The Best Islands to Visit off the California Coast, USA

A resort property occupies a remote hillside cove on Catalina Island, California
A resort property occupies a remote hillside cove on Catalina Island, California | © Ron Adcock / Alamy Stock Photo
Katie Watkins

Venture just a few miles off the famous coastline of California, and there are numerous islands to explore. Each offers a unique experience, including the so-called Galapagos Islands of California and a Victorian lighthouse turned bed and breakfast. These islands – listed from south to north – are all worthy of a visit.

1. Coronado

Natural Feature

Coronado Central Beach. Coronado, California.
© joseph s giacalone / Alamy Stock Photo

Coronado is actually a tied island, as it’s connected to San Diego by a thin strip of land known as the Silver Strand. But it still has a distinct island feel, plus, wide beaches with soft sand. While it can be reached by car via the Coronado Bridge, there’s also a ferry that departs from downtown. Once on the island, it’s hard to miss the red Spanish-style turrets of the Hotel del Coronado. Built in 1888, the hotel is full of history and even, some say, ghosts. You can grab lunch or drinks at the hotel and explore the grounds, or spend the day on the beach, bike riding through town or browsing the shops and galleries on Orange Avenue. For more ideas, see our post on 10 Things to Do in Coronado.

2. Catalina

Historical Landmark

Avalon harbour on the island of Catalina, off the Californian coast.
© Alun Reece / Alamy Stock Photo
From the moment you arrive at the city of Avalon, on Catalina island, 22mi (35km) off the Southern California coast, you are greeted by white sandy beaches, colorful houses built into the hillside and boats floating in clear blue waters. It’s just over a one-hour ferry ride to get here, with departures from Long Beach, San Pedro and Dana Point. Of course, there’s also the option to splurge and arrive via helicopter, private boat or private plane. The island itself is full of outdoor adventures, including kayaking and glass-bottomed boat tours. With diverse marine life, Catalina is also ideal for snorkeling and scuba diving. Visitors aren’t allowed to rent cars, but it’s easy to explore Catalina by foot, bike or golf cart. Avalon is on the resort side of the island, with luxurious hotels, fine dining, a golf course and a historic art-deco theater that’s housed within the casino. However, over 88 percent of Catalina isn’t developed, and the backcountry and other harbors are ideal for camping and hiking off-grid. For more ideas on what to do, check out our Ultimate Guide to Catalina Island.

3. Channel Islands National Park

Park

Anacapa Light - A light beacon at this location has guided mariners since 1912. East Anacapa Island, Channel Islands National Park, California, USA
© Gibson Outdoor Photography / Alamy Stock Photo
Often referred to as the Galapagos Islands of California, the Channel Islands National Park, comprises five islands: Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara and San Miguel, and is known for its biodiversity and rugged landscape. Santa Cruz and Anacapa tend to be the most popular as they’re the closest to the mainland. The best way to explore the park, which is replete with sea caves, kelp forests and spectacular vistas, is by snorkeling, kayaking or hiking. Though the closest island is only 11mi (18km) off the coast of California, there is no electricity or transportation, and no food shops, adding to the remote feel. Boats to the islands depart from Ventura and Santa Barbara, and it can take between one and three and a half hours to get here depending on which island you’re visiting. There is also the option to fly. For those who want to stay overnight, there are campsites on all five islands. Read more tips on visiting the islands in the Complete Guide to Channels Island National Park.

4. Alcatraz

Building

Alcatraz Island, former maximum high-security federal prison, San Francisco Bay, San Francisco, California, USA - aerial
© David Wall / Alamy Stock Photo
It might lack the natural beauty of some of the other islands, but the notorious Alcatraz is worth a visit for the history alone. Also known as the Rock, Alcatraz served as a federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963, housing infamous prisoners including Al Capone. Visits to the island include an audio tour, complete with recorded commentary from some of the former inmates. On clear days, Alcatraz provides views of both the city and the Golden Gate Bridge. Though Alcatraz is only 1.5mi (2.4km) off the coast of San Francisco, the waters around it are known for cold and treacherous. Ferries depart from Fisherman’s Wharf to Alcatraz. It’s best to book tours early as they often sell out weeks in advance. For the brave, there are also select dates where you can pay to sleep overnight in a cell.

5. East Brother

Architectural Landmark

Coast Guard Cutter passes by East Brother Light Station off of Point Richmond in San Francisco Bay.
© Rick Pisio\RWP Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

Part of a pair of islands known collectively as the Brothers, East Brother Island is home to a Victorian lighthouse that doubles as a bed and breakfast (and also serves dinner). The lighthouse was first built in 1873 to aid ships passing through the foggy waters of the San Francisco and San Pablo bays. Built back when lighthouses required someone to maintain them, it included lodging for the lighthouse keeper. Instead of tearing it down, the lodging was preserved and turned into an inn in 1979. Open to visitors Thursday to Sunday, the lighthouse has just five rooms, offering a secluded experience – although it’s only a short boat ride away from downtown San Francisco. Day visits are available on select Saturdays during the summer for those who want to see the historic lighthouse without spending the night.

6. Angel Island

Park

couple have picnic lunch on tables in ayala cove on Angel Island
© Bob Kreisel / Alamy Stock PhotoBob Kreisel / Alamy Stock Photo
The second-largest natural island in San Francisco Bay, Angel Island offers a fascinating mix of history and outdoor activities. It’s often referred to as the Ellis Island of the West, though Angel Island has a much less welcoming history. During the early 1900s, thousands of immigrants were processed and detained at the island’s Immigration Station. Today, the Immigration Station is a museum that details its storied history. For more outdoorsy types, there are multiple trails for hiking and biking around Angel Island. Hike to the top of Mount Livermore – the island’s highest point – for 360-degree views of the bay. Angel Island is accessible via private boat or a public ferry from San Francisco and Tiburon. While there is no hotel on the island, there are campsites that you can book a spot at. The only restaurant is the Angel Island Cafe.

7. Woodley Island

Natural Feature

USA, California, Northern California, North Coast, Eureka, Woodley Island Marina
© Jon Arnold Images Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Woodley Island, in Humboldt Bay off the coast of Eureka, is accessible via bridge or boat. It has a large marina for both commercial and recreational boats. During the open fishing season, visitors can purchase fresh crab and fish from the vessels coming in. A significant portion of the island is also a protected habitat, making it a favorite among birdwatchers who come to see the godwits, pelicans, egrets and other birds that frequent the area. Humboats is the only dockside rental place, offering kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards. They also have several nature kayaking tours, including a whale-watching option and an eco-tour that explores parts of the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

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