California’s diverse islands

Although California is best known for its pristine beaches and snow-packed skier mountains, the state’s islands are also well travelled.

“Unlike some of the world’s islands, most of California’s islands are near major metropolitan areas, making them accessible to visitors without compromising the feeling of getting away from it all,” said Executive Director Caroline Beteta of the California Travel and Tourism Commission (CTTC). “Each island is its own unique destination. Travelers can expect to find a variety of terrain, foliage and wildlife, as well as many amenities.”

Santa Catalina Island is located 22 miles off the coast of Southern California in the Los Angeles County Region and is reached by boat in under an hour and just 15 minutes by air. This island resort destination offers a wide variety of recreational activities, including snorkeling, kayaking, swimming, fishing, horseback riding, camping and golfing. Visitors can also stroll through Avalon’s quaint shops and restaurants. The island’s Avalon Casino is a fine example of Art Deco. Visitors can tour this nostalgic venue, imagining wh it must have been like to dance to the Big Bands of the 1930s. Travelers will also see stunning plant life and animals, including buffalo. The island’s other primary commercial core, Two Harbors, was where Mutiny on the Bounty was filmed in the 1930s.

One of the Golden State’s most visited islands is Alcatraz, which is located in the San Francisco Bay Area Region and about a mile from the shore. This former federal prison known as “The Rock” is a world unto itself. Isolation was the theme here for many years until 1963 when the last of the prisoners were transferred to other institutions and the National Park Service opened it to the public. Today more than 1.35 million visitors come to the island annually. Tours run daily from nearby Fisherman’s Wharf.

Also reached by ferry from Fisherman’s Wharf is Angel Island, considered the “Ellis Island of the West” from 1910 to 1940. More than 175,000 Chinese, Russian, Japanese and other Pacific Rim immigrants first set foot on U.S. soil here. Today travelers can visit the island’s former military installations, hike its many trails, rent a bike or tour the area by ocean kayak. Treasure Island may be the hidden jewel of the Bay Area. More than 29 million cubic yards of sand and gravel were dredged from the San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River to create this island, which was the site of California’s last World Fair in 1939. The views of downtown San Francisco and the Art Deco-style architecture remain a big draw. Access by car or public transit is best for viewing.

Vallejo’s Mare Island was the first permanent United States naval installation on the West Coast, playing a vital role in California history. More than 500 ships, including nuclear submarines, were built at Mare Island during its 142 years of service, which are now available for tours. Brooks Island, located off the Richmond Inner Harbor, is a 373-acre island originally inhabited by Native Americans. The area’s burial sites are up to 2,500 years old and are considered archaeological treasures. Guided group tours are available. Visitors must supply their own boat transportation to the island and safety equipment.

The Channel Islands National Park, located off Santa Barbara and the Central Coast Region, consists of five of the eight Channel Islands. This nature-lover’s paradise attracts more than 30,000 visitors each year. Many travelers enjoy the islands’ sea caves, cliffs, abundant wildlife and marine mammals, such as dolphins, whales, seals and sea lions. The islands are made up of caves, arches and grottos, which were formed by submarine fissures and openings that created a unique blend of sights and sounds.

With sweeping views of downtown San Diego, a mile-long park and promenade lined with palm trees and five side-by-side hotels offering either marina or bay views, Shelter Island, part of the San Diego County Region, offers visitors an intimate island experience. Guests at the island’s hotels are provided with courtesy transportation to and from the San Diego International Airport just three miles away. As the center of San Diego’s yachting industry, Shelter Island is accented with colorful yachts anchored in marinas and sheltering coves. Summer travelers enjoy musical performances at Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay, a popular outdoor venue.

Coronado Island, located directly across the bay from downtown San Diego, is also an ideal vacation destination. Continually recognized for its expansive white beaches, Coronado was recently voted the number two beach in the United States and the number one family beach by the Travel Channel. The weather is temperate, and from mid-April through late September the water is warm and the surf mild. The sand appears to sparkle, which is actually the presence of the mineral Mica, also known as sugar sand. Lifeguards are on duty seasonally at area beaches.

Fannette Island is the only island to be found in Lake Tahoe, which is part of the High Sierra Region. The small, rocky island rises 150 feet out of the waters of Emerald Bay and is believed to be a remnant of the glacial action that created the bay. Sitting upon the island is the Tea House, a now-crumbling stone structure that was constructed in 1928. Guests of the expansive Vikingsholm Estate (on the shores of the mainland) would motorboat to the Tea House for afternoon tea and refreshments. There is no camping on Fannette Island, which is closed February 1 through June 15 to protect nesting Canadian Geese, but boaters and kayakers can visit and meander the tiny island through summer and fall months.

Negit and Paoha Islands in the middle of Mono Lake, located on the eastern side of California’s Sierra Nevada Range, are home to millions of shore birds. The islands are the remnants of ancient volcanoes. Their isolation, combined with trillions of brine fish living in Mono Lake, provides an ideal stopping place for migratory and nesting seabirds. Bird watching is available via kayaks or naturalist-led canoe trips offered from Navy Beach by the Mono Lake Committee on summer weekends.

Newport Harbor in Newport Beach, part of the Orange County Region, is home to seven islands. The most famous of these is Balboa Island, a man-made island that was dredged and filled prior to World War I. Visitors can drive across a bridge or take an auto ferry to the island to shop the quaint Marine Avenue or indulge in a popular island treat, “the Balboa Bar”, a chocolate-dipped ice cream concoction. Over the years, residents of Balboa Island have included Humphrey Bogart, Shirley Temple, James Cagney, Mae West and John Wayne. For an adventurous escape, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, comes to life on Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland in Anaheim. Hop on a log raft across the Rivers of America to a fun-filled playground of caves, escape tunnels, secret passages and swaying bridges that entice island explorers of all ages.

Slaughter and Ski islands on Shasta Lake, part of the Shasta Cascade Region, attract a different kind of water bird — the kind that rides water skis, wakeboards, high-speed bass fishing boats and water towables (oversized inner tubes towed by speed boats). Rising waters from the Sacramento and McCloud Rivers created both islands after Shasta Dam was constructed and the lake was formed. Ski got its name from the water skiers who stop there to picnic, while Slaughter was the location of a slaughterhouse before Shasta Dam was built. Camping is available on both islands, but most visitors prefer the luxuries of Shasta Lake houseboats seen tied up along coves on the islands’ shores.

In the North Coast Region, Woodley Island is a short drive from Eureka by way of Samoa Bridge. Much of the island is protected habitat, and bird watchers come to catch glimpses of godwits, pelicans, grebes, loons and egrets. Great blue heron can also be frequently seen stalking the shoreline and the boat docks searching for food. At the Woodley Island Marina, visitors can learn to sail or kayak, watch fishing boats come and go, buy fresh fish and crab right off the dock, and view the original Table Bluff Lighthouse which was moved to the island in 1987.

The CTTC is a non-profit organization with a mission to develop and maintain marketing programs – in partnership with the state’s travel industry – that keep California top-of-mind as a premier travel destination. California is currently the number one travel destination in the country. According to the CTTC, travel and tourism expenditures total $82.5 billion annually in California, support jobs for nearly 900,000 Californians and generate $5.2 billion in state and local tax revenues. For more information about the CTTC and for a free California vacation packet, go to or call 800-862-2543 (domestic) or 916-444-4429 (international).