Article Overview: Things to Do in Channel Islands National Park
The Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Southern California offers an island escape like no other. This archipelago off the California coast boasts five unique islands teeming with wildlife, dramatic cliffs, and hidden sea caves.
Whether you crave heart-pounding hikes, serene kayaking journeys, or starry nights under the Milky Way, this “American Galapagos” has something for everyone. Channel Islands National Park camping allows you to pitch your tent under a canopy of stars and wake up to the soothing sounds of crashing waves.
I’ve spent many years exploring the different islands of this close-yet-so-remote park, and I hope my adventures can help you plan the trip of a lifetime.
Table of Contents: Things to do in Channel Islands National Park
Table of contents: Things to Do in Channel Islands National Park
- 5 Quick Things to Do Know about Channel Islands National Park
- Channel Islands National Park Map
- Channel Islands National Park Ferry
- Channel Islands National Park Things to Do
- 15. Camp On Any Island
- 14. Book a Whale Watching Tour
- 13. Scuba Dive the Kelp Forest
- 12. Ride the Surf
- 11. Paddle to Arch Rock Cove
- 10. See the Point Bennett Seals
- 9. Hike to Inspiration Point
- 8. Explore Painted Cave
- 7. Tour the Nature Conservancy Side of Santa Cruz Island
- 6. Savor a Snorkeling Tour
- 5. See the Rare Torrey Pine Tree
- 4. Seek Out Santa Rosa Island Canyons
- 3. Frolic at Frenchy’s Cove
- 2. Tackle Montañon Ridge View Trail
- 1. See It All on a Liveaboard Adventure
- Things You Can’t Do at Channel Islands National Park
- Best Time to Visit Channel Islands National Park
- List of Channel Islands National Park Things to Do
- Map of Channel Islands National Park Things to Do
5 Quick Things to Do Know about Channel Islands National Park
- Channel Islands National Park does not have an entrance fee. You will come out of pocket to take the ferry, bring a boat there, rent kayaks, or visit some museums close to the park.
- Two visitor centers sit 33 miles apart on the mainland. One is in Santa Barbara, the other in Ventura. Tours and ferries depart from Ventura or Oxnard, not Santa Barbara. Other visitor centers are on Anacapa, Santa Cruz, and Santa Barabara islands.
- Don’t rely on mobile phone service when you’re on the islands. Put your phone in airplane mode to avoid draining the battery. Bring a map and/or guidebook to help navigate.
- Camping requires a $15 per night fee, and reservations are required. Book your campsite up to six months in advance.
- Channel Islands National Park does not have shops, food, or drink on the islands. Potable water is only available at the campgrounds on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands. Bring absolutely everything you need to get through your trip.
Channel Islands National Park Map
I put together the map of Channel Islands National Park below to help you get a lay of the land. While the park admission is free, don’t let that be misleading – there are costs associated with certain amenities inside and near the park properties.
Even though about 300,000 people technically visit the park each year, two-thirds of those never enter the waters of the park or visit the islands. That goes to show how enjoyable the mainland activities are for visitors.
“What do you mean people don’t go to the islands??” I know, right? If the Pattiz Brother wouldn’t give me an odd look for doing so, I’d post a photo of the goofy grin on my face as I write this. The shoreline attractions, views, and beaches are so EPIC we need a new word for epic.
Santa Barbara Visitor’s Center
As noted above, two cities hold the key to visiting the islands. In Santa Barbara, the Outdoors Santa Barbara Visitor Center (OSBVC) teams up the National Park Service with the Los Padres National Forest Service, the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary, and the stunning city of Santa Barbara.
While the outdoor section of the park is free, touring the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum requires a ticket, which costs no more than $10, with kids 5 and younger getting in free.
I recommend stopping here for a tour so you can learn more about the history, ecology, and biology of the islands.
Take a look at the travel guide from our friends at Visit Santa Barbara and see the city is called America’s Riviera.
Ventura Visitor’s Center
The main gateway to the park sits in Ventura, where the Robert J. Lagomarsino Visitor Center at Channel Islands National Park offers maps, a movie about the park (<30 minutes), and ranger activities. A quick note about a ranger event – those might be on the islands or on the mainland, inside or outside, etc. That’s link above will show you the upcoming schedule.
