California Islands Guide: 16 Beautiful & Unique Islands in the Golden State

California islands

From the north coast to the south, these are the best islands to visit in the Golden State.

Is your typical vacation routine of mainland activities starting to seem lackluster? Are you interested in an island vacation but aren’t ready to spend hours on a plane over the ocean? 

If so, you should check out one of California’s many island vacation spots!

From completely wild islands where humans aren’t even allowed to set foot, to national park islands and California island resorts, West Coast islands have something for everyone. 

California’s islands are scattered all along the coast of the Golden State too, so no matter where you live in California, there’s an island near you. 

Below I’ve listed the best California islands, including how to get to each one, where to stay, and what to do while you’re there. 

Note: this post contains affiliate links, which help run this site at no extra cost to you so I can keep providing free travel advice and tips.

islands off the coast of california_anacapa island in Channel Islands national park
Exploring Anacapa Island on a trip to Channel Islands National Park.

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Map of Islands in California

Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park, Santa Cruz Island
Camping and hiking Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park.

How to Get There: You can take a ferry or a small plane. Ferry services by Island Packers vary in price based on the age of the passenger, which islands you want to visit, and whether you’re staying overnight on the island. Ferries leave from Ventura or Oxnard. Prices for adults range from $30-$85. The ferries take between one and four hours to reach their destination, depending on the island.

Where to Stay: There is one campground on each island, as well as a few backcountry sites on Santa Cruz Island and Santa Rosa Island. Permits are required year-round. 

What to do: Winter whale watching, kayaking, snorkeling, hiking, camping, and wildlife photography.

The California Channel Islands are a series of five islands off the coast of California, near Los Angeles

They’re actually designated as a California national park, and preserve several hundred thousand acres of land and coastline as a natural habitat for plants and animals. 

These islands are primitive and are the least visited national park in California. 

The five islands have no running water or electricity and are a great place to get away from it all. Once you’re on the islands, the only way to get around is on foot. 

These are the five California Channel Islands:

Check out our article on national parks in California for more information about Channel Islands National Park. 

Santa Catalina Island

Santa Catalina Island
Looking over the city of Avalon on a Catalina Island day trip from Long Beach.

How to Get There: Public ferry services; Catalina Express and Catalina Flyer each take about an hour and are $70-$80 for an adult round trip fare. Ferries leave from Long Beach, San Pedro, and Dana Point. Otherwise, a private boat or plane are options, as well as a helicopter service. 

Where to Stay: Resorts, bed, and breakfasts, plus several campgrounds (including our favorite, Parsons Landing).  

What to do: Relax on the beach or do some water activities, enjoy seaside dining, go for a hike, and do a golf cart tour or zip-line eco-tour.

Santa Catalina Island is another island near Los Angeles and is the sixth island in the chain of California’s Channel Islands. 

The island is small (22 miles by 8 miles) but has two towns: Avalon and Two Harbors. 

Despite the development of these two small towns, there are lots of outdoor activities and beautiful nature surrounding the towns. 

Once on the island, many residents get around via golf carts, which are available to rent. There is also a taxi service from the harbors into town and shuttle services

Read our guides on how to do a day trip to Catalina Island, the best Catalina Island hikes and beaches, and backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail

San Francisco Bay Islands

Angel Island

Angel Island hiking
Watching the sunset while camping overnight on Angel Island.

How to Get There: There are public ferry tickets from Tiburon or San Francisco for about $15, as well as private charters.

Where to Stay: Campgrounds on Angel Island

What to do: Bike or walk around the perimeter road, explore the old US Immigration Station, take in the views of the San Francisco skyline, and see the remains of Fort McDowell

Angel Island is the biggest island in San Francisco and is a popular camping destination for locals. 

The island has a deep history of human use including being the historic home of the Miwok Indians, who used the island for hunting and fishing. 

The island also provides amazing views of San Francisco and a sense of peace among the giant city. 

If you can snag a campsite, do it. It’ll be chilly, but there’s nothing like watching the sunset on Angel Island and waking up to a view of the foggy San Francisco skyline in the distance. 

Alcatraz Island

best things in California | Alcatraz Island

How to Get There: Alcatraz Cruises offers the only way to get to the island with tickets starting at $41 for adults. 

Where to Stay: There are no places to stay overnight on Alcatraz Island. 

What to do: Sign up for the day tour, night tour, behind the scenes tour, or the sunrise gathering ceremony provided by Alcatraz Cruises. 

Alcatraz Island is another island located in the San Francisco area and is one of the best islands to visit in California if you love dark history. 

Various types of tours of the prison-turned-museum are available through Alcatraz Cruises. 

In recent years, the opportunity to sleep overnight in a cell was available, but that opportunity has since ended. 

Once on the island, you’ll be guided around on foot by a self-guided audio tour – no need to rent a car. 

Treasure Island

Treasure island in san francisco bay

How to Get There: Drive to it via the Bay Bridge or get there by private boat.

Where to Stay: There aren’t any hotels on the island, but the Riu Plaza Fisherman’s Wharf is a good option nearby. 

What to do: Treasure Island Music Festival, flea market, Treasure Island Museum, and rent a beach cruiser bike to explore the island. 

