Once you cross the channel separating the archipelago from the mainland, you are already in a unique environment with steep cliffs, verdant valleys, and indigenous flora and fauna. The climate is also much cooler than the mainland.
The waters around the 5 protected islands are teaming with marine sea life and kelp forests with lots of caves carved into the cliff walls by the relentless ocean surf.
To go Kayaking in the national park you can either bring your own equipment or you can go with the only outfitter on the Island: Channel Islands Adventure Company.
Tip: If you are bringing your own Kayaks, make sure to reserve space for your equipment with Island Packers.
Channel Islands Adventure Company offers several Kayaking adventures and Snorkel rentals. We recently went on their “Discovery Sea Cave Kayak” tour and we had a blast. This tour takes place around Santa Cruz Island and starts at Scorpion Anchorage.
Tip: Before you go on any of the Kayaking tours, carefully read the instruction on the website and on your reservation confirmation.
The guides were very professional and friendly. After getting outfitted with floatation jackets, helmets, and water shoes we hiked to the launch location at the beach. The water wasn’t cold so we did not need wetsuits. They are available if you need them.
Tip: Make sure to leave enough time between your island arrival time and your tour start time to change into your swim attire and get outfitted with your gear.
The guides gave us detailed instructions on Kayaking, but being a newbie, I had a lot of questions. We practiced on dry land using the paddle, responding to hand signals, and jumping back on the kayak in case we flipped over. In retrospect, I think we needed more hands-on practice in the water.
Tip: The beach is very rocky so make sure to wear water shoes. If you didn’t bring any, you can borrow some from the outfitter, but there is no guarantee you will find your size.
We started paddling away from the beach towards our first cave. As soon as we left the protection of the harbor we started fighting the waves and the wind. The sea on that day was a little rough.
This cave is actually more like a tunnel. It cuts through the cliffs and opens up on the other end of the Island. This acted like a wind tunnel making entering the cave mouth more difficult - but we pushed through and made it to the other mouth. What a great feeling of accomplishment.
Tip: If you never kayaked before then remember: 1. Sit up straight – make sure you have good back support. 2. To get the best out of your paddles, the strength of your pull is not everything. The length of time you pull the paddle through the water is key. 3. When you paddle, make sure the concave side is sweeping through the water. Get some more tips at REI.
A few kayaks in our group were trailing way behind so the guides took turns towing them closer to the group.
Once everyone made it through the first cave, it was decision time. The winds kicked up and the seas became rougher, so the guides gave the group a choice: Head back or continue to the next cave. We all choose to continue.
Tip: There are no services on the island, so you have to bring your own water and food and take your trash out with you. The outfitter station provides some water so you can refill your canteens or water bottles.
The second cave wasn’t as dramatic. It was larger with a closed-end. We had fun paddling into it and admiring the view from inside. Afterward, we turned around and headed back to our launch point. Paddling back, the wind was on our backs speeding up our return to the shore.
Kayaking to and through the caves is great fun, but just being on the water paddling close to the cliffs and battling the waves is a wonderful experience.
Tip: you have to walk for some distance from the beach the outfitter station where you will hand the gear and change clothes. So make sure you have enough time to make it back to the boat. After our tour, we barely made it in time to board.
The tour took around 2 hours. By the time we got back to the beach, I was exhausted and every muscle was hurting, but I would do it again in a heartbeat. As a matter of fact, I am planning to go with the Adventure Company on their full day “Painted Cave Kayak Tour” – which includes breakfast, lunch, and Snorkeling.