The Ventura/Oxnard area holds more museums to explore that complement a trip to Channel Islands National Park. The Channel Islands Maritime Museum has just $10 admission, with under 18 getting in free. The United States Seabee Museum sits right around the corner near Naval CBC Port Hueneme.
TRAVEL TIP: We’ll talk about ferry service to the islands next, but this is the section of the park they depart from. If you’re coming from Los Angeles, you don’t HAVE to go to Santa Barbara.
One island with three islets fills the closest space to the mainland. Though considered one island, no direct connection exists between West Anacapa, Middle Anacapa, and West Anacapa Islands.
Boat access is the only way between them, and even then, the other two sections are usually closed to visitors due to the impressive bird populations and nesting seasons.
Anacapa Island comes with some practical and recreational pros and cons.
- The Climb to Island Access: The ferry takes you to East Anacapa, where you must climb a steel-rung ladder to reach the dock. From there, you face 157 steps to get to the access point at the top of the island.
- Lots of Birds Means Bird Poop: Put this in the “con” column unless you love birds. Some say this island is too small, brown, and boring – while being covered in bird poop.
- Wildflowers: Late winter and spring bring stunning wildflowers that stand out even 12 miles away on the coastline.
- The One Trail: Anacapa Island has just one trail, and it’s only two miles long, but the scenery is impressive.
- Water Activities: You can swim, kayak, snorkel or dive from the landing spot below the stairs. It’s a great place to explore, with dozens of sea caves around the edge of the island.
It’s important to note that no other access points exist on this cliff island. The only exception would be the rare time that a tour is open to West Anacapa if you have a boat of your own. The only landing spot is Frency’s Cove, where tidepooling, kayaking, and other water activities await.
As a lighthouse lover, I had to see the one here. Anacapa is one of the best things to do in Channel Islands National Park as a half-day or an easy day trip, but it’s the second smallest island – you can run out of things to do.
Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz Island, the crown jewel of Channel Islands National Park, offers a unique blend of adventure and intrigue. Sea caves, mountains, valleys, lush landscapes, and underwater mysteries make this an ideal stop for its versatility.
It might be the largest island in the mix, but just 24% of it belongs to the National Park Service. The Nature Conservancy takes charge of the rest. However, since Santa Cruz Island offers so many of the best things to do in Channel Islands National Park, lean heavily into this option.
About 90% of the visitors to the island choose one of the two docks on Santa Cruz Island, with Scorpion Anchorage accounting for 84% of those. Channel Islands Adventure Company awaits those who want a guided tour. The other head to the more remote Prisoners Harbor.
Santa Rosa Island
Only about 115 people make it to this island each year, likely due to the lack of services, rough seas, and intense weather. Since the island is one of the farthest from land, the wind and choppy seas can make boat rides brutal on your belly.
The pros of Santa Rosa Island come with the white sandy beaches and more challenging paddling waters for those with a lot of experience. Hikers love Santa Rosa for the trails that range from three miles to 16 miles, with a nice mix of easy to strenuous options.
That said, this island’s landscape leaves you breathless – canyons, waterfalls, beaches, secret beaches, big beaches, seals on beaches, pocket coves, and one of the rarest trees on Earth.
The cons are the (relentless) wind and the risks of paddling or swimming beyond your skill set. A perfect diving day is hard to come by here with the winds and rough seas.
In my opinion, Santa Rosa is one of the best camping spots in Channel Islands National Park – if you don’t mind the wind. For those who need accessibility, Santa Rosa does require climbing a short flight of stairs to get from the boat to the island.
NOTE: No plane services are authorized to land on Santa Rosa Island. The last service stopped in 2021. Unless an update comes after early 2024, any info stating there are flight options is outdated.
San Miguel Island
This outermost island of Channel Islands National Park ups the ante with a permit required to visit. You’ll also sign away liability while reviewing the ongoing hazards of wind, weather, and random unexploded bombs on the land, just to name a few.
The main reason to visit San Miguel Island is the
grueling exhilarating 16-mile trek to see the sea lions and seals. You can only do this hike with a ranger.
One winter storm can knock out access to the island or popular trails for months. If you can safely access this island, I highly recommend it.
