It is hard to find a secluded area in Southern California to step away from civilization and commune with nature. But luckily for us, the Channel Islands are a short boat ride away with beautiful nature and great adventures.
The 8 islands making up the Channel Islands are only a few miles away from the coast of Southern California but they might as well worlds away. Those islands have never been connected to the mainland, so they have their own species of animals and plants.
During the ice ages, the sea level was much lower, so the channel between the islands and the mainland was much shallower. The Chumash natives used canoes to travel the short distance and live off the land and the sea.
Now, the islands are mostly uninhabited, except for Santa Catalina Island. (Read more here).
Interesting facts: The Channel Islands are often called the North America’s Galapagos for its unique wild life that can only be found on the island.
Five of those islands are now protected as part of the National Park. No private ownership is allowed and no development of any kind. Visitation to this national park is very low, so if go, you will definitely find the solitude you are looking for.
This archipelago offers many opportunities for nature lovers to hike, snorkel or canoe through some interesting caves.
Interesting facts: About 10% of the global blue whale population passes through the Channel Islands National Park each summer, making it home to the largest aggregation of blue whales in the world.
If you don’t own your own boat, then there are only two ways to get to this national park. The most common way is to hitch a boat ride with the “Island Packers” concessionaire from Ventura Harbor. The boats ride is between 1.5 to 2 hours – sometimes more. The Island Packers captains like to stop for wildlife along the way.
If you are so inclined, you can fly to the islands. “Channel Islands Aviation” will take on ½ day, full day, or overnight trips to Santa Rosa Island. This flight will cost you a minimum of $1200.
If you have your own boat, you can go exploring on your own. The national park site has special instructions for boaters. Read carefully before you go.
Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz is the largest island in the archipelago off the coast of California. It is about 22 miles long with a coastline that has steep cliffs, gigantic sea caves, coves, and sandy beaches. It is a haven for nature lovers with a lot of hiking trails, camping, kayaking, and snorkeling.
This island is home to animal species that can’t be found anywhere else in the world like Santa Cruz Island Horse, the Island Scrub-Jay, and the Santa Cruz Island Fox. The fox is very cute and prevalent everywhere you go on the island.
Interesting Facts: The weather at the islands is usually very mild with temperatures hovering in the 60 and 70, but they do get cold and hot spills, so check the weather ahead of your visit
There are 2 ways to get to the island by sea. Island Packers boats can moor at Scorpion Anchorage or at Prisoners Harbor. Each has a different character and chances for adventure.
Tip: After you disembark from the boat and after a short walk look for large metal lockers. It is important to leave any food and drinks in those lockers to prevent tampering by wildlife. Also it is convenient to keep your heavy stuff so won’t have to lug it around during your activities.
At Scorpion Anchorage, you can see the remnants of the ranching era, stay at Scorpion Ranch Campground, check out the exhibits at the visitors center or go on hikes to Potato Harbor or Cavern Point Loop or just relax at the beach.
Interesting Facts: Santa Cruz Island has one of the largest known sea caves in the world: Painted Cave.
At Prisoners Harbor, you can stay at Del Norte Camp – after a grueling 7-mile hike, or hike to Pelican Bay.
At each point, you can go on a ranger-guided hike for an introduction to the island and its flora and fauna.
During our visit in September, we disembarked at Scorpion Anchorage and went on the guided hike with a volunteer ranger.
Before the hike, we had to listen to some instructions about the island. We were reminded that it is a conservation effort so we are not allowed to take anything out. It is also important to remember to take our trash out with us.
Tip: There are no concessionaires on the island. Don’t expect to buy food or water. Make sure to bring enough for your stay. The one source of water at Scorpion campground is not reliable. It is often infested with Yellow Jackets.
After the mandatory lecture, we took off on the Cavern Point Loop hiking trail. The trail goes through the visitors center, campground, and up a steep incline to reach the cliffs overlooking some spectacular views.
This is considered a short hike – around 2 miles – but at times it gets very difficult. On the day of our hike, the weather was too hot. We needed lots of water a few stops before we reached the top. In the end, it was worth the effort.
From the top, you can see Ventura and Santa Barbara in the distance. Looking down you can see some sea caves and kelp forests.
Interesting Facts: Although the island is closest to the city of Ventura (20 miles), it is actually part of Santa Barbara County.
Heading back, we decided to continue the loop on our own. Most people in the group doubled back for an easier exit. The trail we took hugged the cliffs affording us much better views. The drawback was the steep steps we had to take down back to the visitors center.
Since we were heading back the same day, we didn’t have time to do another hike. We just spent some time eating lunch at a picnic table in the shade and lazing around on the beach until departure time.
Tip: The beach next to Scorpion Anchorage is very rocky. If you plan to wade into the surf you should wear water shoes or sandals.
During our next trip, we will probably camp out and venture deeper into the island. We will probably also join a kayaking guided tour through the caves.
The concessioner, Island Packers, has a booth close to the campground at which you can rent snorkels or kayaks or arrange a tour – but if you didn’t book in advance you might be out of luck. For information and reservations, you can go to Island Packers.
Other Islands in the National Park
There are 4 more islands to explore in this Galapagos of the North. Each has its own distinct character and opportunity for adventure. In the near future, I will be visiting Santa Barbara, Anacapa, San Miguel, and Santa Rosa island and writing about them. If you have been to those places, please send me your experiences and photos.