Looking to visit some of the most gorgeous islands in California? Here are our absolute favorite California islands that you can’t miss.
Many factors contribute to California’s status as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States. Some of the world’s most stunning beaches are located here, as are some of the country’s best music festivals and restaurants. As if the Golden State couldn’t get any better. It’s the most geographically and culturally diverse state in the country. Plus, the weather is so beautiful!
Just a few miles off the coast of California, you’ll discover a series of stunning islands, which is another reason to fall in love with the state. The best part is that they’re just a short boat journey from most of the big cities on the mainland.
Some of these California islands are too pretty to miss! Here are the top 19+ islands in California that you need to know about.
19. Catalina Island
White sand beaches, colorful mansions nestled into the hillside, and boats floating in pure blue seas welcome you from the minute you arrive at Avalon, on Catalina Island, 22 miles off the coast of Southern California.
Kayaking and glass-bottom boat rides are just two of the island’s numerous recreational activities. It’s a little more than a one-hour ferry ride from Long Beach, San Pedro, and Dana Point to get here. Of course, spending extra money on a helicopter, private boat, or private plane is also an option.
Catalina is great for snorkeling and scuba diving because of its varied marine life. Although visitors are not permitted to rent cars, Catalina can easily be explored by foot, bicycle, or golf cart.
Avalon is located on the island’s resort side, with opulent hotels, good cuisine, a golf course, and a classic art deco theater housed inside the casino. However, over 88 percent of Catalina Island is undeveloped, making the backcountry and other bays perfect for off-grid camping and trekking.
18. Alcatraz Island
While Alcatraz misses the stunning scenery of some of the other islands, it is worth a visit for its history alone.
Alcatraz, often known as the Rock, was a federal prison that housed prominent criminals such as Al Capone from 1934 until 1963. In the 1960s, indigenous tribes and sympathizers used the island as a Civil War fort and occupied the location.
You can enjoy the self-guided audio tour (included in the price of your boat ticket), which has the voices of real correctional officers, and convicts arranged to prison-themed music – think a cacophony of footfall, keys rattling, and metal doors banging. To guarantee a seat, book at least a week in advance, particularly during the summer and holiday weekends.
Alcatraz offers panoramic views of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge on clear days. Even though Alcatraz is just 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) off the coast of San Francisco, cold and hazardous seas surround it.
If you want to visit this island, note that the Alcatraz ferries leave from Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s essential to schedule tours since they sometimes sell out weeks ahead of time. There are certain times when you may pay to sleep in jail overnight for the adventurous.
17. Santa Barbara Island
The smallest of the Channel Islands is deceiving in its diminutive size. From afar, this one-square-mile island may seem lonely.
But the island has relaxing elephant seals, golden flowers blossoming, Scripps’ murrelet chicks tumbling, and rich cultural heritage. Santa Barbara Island is a crossroads for humans and wildlife. It’s one of the best California islands to visit if you’re interested in nature!
This island is 38 miles from the mainland’s nearest point. It is the smallest of the California Channel Islands, at about one square mile (639 acres). The island, formed by underwater volcanic activity, is approximately triangular and rises from the sea as a massive, twin-peaked mesa with high cliffs.
Travelers can observe the island’s extraordinary comeback of plant and animal life after years of habitat and species loss due to ranching and agricultural operations, including the introduction of nonnative plants, rabbits, and cats. Although nonnative grasses continue to dominate the landscape, native vegetation is progressively rebounding thanks to restoration efforts by the National Park Service.
Santa Barbara Island’s rocky coastlines also serve as resting and breeding grounds for California sea lions, harbor seals, and northern elephant seals. These marine animals forage in the island’s dense kelp forests. You can hear sea lions’ loud barking from most parts of the island.
Webster Point, Sea Lion Rookery, and Elephant Seal Cove provide good vantage points for seeing seals and sea lions. Additionally, visitors may leap into the sea to see what lurks under the ocean’s surface. You can see beautiful sea stars, prickly sea urchins, and vivid orange Garibaldi fish when snorkeling at the Landing Cove. California sea lions and the rare harbor seal inhabit Landing Cove’s waters and rocky ledges.
As you can see, this is one of the best islands in California to visit if you’re interested in nature – this island has it all!
16. Coronado Island
Coronado is a tethered island since it is connected to San Diego by the Silver Strand, a narrow piece of land. However, it retains an island atmosphere, with extensive beaches and soft sand. You can use the Coronado Bridge to get there by driving, but a boat also leaves from downtown. This is definitely one of the more accessible islands in California that still has the island feel!
It is known for its powdery beaches (including a designated, leash-free dog beach) and the historic Hotel del Coronado. Hotel Del will unveil a refurbished spa, updated guest rooms (spacious patios and fire elements in select ground floor rooms), and a rebuilt rooftop bar and restaurant in 2020.