Santa Barbara Island
The smallest island of Channel Islands National Park is also the most remote. Covering just one square mile in a triangular shape, Santa Barbara Island still manages to pack five miles of hiking trails on top of the cliff island. No trails are easy here.
Landing on this island means climbing a quarter of a mile trail up 400 feet through a series of long stairs.
NOTE: Due to pier damage at the only landing on the cliff island, ferries aren’t running here as of early 2024. The closure started in 2015, yet there’s no ETA for repairs.
Channel Islands National Park Ferry
We’ll touch on the ferry service to Channel Islands National Park in California quickly. Island Packers is the approved park vendor for the rides and the only boat tour service that can dock on the islands.
Island Packers offers a robust number of tours and rides, including day trips, camping schedules, and specialty cruises.
Here’s a quick tip for campers – you need a reservation for a campsite AND the ferry. To avoid bouncing back and forth, the Island Packers ferry to Channel Islands National Park makes it easy with the link to the campsite reservations on the camping ferry webpage.
Other tours are available from a variety of vendors that circle the islands but don’t come ashore. For example, whale-watching tours or diving tours pass the islands or stop in the waters offshore. That’s called a “Non-Landing Tour.”
Channel Islands National Park Things to Do
Before you fall in love with any of the activities available in the Channel Islands of California, check the park conditions. Atmospheric rivers in the winter, high winds, wildfires, and wildlife nesting seasons can lead to several closures at one time.
That’s just one reason I like to present things to do at national parks as a buffet, with no competition between activities. As a paddler, Channel Islands feels like my mothership. Divers could be set on the underground forest. Hikers want more than a two-mile easy trail, etc.
Find the Channel Island National Park things to do that suit your tastes, and then build a backup plan. Let’s get started!
15. Camp On Any Island
Channel Islands National Park camping offers incredible options from clifftops to near-the-beach locations. For those who don’t want to do a steep climb to get to the campsite, choose Scorpion Canyon on Santa Cruz Island or the Santa Rosa campsites.
Anacapa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara all include a steep grade on stairs or hills for at least one-quarter of a mile. San Miguel’s trek is a mile of grade. Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz are the only locations with potable water. Follow all the party size limits and regulations of the campsites at Channel Islands National Park.
Avoid Anacapa Island’s campsites from April through August due to the extensive presence of seabirds. That means a lot of noise, gag-inducing stinks, and large slabs of bird waste (guano).
Only Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands offer backcountry camping but trust me when I say it’s worth waiting for if you have the experience and tenacity. Be sure to follow the 7 Leave No Trace Principles while you’re there.
WILDLIFE WARNING: While you don’t need to worry about bears here, you face hungry mice and ravenous birds circling overhead. Use the lockers and bring rodent-proof containers. Zip your tent at all times. Santa Cruz campers need to lock that zipper because ravens and foxes have apparently figured out how to unzip things.
14. Book a Whale Watching Tour
Whale watching is one of the best things to do in Channel Islands National Park, especially since the season runs throughout most of the year.
- Gray whales migrate between December and April. Witness the awe-inspiring spectacle of the southbound migration, with hundreds of these gentle giants passing through the Channel Islands.
- Humpback whales journey from May through August. These acrobatic whales delight crowds with their breaches, tail slaps, and pectoral fin splashes.
- Between May and September, you might see blue whales – the largest animal alive. Fin whales are spotted during this time frame, too.
- Orca whales are most common in spring and summer, but the “killer whales” can be spotted throughout the year.
Most whale tour operators offer “guaranteed” sightings or your money back/another trip for free, so be sure you have that – just in case.
If you want to spot whales from the islands, plan to view them first thing in the morning before the winds kick up.
13. Scuba Dive the Kelp Forest
Another reason October and late fall are such a popular time here is because the weather and water are still warm while the ocean is calm. Diving is one of the best Channel Islands National Park things to do because of the ecological diversity and the massive kelp forests underwater.
These vibrant underwater jungles teem with life, with more than 1,000 species of flora and fauna. Swim through arches carved by the ocean, explore volcanic rock formations sculpted by time, and unveil hidden coves pulsating with life. Dive alongside playful dolphins, witness majestic sharks cruise by, and watch curious sea lions glide alongside you.
