Looking for some family-friendly activities in California? Contributing writer Margot Black visited California’s islands with her family—and discovered kayaking spots, ferries and ferris wheels in Orange County, outdoor activities, and unique Art Deco architecture.
California’s coast is a gateway to some of the state’s most unique, unexpected, and memorable destinations. While most people head to California to see the Hollywood sign, enjoy the beaches, or visit the theme parks, many never realize that there are a sprinkling of islands to enjoy. After Catalina and Alcatraz, it can be a struggle to name any others, which is surprising as there are 527 islands in total. You can’t visit them all—many are used for military purposes and others are uninhabitable—but there are a handful you can easily visit, enjoy, and explore. I visited three of the islands with my family. They were Catalina, Balboa Island near Newport Beach, and Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands.
Santa Cruz Island
The Channel Islands have been a national park since 1980, and if you’re looking for something that thumbs its nose at the regular tourist trails, you can’t go wrong. Less than 100,000 visitors come each year, ensuring they remain a mostly unspoiled outpost. Known as the “Galapagos of North America” thanks to the amazing diversity of wildlife, including nearly 150 indigenous species, the Channel Islands are comprised of eight islands split among three separate counties: Santa Barbara, Ventura County, and Los Angeles County.
We set off by ferry from Ventura Harbor, which is operated by Island Packers; they provide transportation from the Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard and Ventura Harbor to all five islands in the park. A family business, it was established in 1968 by Bill M. Connally and is still owned and operated by the Connally family. Ventura Harbor is just under a thirty minute drive from Santa Barbara, and our ferry took little over an hour docking at a small beach on the island that was very quiet and remote. Santa Cruz island is 96 square miles in size and the largest island in California, and it really is just nature.
We booked a guided kayak adventure around the island’s sea caves with Channel Island Outfitters. It was an intense nature exploration (there are 77 miles of craggy cliffs to behold) and one that tested all my strength, though naturally my husband and son loved the Indiana Jones vibe of it all. We were fully outfitted with inflatable jackets and given a short orientation by our guide.
Some of the kayaks seat two people, so my husband teamed up with my son while I paddled solo. It was a reasonably calm day, but I have never put so much physical effort into one sporting activity. I’m fit, but the kayaking got hard when the wind picked up and we were out on the ocean for almost three hours.
The nature was glorious; the island boasts 140 land birds, a large colony of nesting sea birds, plus breeding seals and sea lions, and 600 plant species, so there’s plenty to absorb. My son particularly loved paddling through the volcanic sea caves and rock formation arches, and after a hearty lunch, he had fun briefly snorkeling around the bay. Later, we also caught sight of a pod of dolphins.
Remember to travel light, as you are responsible for your baggage, and don’t bring anything that you might not want to get wet! A waterproof camera is essential.
Balboa Island is one of those places where you can take the whole family—literally everyone from newborns to your great grandmother will enjoy a few days here. The island is located just off Newport Beach and is only a 15-minute drive from John Wayne airport. It’s also near Disneyland, which means it’s perfectly placed to be included on your family vacation.
Access is via a two-lane bridge, but the more fun route is on the classic Balboa Island three-car ferry. Run by David Beek’s family for nearly 100 years, it made the day more of an adventure. It only takes 5 minutes and costs $3 per person; we took several joy rides back and forth and giggled each time.
Unlike the Channel Islands, Balboa Island is completely man-made, attracting visitors and locals alike with all the charm that you’d expect from a quintessential main street and oceanfront boardwalk. We rented a Duffy boat for the afternoon to explore the harbor, and it was a delightful way to see the waterways and homes. We saw a great deal of the neighboring islands via Duffy boat, and it was the highlight of our day. You can rent a Duffy, and no prior boating experience or coast guard training is needed to operate one of these user-friendly vehicles.
We really enjoyed a walk around the two-mile boardwalk, which is also popular with dog-walkers, joggers, and visitors like us. For amusements, head to the Balboa Fun Zone, located right next to the ferry, which features a handful of rides, including a Ferris wheel, two arcades, and boat rentals. You can also grab a corn dog, scoop of ice cream, slice of pizza, or the famous Balboa Bar covered with a topping of your choice.
Balboa is also home to some very wealthy residents (think Cape Cod meets Coney Island) and the shopping and eating options reflects that. There are many boutiques, jewelers, art galleries, and bistros on and around Marine Avenue, but you can enjoy a casual sweet treat at places such as Dad’s Original, which has amazing ice cream and is famous for its frozen bananas.
You can head to the end of the pier to watch the fisherman wrestle with their daily catch (their bait can attract seals and dolphins, so keep your eyes peeled). The walk to the end of the pier is easy and there’s a play area for small kids, as well a diner. This is a good spot for people watching and taking in the views of the ocean, but if it’s not up close and personal enough, you can also book whale watching trips.