It had a crucial part in early naval aviation history in the United States and its coastal resort dreams. Beginning in 1855, American industrialists bought the island and developed it.
Spend the day on the beach, biking across town, shopping the shops and galleries on Orange Avenue, or having lunch or beverages at the hotel and exploring the grounds. This is one of the top islands in California that you can’t miss because it’s just so easy to get to!
15. Brother Islands
Are you looking for a respite from the city’s quick pace? Need to contemplate your unfinished manuscript in a remote but lovely location? Consider The Brothers Islands, some of the more rugged California islands positioned in the strait between San Francisco and San Pablo Bays.
While West Brother Island is strikingly desolate, East Brother Island is vibrant with a historic lighthouse and Victorian bed & breakfast offering 360-degree views of the San Francisco cityscape, Mount Tamalpais, and the Marin coastline. East Brother Light Station has been operational since 1873; the Inn opened in 1979 to raise funds for restoring and maintaining the lighthouse and its amenities.
Today, visitors are transported to the island four evenings a week by a 10-minute boat journey from Richmond and are welcomed with Champagne and hors d’oeuvres upon arrival. The culinary journey continues with a multi-course meal prepared with vegetables from the chef’s garden and served at a communal table. Breakfast is included in the package, as is a tour of the island and lighthouse.
Volunteering is another less expensive and karma-boosting option to enjoy the island. There is a requirement for various “wickies,” a colloquial term for lighthouse keepers who used to trim the wicks that illuminated the trail for maritime vessels.
14. Naples Island
If you’ve never been to Naples Island in California, you should do so. It’s one of the top California islands for a reason! Located in Alamitos Bay on three tiny islands, it’s famed for its picturesque canals that evoke the waterways of Venice.
As evident by its name, the city has a similar appearance to Naples, Italy. The majority of the island’s streets are even named after Italian places.
Naples Island is your place if you want to experience the Mediterranean without leaving Florida! A trip to Naples Island is a must for anybody who wants to visit Italy but hasn’t had the chance.
Take a gondola ride along the picturesque rivers and charming Italian-style architecture. Paddleboarding or kayaking is another excellent option for exploring one of Cali’s best-kept secrets.
13. Angel Island
Angel Island is a natural wonder of the state of California. If you’re looking for some of the most excellent views of San Francisco Bay, you’ll want to visit the most oversized natural island.
There are many stories to tell about Angel Island’s past. Indigenous tribes initially utilized it as a haven from the dangers of the outside world. At that time, it was a haven for the likes of Juan Manuel de Ayala. It’s one of the most excellent spots to spend a day away from the city, only six miles from San Francisco.
The island operated as an immigration processing center for immigrants seeking a better life in the United States at one time. Because of this, it’s referred to as the “Ellis Island of the West.” It is now a museum that tells the tale of the island’s past.
Mount Livermore, the highest point on the island, is a great place to go trekking or bicycling. There are 360-degree views of San Francisco’s skyline from the island’s top.
Camp on Angel Island and take a sunset sail if you want to extend your journey to the island beyond a brief day excursion.
12. Balboa Island
Balboa Island is a terrific destination to visit if you’re looking for a California island getaway. It’s a magnificent artificial island in Orange County that can be seen by ferry or an overland bridge, and it’s located in the center of Newport Beach.
Balboa Island is a one-of-a-kind, artificial treasure. It is beautiful whether you drive, walk, bike, or ride the Balboa Island Ferry to the island. There are several activities available on Balboa Island. Marine Avenue is lined with beautiful coastal boutiques selling one-of-a-kind nautical designs, fashionable beachwear, art, and jewelry.
Furthermore, it is home to charming Balboa Island restaurants and cafes providing a range of flavorful meals. Balboa Island’s culinary offerings extend beyond the fresh local fish of the day, with Italian, Mexican, and French-Swiss tastes included.
Nothing on Balboa Island is more legendary than the Balboa Bar and Frozen Banana. For almost 75 years, the local sweet tooth treasures have been reproduced and duplicated, notably on the popular television comedy “Arrested Development.” The delectable sweets are dipped in chocolate and coated with various toppings, including almonds, sprinkles, and cookie crumbs. Whatever your preference, Balboa Island in Newport Beach has everything.
11. Treasure Island
Treasure Island is one of California’s most distinctive islands. It’s an artificial island in the center of San Francisco Bay that was erected in the 1930s for the Golden Gate International Exposition. The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge were completed in time for the fair.
The island was transformed into a military installation during WWII until the early 1990s. Several structures on the island have now been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Treasure Island Music Festival, a two-day event featuring the greatest names in rap, hip-hop, rock, electronic, and independent music, is well-known.