Kelp forests are more than just breathtaking sights spanning up to 100 feet in length. They provide vital habitat for species like the California spiny lobster, acting as underwater nurseries and protectors of shorelines.
More Dive Sites in Channel Islands National Park
One of the best aspects of diving at Channel Islands National Park comes with the biodiversity that ranges from walls that “rival Little Cayman” to shipwrecks to canyons and sea caves around each island. So many options await.
Johnson’s Lee on Santa Rosa Island offers one of the best (and safest) night diving spots. Some of the best colors underwater come from Wilson’s Rock. Visibility underwater can be as high as 60-100 feet on any given day.
12. Ride the Surf
If you don’t know who Jay Moriarity is, you might want to keep scrolling. If you get stoked to shred the gnar, keep reading.
Those with extensive surfing experience will find several hot spots at Channel Islands National Park. The only hiccup is that you’ll need a private boat to get there unless you want to add a long out-and-back hike on top of your surf time.
The forecast for swells comes out five days ahead of time. While local surf shops will be your best starting point, you have some beach options on Santa Cruz, San Miguel, and Santa Rosa islands. For winter and spring, look for north shore beaches and head for southern island shores in summer and fall.
This is not a beginner or intermediate experience-level activity.
11. Paddle to Arch Rock Cove
Paddling a kayak or SUP is one of the best Channel Islands National Park things to do, and the hottest spot is the iconic Arch Rock of Anapaca Island. You must plan kayaking out ahead of time, as there are no kayak rentals on the islands. Santa Cruz Island houses Channel Islands Adventure Company.
As a skilled kayaker, I’d strongly suggest you take a guided tour unless you are an elite paddler in your own right. The adventure company will make sure you’re paddling with the wind and will take the utmost precautions around sea caves.
If this were a countdown list, I’d put this at #1 – I would take this ride every day if I could.
10. See the Point Bennett Seals
The elusive and raw dangers of San Miguel Island make it that much more appealing to some, but the seals make the robust trip by land and sea worth it. Plus, there’s a mind-blowing fossilized forest here that looks like White Sands National Park and Petrified Forest had a baby forest.
In addition, fewer than 450 people step foot on this island each year. Remember, a permit waiving all liability is required to come here.
The boat stops at Culyer Harbor, which is a five-star views beach, to begin with, but getting here isn’t easy. It starts with a four-hour boat ride, where seeing whales along the way is a real possibility.
Point Bennet Hike Details
Rangers must be on the island for it to be legal to dock. Getting to the seals required a ranger-guided tour with potentially strong winds through 7 or so miles each way.
Never has training for a 15 mile hike been more worth it – this is just a world-class experience, especially if you love wildlife. Stops include:
- San Miguel Hill: The highest point of the island at 831 feet.
- Caliche Forest: Never since Petrified Forest National Park have I been so awe-struck with what once was and what is now there. The Caliche Forest is filled with calcified prehistoric vegetation, forming a “fossilized” landscape.
- Green Hill: You’ll arrive at Green Hill about halfway through the hike, standing 817 feet tall.
You’re a good couple of miles away from Point Bennet when you start to hear the barking, squealing, and offkey sounds of the pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, etc. – five species, at least). Rangers educate you on the research projects ongoing since the late 60s while you stare at thousands of pinnipeds. It’s a transformative experience.
9. Hike to Inspiration Point
The closest island and one of the easiest hikes of the lot makes up one of the Channel Islands National Park things to do with jaw-dropping views. Inspiration Point lives up to its name, even when fog rests over the landscape.
For those who aren’t paddling, you’ll want to spend extra time soaking in this view. The trail does a figure 8 loop, which barely runs two miles. In addition, you can pair it with the half-mile hike to the Anacapa Island Lighthouse for amazing views facing the coastline.
I strongly recommend wearing a hat here and a waterproof outer layer. The sheer number of birds dropping waste feels like a real-life version of Angry Birds.
8. Explore Painted Cave
Sea cave fans need to put this at the top of their Channel Islands National Park things to do list. Painted Cave is the largest in California, at least a quarter-mile deep. Iron deposits weave their magic, creating fiery oranges and deep reds alongside emerald-green lichen and algae. Pictures don’t do it justice.
