parks website advises advanced planning and preparation due to the remote surroundings.
San Diego’s Coronado Island features powdery beaches (including a dedicated, leash-free dog beach), and the historic Hotel del Coronado—a popular wedding venue—is its stunning centerpiece. In 2020, Hotel Del revealed a revamped spa, renovated guest rooms (including expansive terraces and fire features in select ground floor rooms), and a redesigned rooftop bar and restaurant, so you can expect some seriously swanky accommodations if you choose to book a stay.
Even if Hotel Del isn’t in your budget, Coronado is a dreamy place to spend the day. Wheel, or jog along the Silver Strand, browse shops and dine along Orange Avenue, and be sure to snap a photo with the San Diego skyline, the bay, and Coronado Bridge in the background. Best of all, this SoCal destination is a breeze to get to by both car (see, Coronado Bridge) and boat (ferries run from the Broadway Pier and Convention Center).
Catalina, as it’s more commonly known, was originally inhabited by an indigenous tribe for more than 7000 years. Since its acquisition by the Wrigley family (of chewing gum fame), the island—located just a one hour ferry ride from multiple Southern California cities, including Dana Point, Newport Beach and Long Beach—has become a popular tourist destination.
Once docked (or landed if arriving via helicopter), activities are endless. For example: ziplining, seasonal falconry experiences, dining at seafood-centric restaurants, traversing the sea floor with a SNUBA adventure, hiking, camping, visiting a winery or golfing.
Cozy up at a bed and breakfast, historic home, boutique hotel—like Hotel Atwater, where reservations include daily dining credits, luggage service to and from the ferry terminal, and a discount on activities and tours.
In 1905, a developer raised this marshy island above high-tide level with a vision to bring the Mediterranean to the Pacific, not unlike the Venice Canals origin story. Unlike the heavily-trafficked canals of Venice Beach, Naples Island in the city of Long Beach is a hidden gem. Take a gondola ride, take a shot at stand-up paddle boarding, rent kayaks or take the family to Mother’s Beach. Shops and restaurants run along 2nd Street and food crawls are also on offer with Beach City Food Tours.
Trace California’s Pacific coastline north (even further north than San Francisco) to Eureka, and you’ll find Woodley Island—an oasis of fresh air and saltwater activities—just off the coast.
Points of interest include Cafe Marina and Woodley’s Bar, as well as Table Bluff lighthouse (the first lighthouse to illuminate Humboldt Bay). Water enthusiasts can rent a kayak, stand up paddle board or canoe from Humboats Kayak Adventures and cruise around the bay, while nature lovers will enjoy visiting the egret rookery on neighboring Tulwat’s Island—a protected spot that’s part wildlife refuge, part sacred Wiyot tribe land.
Get to Woodley Island by driving over the bridge from Eureka, or via private boat.
Bay area locals flock to Angel Island, the largest island in the San Francisco Bay and home to a namesake state park, for its unparalleled 360 degree views of the surrounding area. Several self-guided trails promise exceptional lookout points and an opportunity to observe the local flora and fauna along the way. (Psst: We recommend the Perimeter Trail for a scenic, but leisurely hike, 788 foot climb to the peak of Mount Livermore for hardier folk, and the Immigration Station trail for history buffs curious to know more about the (regrettable) detention of Chinese immigrants.