The weekly flea market is another popular event on Treasure Island. It’s an open-air market with the most amazing antiques, art, upcycled and repurposed things, and various plants. The market, which takes place over two days, draws individuals from all across the Bay Area together.
Many food trucks also serve anything from gourmet street cuisine to regional specialties like Bay Area shrimp and crab. It’s no surprise that it’s a favorite hangout for residents and visitors alike.
If you’re looking for a fun social scene then Treasure Island is one of the best islands in California to visit!
10. Woodley Island
Woodley Island, located near Jaroujiji, or what is now known as Eureka, on California’s Pacific coast north of San Francisco, provides fresh air and sea activities in a northern California environment.
Cafe Marina, Woodley’s Bar, and the Table Bluff lighthouse are all worth seeing (the first lighthouse to illuminate Humboldt Bay). Cruise around the Bay on a kayak, stand-up paddleboard, or canoe rented from Humboats Kayak Adventures.
It’s also possible to go whale watching or go on an eco-tour through the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge while kayaking.
Both business and leisure boats can be moored at its vast marina. Visitors can buy freshly caught crab and fish from arriving vessels during the open fishing season.
Birdwatchers go to the island to witness the godwits, pelicans, egrets, and other species that populate the waters around it, making it a popular destination.
This is definitely one of the best islands in California if you’re looking for lots of hands-on nature activities!
9. San Nicolas Island
At 78 nautical miles (nm), San Nicolas Island is the most isolated of the Channel Islands in California and 53 miles from the closest shore. Windswept, grassy slopes, and wave-cut terraces characterize the 14,500-acre (23-square-mile) island in the Pacific Ocean.
The US Navy presently manages and operates it as a weapons testing and training facility. A tiny airport serves the island, commonly called “Midtown” because of the many buildings housing the naval base. You cannot land on the island, and one of the offshore sea zones is limited for transit or anchoring.
Currently, the US Navy occupies the island predominantly. However, a conservation effort will safeguard the island’s natural fauna, including fox subspecies found nowhere else on the planet.
To visit, you have to work for the navy, but you can do a cruise around the island – the area is just gorgeous!
8. Harbor Island
Harbor Island is located in San Diego Bay between Shelter Island and Downtown San Diego, California.
It is about two miles long and a few hundred yards broad. It was initially formed during harbor dredging operations to deepen the passage for bigger navy supercarriers. Harbor Island Drive, which traverses the length of the island, connects it to the mainland. It is right across from San Diego International Airport, making it an ideal spot to unwind while waiting for connecting flights.
The atmosphere and views of San Diego Bay on the island are comparable to those of its sister island, Shelter Island. Several marinas are located between the peninsula and the mainland, accommodating several thousand yachts.
Harbor Island Park is situated on the island and provides an excellent vantage point for sea-going activity. On the island, there are two luxury hotels with superior services and restaurants: the Hilton San Diego Airport and the Sheraton Harbor Island. They have attractive restaurants exposed to the marina’s soothing winds, which add to the holiday experience.
A continuous ocean breeze keeps walkers, joggers, skaters, and cyclists cool. They take panoramic views of the San Diego cityscape, Coronado Island, and the Big Bay from a beachside walkway.
It is also a great spot to see the city lights at night, see fireworks on July 4th, enjoy the annual Boat Parade of Lights in December, and watch sailing contests like America’s Cup.
This is one of the best islands in California to visit because it’s so easily accessible and has great restaurants and activities!
7. Anacapa Island
Anacapa Island is a great area to go camping for a half-day, one-day, or short overnight excursion.
There are literally no services/restaurants/stores on the islands, so you can’t make up for lousy planning after if you forget something. It’s essential to plan ahead! Anacapa Island is a test of preparedness and self-reliance.
A small visitors center, hiking paths, and the last big lighthouse erected on West Coast are just a few of the attractions of Anacapa Island. At Frenchys Cove, you may go tide pooling, but only if you’re fortunate enough to catch one of the few boat trips to the cove.
If you’re looking for the top islands in California that require you to really rough it, this should be your pick.
6. Shelter Island
Shelter Island, situated across the sea from Coronado, is more like a peninsula than an island.
It is one of San Diego’s main boating destinations, with marinas, resort hotels, restaurants, and bayside parks that attract sailors and landlubbers alike.
This is definitely one of the best islands in California for fishermen. Anglers catch a variety of Pacific species, including Yellowtail, Albacore, Halibut, Dorado, Calico Bass, and a variety of rockfish on short and long-range sportfishing excursions that leave from here. Humphreys Half Moon Inn & Suites, which hosts summer Concerts By The Bay, and draws nationally recognized singers and comedians, is also located on Shelter Island.