Sunlight dances through its towering entrance, 160 feet high, illuminating an awe-inspiring spectacle. A mid-winter visit during the wettest months means a waterfall drops over the edge of Painted Cave’s ceiling.
Tour boats go into the cave as far as safely possible, and experienced kayakers can go in deeper. I’ll admit – Painted Cave is beautiful, but it’s dark and somewhat intimidating – like you’ve discovered a secret that wasn’t ready to be revealed.
The Chumash people revered this sacred site and called it “hax̓inu mupʰ nuwaštipa,” meaning “big painted cave.”
7. Tour the Nature Conservancy Side of Santa Cruz Island
Take note of the “Special Trips” offered by Island Packers. The destinations include Fry’s Harbor, Fraser Point, Cueva Valdez, and Willows Anchorage on the Santa Cruz Island access points overseen by the Nature Conservancy.
Another option is to get a private boating or kayaking permit, but you’ll need to respect the rules and limitations that come with different beaches and access areas.
On either side of Santa Cruz Island, guided tours help you learn the history, near extinction, and resurgence of the Santa Cruz Island Fox.
6. Savor a Snorkeling Tour
I’m going to dial it down a notch to talk about snorkeling now. Diving and surfing require a lot of experience, while snorkeling is a bit more tame while still getting great views of the kelp forests and underwater wonders.
I put this option further down in the article so it would make more sense when I tell you that you can snorkel at Painted Cave, Arch Rock, and Scorpion Anchorage. The best spots are on the islands of Santa Barbara, Anacapa and Santa Cruz. Wetsuits are strongly recommended in the cold Pacific waters.
Keep in mind that most snorkel tours will require you to have some experience using the gear. Don’t feel pressured to do an activity that you aren’t ready for – even I was nervous about paddling in the sea caves at Channel Islands National Park, and I’ve paddled Deer Island in Mazatlan.
5. See the Rare Torrey Pine Tree
The Torrey Pines Forest makes a great addition to your list of Channel Islands National Park things to do. These endemic pine trees can only be found in two locations worldwide: on the cool, fog-drenched slopes of Becher’s Bay on Santa Rosa Island and north of San Diego, California.
The trail options include a five-mile out and back along the coastline that will take you to the base of the pine forest. Add another 2.5 miles to do the loop.
Moreover, Santa Rosa Island is also the site of the oldest human skeleton remains found in America. Named the “Arlington Springs Man,” the bones date back 13,000 years. When you hike here, you are walking in the footsteps of significant human history.
4. Seek Out Santa Rosa Island Canyons
What’s the one thing we haven’t done on this list of Channel Islands National Park things to do? Walk through a canyon! Santa Rosa is home to the surreal Lobo Canyon (strenuous), the idyllic pocket beach at Cow Canyon (strenuous), and Water Canyon (easy), which leads you right to the highest point on the island at Soledad Peak (1,574 feet).
Santa Rosa also makes a great place to stay for a couple of days to explore the beach, canyons, summit, surfing, and other activities. On the other hand, campers should know that a three-day stay is usually required to match up your travel plans with the ferry schedule. As mentioned earlier, the biggest challenge here comes with the strong winds.
3. Frolic at Frenchy’s Cove
Frenchy’s Cove on West Anapaca Island provides a perfect tidepooling location, but you’ll likely have crowds for this no-so-secret spectacle. Here’s what you need to know:
- The cove is the only place on the island you’re allowed to visit. Even with that, it’s only open from November 1 through December 31.
- Ferry service is limited (but seasonally available). Book early, as the elusive nature of the spot makes it in high demand. Getting there by private boat is ideal.
- You’ll take an inflatable to get to the beach from your boat. Plan to get wet.
- The hiking is short, and it is easy to access different beach sections. Talk to your captain about the marine forest and winds for the ride there and the time on the island.
- No camping allowed.
As a backup during busy days, consider Cathedral Cove, which offers great sea cave exploration and 40-foot-tall cliffs.
2. Tackle Montañon Ridge View Trail
Montanon Ridge View Trail is one of the best things to do in Channel Islands National Park for those who like to hike to the highest point possible. The peak is at 1,808 feet, and it’s a 10-mile roundtrip loop trek up and down some unmaintained trail sections to get there.
