The National Park That Lets You Explore One Of The World's Largest Sea Caves

Just off the coast of Southern California, you'll find eight islands that are home to a unique collection of plant and animal species. These are the Channel Islands, also known as the North American Galapagos. Five of the islands comprise the Channel Islands National Park.

"The Channel Islands are home to over 2,000 plant and animal species, of which 145 are found nowhere else in the world," writes the National Park Service (NPS). Over the years, the islands have remained in relatively pristine condition thanks to their remote location and the efforts of the NPS to protect their fragile ecosystem. Thus the islands are a prime example of what California's coastal ecosystem used to look like.

So, when you do make a trip to the Channel Islands National Park, you can count on being one of the few people there; but that doesn't mean you'll be totally alone. You can find seals, sea lions, and whales around the islands. If you explore the tide pools, you'll see countless sea stars, anemones, and crustaceans. The islands are also home to "the only major breeding population of California brown pelicans in the western U.S.," according to the NPS.

However, while there is a lot to see and do at the Channel Islands National Park, one of the best activities for visitors has to be kayaking the sea caves and exploring the largest sea cave in North America, the Painted Cave. It's located on Santa Cruz Island, which harbors the "highest density of sea caves in the world," according to the Ventura Visitors & Convention Bureau.

Explore the Painted Cave on Santa Cruz Island

The Channel Islands National Park includes the islands of Anacapa, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz. However, if you're looking for the most amazing ocean adventure, you're going to want to plan a visit to Santa Cruz Island. This is the largest island in the group and boasts 77 miles of coastline made up of coastal cliffs, beaches, tide pools, and sea caves. The numerous sea caves located on Santa Cruz Island contribute to the island's claim to fame for having the highest density of sea caves in the world. However, there is one cave that will truly take your breath away: the Painted Cave.

The Chumash, the area's Indigenous population, call the cave hax̓inu mupʰ nuwaštipa. The Painted Cave is the largest in California and the fourth largest in the world in terms of length. The cave is 160 feet above water and nearly 1,230 feet in length, so you'll feel as though you're entering an expansive rocky cathedral, complete with its own natural decoration.

On the walls of the cave, visitors can find a spectrum of colors thanks to the lichen and algae that have made their home there. There are even small beaches within the cave where you might find some snoozing sea lions. Their reverberating barking, along with the gently lapping water and kaleidoscope colors, will be sure to transport you to another world entirely.

How to get to Santa Cruz Island and take a tour of the Painted Cave

Getting to the Channel Islands is a little more difficult than your usual trip to a U.S. national park. Your only options are to take a boat ride or a private plane. To take a boat to Santa Cruz Island you can book a trip with the park's only concessionaire, Island Packers, or take a private boat.

If you take a private boat, there are no landing permits required for the areas maintained by the National Park Service (NPS). However, part of the island is administered by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and you do need a landing permit if you take a boat there.

From Ventura, the trip to Santa Cruz Island is only an hour long and is available for booking year-round. However, travelers should be aware that once they arrive, there is no transportation on any of the islands, and you can only explore on foot, by private boat, or by kayak.

To book a tour, the NPS recommends using their authorized concessionaire, Channel Islands Adventure Company. They offer four different kayak tours with varying levels of difficulty depending on the kind of experience you want. The tours range from 1.5 to 5 hours (or longer), and the guides will take you around to all the best caves, including the Painted Cave.