What we loved about Balboa Island is that it was so easy to get to and not too crowded on a warm fall weekend. Since there are no hotels on Balboa Island, we cozied up in a family-friendly beach bungalow at the nearby Newport Beach Hotel, which is steps from the sea, has a great ocean view breakfast, and they provide free bike rentals included in each stay. The Newport Beach Hotel is the closest hotel to the beach in the area, and is ideal for guests who enjoy being surrounded by an eclectic beach scene and the youthful energy that comes with it.
Everyone who has a kid in school in California will almost certainly wind up on Catalina Island on a nature trip. But even if you don’t, it’s very easy to access, and if you can’t afford an expensive vacation to Hawaii it will quell your beachside holiday thirst at a quarter of the price. This island offers ample and easily accessible activities and adventures for all age ranges.
Catalina is located 22 miles southwest of Los Angeles and because it’s overseen by the Catalina Island Conservancy, and there’s minimal development, meaning that you feel as if you are stepping back in time to a California of yesteryear. Like Santa Cruz, it’s part of the Channel Islands archipelago, but it’s the only island with permanent residents. It encompasses approximately 76 square miles and is eight miles wide at its widest point, and half a mile at its narrowest.
Catalina can be accessed via Catalina Express from San Pedro, Long Beach, and Dana Point. Catalina Express runs a promotion that lets you ride for free on your birthday. If you want to arrive in style, there is also a helicopter service from Long Beach, San Pedro, and Orange County Airport
Avalon is the only city on the island with just under 4000 residents. It’s primarily a resort destination, so tourism is number one and exists thanks to the financial investment of William Wrigley Jr., the chewing gum magnate, who poured millions into the infrastructure back in the early 20th century.
The Casino Ballroom is the most visible landmark as you approach the bay and worth checking out thanks to its striking Art Deco circular structure. Once here, you are spoiled for choice; you can go parasailing, scuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking, hire a jet ski, sail, fish, rent a golf cart, walk, hike, swim, zip-line, shop, visit a spa, and explore a nature trail.
The nature on Catalina is overwhelming, and we visited the non-profit Nature Center at Avalon Canyon (a 20-minute stroll up Avalon Canyon from the town center) to learn more. Here, we were educated on everything from the geology of the Channel Islands to how species arrive . We then toured the Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden, where we saw plenty of desert plants (there is a drought in California, so the gardens can be sparse), cacti, and strawberry trees. It’s a bit of an uphill hike and can get sweaty in hot weather, so drink lots of water—but the upside is that the walk back down is a breeze.
We enjoyed an Ocean Runner speedboat ride on a Ribcraft—the same boat that the Navy SEALs use, and had an exhilarating afternoon on the water. After that, we screamed with delight as we propelled ourselves down five separate zip lines with spectacular views on the Zip Line Eco Tour.
A visit to the Spanish-inspired Island Spa proved to be a remarkably beautiful and well designed place to relax and unwind after all the intense adrenaline. This spa contains a variety of outdoor experiential spaces, including luxurious lounges, a soaking pool, and a stunning vista deck.
We stayed at the quaint and inviting Pavilion Hotel, which is steps from the beach and offers fire pits to cozy up to and an ocean vista breakfast.
Three More California Islands Worth Visiting
This is a great place to take your kid if you want to persuade them that a life of crime is a bad idea. Located off the coast of San Francisco, this famous jailhouse is open to the public and is accessed via a ferry at Pier 33. Once home to some of America’s most notorious criminals, including Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelley, and Robert “The Birdman” Stroud, this federal penitentiary operated from 1934 to 1963 and is steeped in a dark and compelling history. Known as “the Rock,” it is now home to rare flowers and plants, marine wildlife, and thousands of roosting and nesting seabirds. Night tours are available as well.
Angel Island State Park is the largest natural island in the San Francisco Bay, and is famous for its magnificent views of the surrounding Bay Area. It offers amazing hiking trails and many other recreational opportunities, including Segway rentals and tram tours. You can also teach your kids a history lesson or two here; for over 3,000 years the island was a fishing and hunting site for Coast Miwok Indians. It was later a haven for Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala, a cattle ranch, a Marine Hospital Service Quarantine Station, a United States Immigration Station, and a U.S. Army post.
Want something completely different? Fannette is an inland island and lies within the confines of Emerald Bay on the California side of Lake Tahoe. Fannette is its only island and over time has been called many different names, including Coquette Island, Dead Man’s Island, and Emerald Isle. It contains the poetic ruins of the Tea House, an ornate building constructed by the owner of the nearby Vikingsholm Castle, Mrs. Lora Josephine Knight in 1929. It is accessible by boat, canoe, or kayak, and while visitors can enjoy a walk around this small and craggy rock, dogs are not allowed on the island.
Want to read more family-friendly travel articles by Margot Black? Check out:
- Beyond Disneyland: Unexpected Sights & Adventures in Anaheim
- How to Get Your Kids Outside While You’re on Vacation
- Harry Potter & Hemingway: Creating a Literary Road Trip in Florida
Text and Images by Margot Black for PeterGreenberg.com