The system of trails on this side of Santa Cruz Island makes a loop, figure 8, or out and back, depending on your endurance. Highlights include Smuggler’s Cove, walking the ridge, and a scenic view of Potato Harbor.
You can see in the map above that you can take shorter routes to Smuggler’s Cove (7.7 miles out and back) or Potato Harbor (5.2 miles out and back). Between Smuggler’s Cover and Scorpion Anchorage, a side trail leads to the vista at San Pedro Point. That will add four miles to any route.
It’s important to note that Montanon isn’t the highest peak in the park. That honor belongs to Devil’s Peak (2,434 feet) on the Nature Conservancy land. Even if you get access to that part of Santa Cruz Island, you can’t go inland where the peak is located.
1. See It All on a Liveaboard Adventure
The biggest challenge with Channel Islands National Park things to do is trying to fit it all into one trip. Stop chasing ferry times, watching your water bottle with panic, and peak crowds at pre-set locations with a live-aboard boat adventure.
You didn’t come this far only to come this far, so spend five nights with someone else steering the ship while you captain your own Channel Island National Park destiny. Open up options to hidden coves, secret sea caves, and delightful dive spots.
Boat options range in size from small families to large groups. If boating is your favorite thing, consider chartering your own to explore the islands. Private boats are allowed on the islands; just be sure to review the requirements and guidance.
Things You Can’t Do at Channel Islands National Park
It’s worth reviewing the safety guidance from the park. Keep in mind that these rules could be park-specific, state laws, federal laws, or environmental laws.
- Plastic Bag Ban: No plastic bags are allowed on the islands or any section of the state park.
- No Personal Watercraft: Don’t bring jet skis or similar watercraft if you’re coming by personal boat.
- No Campfires: The only accepted heat source is a campstove.
- No Marine Preserve Fishing: The islands have many protected marine areas. No fish is allowed.
- No Bicycles: To protect the ecosystem, bicycles are not allowed at Channel Islands National Park.
- Carry In, Carry Out: All trash must be packed out and taken with you back on the ferry.
- Leave Nature Items Alone: You cannot take any plants, flowers, wildlife, rocks, fossils, or shells found at the park. Take pictures, and leave only footprints.
LEAVE NO TRACE: You can learn more about how to be a good environmental steward by following the 7 Leave No Trace Principles.
Best Time to Visit Channel Islands National Park
The busiest months are July, June, August, September, and May (in that order). The least visited months are January, December, and February (again, in that order).
The Channel Islands National Park weather is critical to track before and during your visit. Temperatures stay consistent throughout the year, with highs in the 60s and lows in the 50s. Summer learns to the upper 60s during the day while winter days dip into the 50s with some mid-to-upper 40s at night. That said, each season brings its own spunk.
- Spring: Expect gentle breezes in the mornings that transform into robust afternoon winds. While rainfall increases compared to summer and fall, the islands still bathe in plenty of sunshine. Fall is the best season for wildflowers in Channel Islands National Park.
- Summer: The sun reigns supreme, banishing most rain clouds. Indulge in the calmest winds and seas of the year, making it perfect for water activities like swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking. Ocean temperatures reach their peak. Summer is the ideal season for paddling and snorkeling at Channel Islands National Park.
- Fall: Rainfall increases compared to summer but still pales in comparison to winter. The calmness of summer lingers, offering tranquil island exploration. Ocean temperatures remain pleasant, hovering in the low 70s. Fall is the best season to enjoy the islands without as many crowds while still getting pleasant weather.
- Winter: Brace yourself for the season’s highest rainfall, as storms bring life-giving water to the island ecosystem. Strong winds and rough seas become more frequent. Ocean temperatures dip to the mid-50s. Winter is the best time to see Gray Whales migrating at Channel Islands National Park.
List of Channel Islands National Park Things to Do
- Liveaboard Boat Adventure
- Montanon Ridge View Trail
- Frenchy’s Cove
- Santa Rosa Island Canyons
- Rare Torrey Pine Forest
- Nature Conservancy on Santa Cruz Islands
- Painted Cave
- Inspiration Point
- Point Bennett Seals
- Arch Rock Cove
- Kelp Forests
- Whale Watching Tour
- Camping Trip on the Island of Your Choice
Map of Channel Islands National Park Things to Do
Pin Things to Do in Channel Islands National Park
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