The Yokohama Friendship Bell, a massive bronze bell housed in a pagoda structure, is located at the end of Shelter Island. It was a gift from Yokohama, Japan, in 1958 to mark the sister city connection between San Diego and Yokohama.
If you visit this island, you can do sports fishing, attend the summer Concerts by the Bay, and see the Yokohama Friendship Bell.
5. San Miguel Island
The weather on San Miguel Island, which is the westernmost of the Channel Islands, can be turbulent and unpredictable. The island has no visitors center, no merchandise, no hotel, and no water, so you must be ready.
You can only visit the island if you have a permit, and if you go beyond the ranger station, you must be accompanied by a ranger. Because the island has initially been a bombing range, these restrictions protect the island and its inhabitants.
After all, how often do you have the chance to go to a distant island far from civilization?
Without a ranger, you may visit Cuyler Harbor Beach, Nidever Canyon, the Cabrillo Monument, and the Lester Ranch site, and the hiking paths take you through spectacular landscapes. Also, you can go on a guided excursion to Point Bennett or the caliche forest with the rangers.
While this is definitely one of the “rougher” California islands to visit, the nature is truly incredible.
4. Santa Rosa Island
A one-day journey, a multi-day boat trip, or an overnight camping trip are all options for visiting Santa Rosa Island. However, getting to this island is more complicated, and the weather may be stormy at any time of year, with gusts of up to 30 knots not unusual. As a result, tourists must be ready for inclement weather.
Like all of the Channel Islands, Visiting Santa Rosa Island is a test of foresight and self-reliance.
Hiking routes and guided walks enable you to discover the island’s varied environment, ranging from sandy beaches to alpine peaks. Water Canyon Beach, one of the most excellent beaches in the Channel Islands, is located here.
3. Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz Island is the ideal location for a one-day or overnight camping vacation, depending on the length of your stay.
Like any Channel Island, Visits to Santa Cruz Island need planning and self-reliance. Once you’ve landed on the islands, you’re stuck with the consequences of lousy preparation since there are no services available.
Santa Cruz Island is your best pick if you’re seeking a vacation destination with a lot to do. Learn about the island’s flora and fauna at the visitor’s center, enjoy a breathtaking trek, or visit Scorpion Beach for some of the best swimming, diving, snorkeling, and kayaking you’ll ever experience.
2. San Clemente Island
As the smallest of the eight Channel Islands in California, San Clemente Island ranks as the fourth-largest in terms of area. It has a 56-square-mile land area, 21 miles in length, and a width of two to four miles.
The Island of Santa Catalina lies 21 miles north. The island, which is 41 miles off the coast, is the second closest to the mainland in the distance. The island’s highest peak is Mount Thirst, at 1965 feet.
California Channel Islands include San Clemente Island, located in Los Angeles County, one of three Navy-owned islands in this grouping. Two outlying rocks are Bird Rock and Castle Rock at the northern tip.
San Clemente Island is home to rare and endangered species, some of which are endemic. For those who dare to snorkel and dive around the island, remember that certain portions of the island are exclusive to military personnel, including Navy Seals in training.
1. Farallon Island
Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge is a sprawling refuge covering 3,295 square miles off the northern and central California coasts. It’s a true maritime Eden, teeming with marine life on apparently inhospitable rocky outcrops and the water surrounding them. Gray, humpback, blue whales, and orcas make seasonal visits, while pods of porpoises, dolphins, sea lions and seals remain year-round.
More life exists in or near the magnificent Farallon Islands, which rise out of the water 30 miles west of San Francisco. Sea lions and seals live here, and the sky has several seabirds. The refuge preserves the contiguous United States’ most significant seabird rookery, home to tufted puffins, rhinoceros auklets, and pigeon guillemots.
While this natural aquatic world is remote, it is not inaccessible. From May to November, the Oceanic Society offers full-day guided cruises to the Farallon Islands, with trained naturalists providing color commentary and assisting you spotting wildlife. Scheduled tours leave from the San Francisco shoreline and Sausalito, a municipality in Marin County.
With so much life under the waters, it’s unsurprising that the ocean here also harbors excellent white sharks. From late September to November, Great White Adventures provides day excursions. In carefully prepared underwater shark cages, you can safely see white sharks in their natural habitat. While their elegance, indifference, and wine-cask-thick glides can give you the shivers, their grace, and physical power are undeniable.
If you can’t make it to the Farallon Islands, check out the schedule of events at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
Hopefully, this gives you a good overview of the best islands in California! Whether you’re looking for a well-developed nightlife or more reserved California islands with lots of wildlife, these islands in California have it all.