7 Drop-Dead Gorgeous California Islands You Need to Visit ASAP
As if the Golden State can’t boast any more superlatives (most geographically and culturally diverse! Amazing weather! The best bagels!), California’s islands are yet another reason why the expansive state is a fantastic place to travel to. From resort-style beachy getaways to intrepid adventures, see below for our picks of the best California islands up and down the West Coast.
1. Alcatraz, San Francisco
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. The island also assumed the role of Civil War fort and occupation site in the 1960s by indigenous tribes and supporters.
Enjoy 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.
2. The Brothers, San Francisco
The Brothers Islands are two small islands situated between San Francisco and San Pablo Bays. East Brother Island is home to a historic lighthouse built in 1873. Today it also operates as a five-room bed and breakfast. (One of the rooms is situated in the old fog signal building.)
The lighthouse was set to be demolished before it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in the 1960s. As of June 2021, the fate of the island’s lighthouse and Victorian-style inn (along with the opportunity to visit) remains uncertain once again. The cable that powers the light station—which has welcomed visitors for more than 40 years—failed and has yet to be fixed. Crossing our fingers!
3. Channel Islands, Southern California
The Channel Islands are also known as the “Galapagos of North America.” Channel Islands National Park consists of eight gorgeously rugged, and remote islands located a mere 20 miles north of Los Angeles—which is probably why the islands don’t get more visitors given their proximity to one of the densest counties in California. There are more than 100 plant and animal species exclusive to the island chain, like the island fox, and the islands’ first human inhabitants trace back to the indigenous Chumash community.
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 experienced watersports enthusiasts need a permit for San Miguel (a former bombing range), Santa Barbara Island (beaches accessible by watercraft), and Santa Rosa Island to hike, camp, and surf. No matter which island catches your sense of adventure, the National Parks website advises advanced planning and preparation due to the islands’ remote surroundings.
4. Coronado Island, San Diego
San Diego’s Coronado Island features powdery beaches (including a dedicated, leash-free dog beach), and the historic Hotel del Coronado 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. A new grand entry will be revealed this year.
Wheel, or jog along the Silver Strand, browse shops and dine along Orange Avenue, and snap a photo with the San Diego skyline, the bay, and Coronado Bridge in the background. Drive across the Coronado Bridge, or go by ferry from Broadway Pier or the Convention Center to get there.
In addition to its coastal resort ambitions, Coronado Island played an important role in the U.S.’ early naval aviation history. American businessmen purchased and developed the island beginning in 1855.
5. Santa Catalina Island, Southern California
Catalina, as it’s more commonly known, is located just a one hour ferry ride from multiple Southern California cities including Dana Point, Newport Beach and Long Beach.
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.
Bed down in a bed and breakfast, historic home, or boutique hotels like Hotel Atwater. Renovated in 2019, reservations include daily dining credits, luggage service to and from the ferry terminal, and a discount on activities and tours.
Before it became a tourist destination, the indigenous tribe inhabited Catalina for 7,000 years. The Wrigley family (of chewing gum fame) has owned the island—the southernmost island in the Channel Islands chain—since 1919.
6. Naples Island, Long Beach
Most people know Venice Beach’s canals, so discovering Naples Island in the city of Long Beach feels like a hidden gem. Take a gondola ride, stand up paddle board, rent kayaks or take the family to Mother’s Beach. Shops and restaurants run along 2nd Street or book a walking food tour with Beach City Food Tours.
In 1905, a developer raised the marshy island (that would become completely submerged at high-tide) above high-tide level with a vision to bring the Mediterranean to the Pacific, not unlike Venice Canals’ origin story.
7. Woodley Island, Eureka
Trace California’s Pacific coastline north (even further north than San Francisco) and in Jaroujiji, or what is now known as Eureka, Woodley Island offers fresh air and saltwater activities in a northern California setting.
Points of interest include Cafe Marina and Woodley’s Bar, and Table Bluff lighthouse (the first lighthouse to illuminate Humboldt Bay). Rent a kayak, stand up paddle board or canoe from Humboats Kayak Adventures and cruise around the bay. Nature enthusiasts will enjoy observing Tuluwat Island’s egret rookery—the neighboring island is part wildlife refuge, part sacred Wiyot tribe land. Another cool thing to do is to sign up for a small group whale watching kayak tour.
Get to Woodley Island by driving over the bridge from Eureka, or via private boat.
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