Treasure Island is located in the San Francisco Bay and is an easy exit off the Bay Bridge. 

The island is most well-known for its annual music festival once-monthly flea market. 

There are also lots of good places to eat on Treasure Island, so come hungry! One of the best restaurants is Mersea

Farallon Islands

Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco

How to Get There: Day trips depart from San Francisco’s waterfront and Sausalito with the Oceanic Society. 

Where to Stay: Nowhere! The public cannot access the islands due to the sensitivity of the ecosystem.

What to do: Whale watching, wildlife photography (bring some binoculars too).

Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge is a series of wild, uninhabited, jagged islands located about 30 miles west of San Francisco. 

The islands are strictly protected by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and only whale watching is allowed near the islands. 

Even still, you’ll get amazing views of sea lions, sea birds, and, of course, whales if you sign up for a tour of the islands. 

Woodley Island

Woodley Island in eureka, california

How to Get There: Take Highway 255 from Eureka across the bay, or private boats can moor in the marina. 

Where to Stay: Redwood Coast Cabins and RV Resort in Eureka, CA

What to do: Buy fresh fish and crabs straight from the marina and explore the bay via kayak. 

Woodley Island is a great choice for a California island vacation among the redwoods, as it’s located right off the coast from Eureka, CA in the Eureka Bay. 

Enjoy a walk along the marina and catch the sunrise coming over the Pacific.  

Naples Island

naples island in long beach

How to Get There: Take Highway 1 and exit near California State University Long Beach.

Where to Stay: There isn’t accommodation on the island, but nearby Ayres Hotel Seal Beach is a good option. 

What to do: Head to Mother’s Beach, go kayaking or standup paddleboarding in the canals, and enjoy the Naples Boat Parade during the holidays

Naples Island is located right off Long Beach, CA, and was developed to resemble an Italian village. 

It has a ring of canals on the interior of the island where residents moor their boats. 

The island itself is completely developed except for a small beach area called Mother’s Beach and cars can easily access the entire island. 

Due to its location in Long Beach, this is one of the best islands to explore in LA County and in Southern California as a whole. 

Balboa Island

Balboa Island

How to Get There: You can drive there off Highway 1 or take the Balboa Island Ferry for just a few dollars. 

Where to Stay: Balboa Bay Resort or nearby Moro Campground in Crystal Cove State Park.

What to do: Visit the Balboa Island Museum and grab a coffee from Succulent Coffee Roasters. Then, head over to Balboa Peninsula to relax on the beach, go snorkeling, sample the famous frozen banana dessert, and take the kids to Balboa Fun Zone.

Located in Newport Beach, Balboa Island is one of the few man-made islands in California to visit on your beach vacation. 

The island was cut off from the mainland and built up by dredging the seafloor. Visitors can access Balboa Island by car, ferry, or on foot. 

San Diego Islands

All of the small Southern California islands around San Diego are more like peninsulas, but they have an island vibe and gorgeous Mediterranean weather. 

Coronado Island

Coronado Island in san diego

How to Get There: Drive across the San-Diego-Coronado Bridge, drive across the Silver Strand peninsula, or take the Flagship Ferry for $7 for a 15-minute ride.

Where to Stay: Hotel del Coronado

What to do: Take a tour of the Hotel del Coronado, go kayaking, grab a pint from Coronado Brewing Company, take in the San Diego skyline, and beachcomb Coronado Central Beach. 

Coronado Island is one of several islands near San Diego. 

One of the most famous attractions on the island is the Hotel del Coronado. Built in 1888, the hotel has hosted a fair share of celebrities in its day and offers tours of the historic grounds.

Visitors to Coronado Island can drive, walk or bike around. 

Shelter Island

Shelter island in san diego

How to Get There: Take the bridge from Roseville-Fleet Ridge, CA.

Where to Stay: Bay Club Hotel, Humphreys Half Moon Inn

What to do: Sportfishing, attend the summer Concerts by the Bay, visit the Yokohama Friendship Bell. 

Shelter Island is located just across the water from Coronado Island, and like Coronado, is more like a peninsula than an island. 

This San Diego “island” is home to several marinas and beachfront shops. In the summer the Concerts by the Bay attract big-name artists.  

Harbor Island

harbor island near san diego

How to Get There: Take Harbor Island Dr across from the San Diego International Airport.

Where to Stay: Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina

What to do: Enjoy the San Diego skyline along the paved shoreline path, watch the annual Boat Parade of Lights (December), and watch America’s Cup (sailing race).

Harbor Island is an island off the coast of San Diego

This small strip of land is only two miles long, but features lovely grassy areas to picnic, watch fireworks on the 4th of July, or just enjoy the San Diego skyline on a sunny day.  


Get your FREE California Travel Planner – including printable checklists and my favorite two-week itinerary for the state. 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

author bio - Meredith Dennis

Meredith Dennis

Meredith is a biologist and writer based in California’s Sierra Nevada. She has lived in 6 states as a biologist, so her intel on hiking and camping is *chef’s kiss* next level. One of her earliest camping memories was being too scared to find a bathroom at night on a family camping trip. Thankfully, she’s come a long way since then and she can help you get there too!


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California Islands Guide: 16 Beautiful & Unique Islands in the Golden State

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