8 Must-Visit Islands Off the Southern California Coast

Written by Patrick MacFarland
Updated: October 26, 2023
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Southern California is known for its nice weather, stunning beaches, and gorgeous mountains and hills where you can hike. Tourists from all over the world flock to the region, essentially boosting the economy of the area. Visitors want to go to Hollywood, drive by Sunset Boulevard, see famous landmarks, lay on the beach, and relax.

But not a lot of people know about Southern California’s islands off its coast. There is a chain of eight islands that are called the Channel Islands, which was established as a national park in 1938. One of those islands, San Nicolas Island, is used as a military base and is closed to the public. And in San Diego, there’s a beautiful island called Coronado. 

Let’s explore eight must-visit islands off the Southern California coast. We’re also going to give you some information about the wildlife living in each of these islands, as well as some fun facts.

Anacapa Island

Rock formations and cliffs on Anacapa Island in the Channel Islands National Park in Southern California

Alaska Airlines Flight 261 crashed near Anacapa Island on January 31, 2000, where 88 people died.

©Carlos Gandiaga Photography/iStock via Getty Images

Located in Ventura County, the island is five miles long and ¼ mile wide. The island gets a sizable amount of rain, usually between 8-13 inches every year. When it comes to wildlife, there are 265 species of plants on the island. There are also Anacapa deer mice on the island and California brown pelicans. Following an increasing amount of black rats on the island, a controversial program was implemented in 2002 by introducing rodenticide to kill all the rats. Afterward, Scripps’s murrelet colonies started to recover. The island’s coastlines are home to harbor seals and California sea lions. Climatically, the island is temperate with mild summers and cold winters. 

Coronado Island

Coronado California dawn. Dawn arrives at Coronado Island revealing the bay, golf course, village and coronado bridge.

The first person to cross the Coronado Bridge into Coronado Island was Ronald Reagan in 1969 when he was Governor of California.


The only one on the list not part of the Channel Islands, Coronado is a tied island located off the coast of San Diego. Coronado was only accessible by ferry or by driving down the Silver Strand, an isthmus connecting Coronado with the mainland in Imperial Beach. A bridge was constructed and it opened to the public in 1969, connecting San Diego to Coronado.

Today, Coronado mainly relies on tourism for its flourishing economy. Restaurants, cafes, and bars are abundant, as well as beaches to lie on and relax. You can also play golf on the island. Coronado is famous for the Hotel Del Coronado, which opened in 1888, and many celebrities and US presidents have been guests here. 

San Clemente Island

San Clemente Island California

San Clemente Island was originally named Victoria, but Spanish Explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno renamed it.

©Derek Lowe/iStock via Getty Images

Located off the coast of Los Angeles County, San Clemente Island is 21 miles long. The island experiences a temperate climate with warm summers and cold winters. Flora is abundant on the island, many of them endemic to just the island and nowhere else. These species include the San Clemente Island woodland star, the San Clemente Island Indian paintbrush, and several others. If you’re into snorkeling, there is a diverse population of marine life in the coves around the island like spiny lobsters, kelp forests, and hydrocoral. Also, the Navy is in the process of protecting the endangered San Clemente Island loggerhead shrike.

San Miguel Island

San Miguel Island

A colony of puffins used to live in San Miguel Island tens of thousands of years ago.

©joebelanger/iStock via Getty Images

Located off the coast of Santa Barbara County, San Miguel is 4 miles wide and 8 miles long. There are several endemic animals on the island like the island fox and the deer mouse. There are also northern fur seals, who recolonized the island after being gone for years. Today, there are over 10,000 seals on the island, which makes great white sharks common in the waters, as they hunt for the seals. Another animal to successfully establish a presence on the nearby Prince Island is the California common mure.

Santa Barbara Island


Santa Barbara Island is the smallest of the eight Channel Islands.

©Brian MacIntosh, CC BY-SA 4.0 – License

Located off the coast of Santa Barbara County, Santa Barbara Island is a small island only 1.5 miles wide and 1 mile long. It is the smallest of the eight Channel Islands and can’t usually be seen from the mainland unless it’s a clear day. The island has 14 endemic plant species and subspecies unique to the Channel Islands. There are night lizards on the island, which unfortunately are a threatened species. Just like Anacapa Island, there’s an abundance of Scripps’s murrelets. The Chumash and Tongva used the island periodically for thousands of years.

Santa Catalina Island

California island paradise. An ideal day captured on the Southern California island getaway - Catalina.

The oldest golf course in Southern California is located on Santa Catalina Island.

©Jasper Chamber/iStock via Getty Images

The most popular of the Channel Islands is Santa Catalina Island. It is also the most populous of the Channel Islands off the Southern California coast. William Wrigley of chewing gum fame bought much of the island to turn it into a tourist destination. His goal came true and today, over 1 million tourists flock to the island throughout the year. 

Santa Catalina has mild winters and warm summers, perfect for visiting at any time. When it comes to the flora, there are over 400 species of plants on the island. There are five mammals living on the island: the island fox, a subspecies of the California ground squirrel, the Santa Catalina Island deer and harvest mice, and the ornate shrew. Also, there are over 100 bison here, originally brought to Santa Catalina for a movie.

In terms of things to do, you can play golf, go snorkeling, lay on the beach, relax at cafes and restaurants, go on excursions on both land and sea and other fun activities.

Santa Cruz Island

Cave in the side of Santa Cruz Island

There’s a painted sea cave on Santa Cruz Island that inspired Walt Disney for his Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland.

©BlueBarronPhoto/iStock via Getty Images

Located in Santa Barbara County, Santa Cruz Island is the largest island of the Channel Islands archipelago. The island is more extreme in temperatures than its counterparts and can range from a low of -20 degrees Fahrenheit and a high of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The island is also home to the most plant and animal species out of all the Channel Islands. The Chumash natives lived on the island for thousands of years until their decline from diseases that Spanish colonists passed on to them. Several endemic species exist on Santa Cruz Island like the island spotted skunk, island scrub-jay, and island foxes. 

Santa Rosa Island

Kelp seen under water on approach to Bechers Bay Pier on Santa Rosa Island by boat on sunny spring day, Channel Islands National Park, Ventura, Californa, USA

Human remains from the late Pleistocene era were found on Santa Rosa Island in 1959.

©Jennifer Wan/iStock via Getty Images

Santa Rosa is the second-largest island of the Channel Islands archipelago. It gets about 15 inches of rain every year, and its climate is temperate with no extreme heat or coldness. There are three endemic mammals on Santa Rosa Island, which include the island fox, the island spotted skunk, and the island deer mouse. There are also alligator lizards and Baja California tree frogs on the island. When it comes to flora, a Torrey pine species exists on the island, as well as the island oak. In 2007, upon the discovery of a rare endemic lichen, it was named Caloplaca obamae after President Barack Obama.


And there you have it, these are the eight must-visit islands off the Southern California coast. Each of them is unique and beautiful. The biodiversity is abundant although some native species are struggling for survival. And the best part is, you won’t run out of things to do. There are so many fun activities you can do on these islands, from snorkeling to lying on the beach to just enjoying a nice cocktail at a restaurant with a stunning view.

If you’re going to visit Southern California, don’t miss out on visiting some of the most beautiful islands in the world.  At the end of your time, you won’t want to leave.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © 186496370/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Patrick Macfarland is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering travel, geography, and history. Patrick has been writing for more than 10 years. In the past, he has been a teacher and a political candidate. He holds a Bachelor's Degree in Political Science from SDSU and a Master's Degree in European Union Studies from CIFE. From San Diego, California, Patrick loves to travel and try new recipes to cook.

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