Sitting just across the Santa Barbara Channel (for which they get their name) from the coast of Southern California, the Channel Islands are tantalizingly close – and yet a world away from Los Angeles life. Eight in total, only one seems to be a target for visitors. Catalina (made famous by the song, “Twenty-six miles across the sea / Santa Catalina is a-waiting for me”) and the party atmosphere of Avalon, the only full-time city on the islands, attracts locals and out-of-towners alike.
However, five other islands in the chain make up Channel Islands National Park. Visible from shore on a clear day, they beckon, and yet I had never made the trip… until now.
This is why you visit Channel Islands National Park.
The islands have been home to the ancestors of the modern-day Chumash tribe of Native Americans for millennia, but were “discovered” by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (of Cabrillo National Monument fame) in 1542, with their modern names being given by Spain later. Disease largely wiped out the native populations, and the islands were ceded to nobles as land grants. Some remained privately owned for centuries. Santa Cruz Island, the largest in the chain, was a sheep ranch owned by Justinian Caire until being purchased for conservation in the twentieth century.
The remains of the Justinian Caire ranch are on display at Scorpion Anchorage.
The importance of the islands as rookeries (the only brown pelican rookery in California is here), breeding grounds for marine mammals, and as isolated habitats with more than 60 endemic species was realized and protections were sought early in the 1900s. Two islands, Anacapa and Santa Barbara, were designated a national monument in 1938, with the other three islands (Santa Cruz, San Miguel, and Santa Rosa) being added in 1980 with the “upgrading” to a full national park.
An island fox, one of the more than 60 endemic species here.
Today, the islands are largely devoid of all aspects of modern society, with few motorized vehicles and little to no amenities. The only way to stay on the islands is to camp, but day trips are possible to several points, especially during the summer months.
The most common destination for day-trippers is Scorpion Anchorage, situated on the western edge of Santa Cruz Island. Ferries operate multiple times a day during the summer, the journey taking about an hour from Channel Islands Harbor in Ventura, California – also the home of the Park headquarters and Visitors Center. The ferry is also part of the fun of the trip, with sightings of sea lions, whales, and dolphins commonplace while crossing the channel.
The Santa Barbara Channel forms a deepwater trench just off the California coast, and mingling currents create an upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich waters coming down from the Arctic. These feed immense shoals of plankton and small fish, leading to larger predators gathering in number pretty much year-round, although whales are subject to migratory patterns. Our ferry captain spent about fifteen extra minutes hanging out with a large pod of common dolphins during our crossing, although we weren’t lucky enough to spot anything on the return trip.
Upon arrival, your ferry will be greeted by a ranger or volunteer naturalist who will explain the rules. The basics are as follows: don’t take anything from the island. Stay away from cliffs, and don’t throw rocks off them or you might hit a kayaker. Take all trash back off the island with you. Don’t leave anything lying around (even in a backpack) or the adorable island foxes – or ravens – will take it. For those who desire such a thing, the naturalist will then often lead an informational hike up to Cavern Point.
There isn’t a ton to actually do on Santa Cruz Island other than hike, kayak, or snorkel. I only hiked, a roughly six mile loop to Cavern Point on the group hike (it’s roughly 1.5 miles) and then down the coast to Potato Harbor before returning to Scorpion Anchorage. Were I to return, I would definitely kayak, as the coast near the anchorage is home to a ton of sea caves that can be explored, both as a tour and solo.
As there are no facilities on the island, you’ll need to bring your lunch. There are picnic tables around the campsites, but a pleasant rock shelf at Cavern Point made a perfect lunch spot! (Just remember to pack up your trash. There are no trash cans on the island.)
Taking the ferry as a day trip will leave you several hours on Santa Cruz Island to explore. Take your time, enjoy the solitude and the fresh ocean breezes, watch the seabirds circle, and remember that Channel Islands National Park is just a short trip from Los Angeles.
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