A Coastal Gem: Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park, comprised of five islands along the southern California coast, is only accessible by boat (a sixty-minute journey from the Ventura marina) or by helicopter. In 2015, the park logged 324,816 recreation visits, compared with more than four million visits each to parks like Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, and Yosemite National Parks. Like the Galapagos Islands, the seclusion and protection in the Channel Islands allows for species that exist in no other part of the world to thrive and become interdependent. Magnificent kelp forests shelter more than 1,000 species of animals and plants. Rocky reefs are prolific for eelgrass beds, and shelter small invertebrates, fish, and sharks. The park provides nesting and breeding grounds for 99% of California’s shorebirds and seabirds, and half of the world's population of ashy storm petrels and western gulls.

View from high atop Santa Cruz, in the distance the western part of Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa island. Photo by Amy Beth Wright.

View from high atop Santa Cruz, in the distance the western part of Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa island. Photo by Amy Beth Wright.

It is well worth the extra effort to get there. The Channel Islands formed off the coast of California due to combinations (over the last 20 million years) of plate tectonics, volcanic uplifts, and most recently, rising sea levels. Once connected to the California mainland, these islands now form a delicate marine ecosystem and shelter the most sea caves per square mile in the world.
 
The park is partially stewarded by The Nature Conservancy, in a unique partnership with the National Park Service; a similar arrangement is in place at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Strong City, Kansas. There are eight islands in the chain, however only five are part of the park. The Nature Conservancy owns and manages much of the largest island, Santa Cruz, in conjunction with the NPS.

The Island Adventure, our boat to Santa Cruz Island. Photo by Derek Wright.

The Island Adventure, our boat to Santa Cruz Island. Photo by Derek Wright.

Five islands, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara (the island, not the town), comprise the national park. Of these, Anacapa and Santa Cruz are the most popular and accessible. A concessionaire boat trip is the only way to get to these islands, operated by the venerable Island Packers boat company. They have been the primary concessionaire for several years, and have operated since the late 1960’s. You’ll want to make advance reservations, as boats can sell out months in advance, particularly during the summer.

The journey by boat is a treat; depending on which island you are visiting, the ride ranges from 45 minutes to 2.5 hours. Captains keep an eye out for whales, rays, seals and dolphins— we spied humpbacks (with tail splashes), gorgeous large sunfish, and two massive dolphin pods racing and jumping along side our boat. The views from the boat decks are satisfying, and food and refreshments are available for purchase. While there is no fee to visit Channel Islands National Park, round-trip boat fares were $60 per person when we visited. The visitors’ centers in Ventura and Santa Barbara have extensive displays, information, and images about the islands if you want to get a feel for the park and/or a stamp for your NPS Passport.

If you have limited time or budget, consider Anacapa Island your primary destination. There are hiking trails with expansive views of the Pacific and a historic lighthouse from the 1930’s, dramatically perched atop the cliffs of the island. Tours are sadly not available. The boat leaves four hours after arrival to Anacapa, which is enough time to enjoy a thorough exploration on foot. The number of birds here is remarkable, and if you’re lucky you’ll see seals sunning themselves on the beaches below the cliffs. There is a visitor contact center, but no running water on the island. You can camp overnight with a permit, though a friendly note about those birds…they’re persistent and loud.

Sea kyacks awaiting bold trips with the Santa Barbara Adventure Company, on Santa Cruz Island. Photo by Derek Wright.

Sea kyacks awaiting bold trips with the Santa Barbara Adventure Company, on Santa Cruz Island. Photo by Derek Wright.

To really immerse in the Channel Islands, the real adventure is in touring the sea caves via kayak. We toured with the Santa Barbara Adventure Company, and consider it “not to be missed,” although it did mean spending a bit more than we usually do for a park visit. There are several companies that offer sea cave tours on Santa Cruz Island, where one can find the most sea caves per square mile and the largest sea cave in the world. Our guides from the Santa Barbara Adventure Company were friendly and prepared. Prices vary depending on tour and length, typically ranging from $110-$150 per person, which includes all gear. Tour groups are kept small. Paddling on the ocean, and meandering in and out of massive sea caves with jewel-toned ceilings, is an unparalleled experience. Because it is so extraordinary and unique, we did not mind spending the extra money to make it happen!

There is also much good hiking to do on Santa Cruz once you finish your sea cave tour. You’ll have about two hours before the Island Packers ferries you back to the mainland, more than enough to take a quick hike to the top of the island, enjoy a picnic, or take a dip in the ocean. 

Camping is allowed on Santa Cruz, and is popular. Be mindful of foxes (the island fox is a unique species that was brought back from the brink of extinction in the 2000’s) and the crows. There is one designated campground which you must use, unless you have obtained a backcountry permit ahead of time. The website recreation.gov handles all camping reservations for the entire park—check ahead for availability. Pack extra food and water as weather conditions can change, and, though it’s a longshot, can affect transportation back to the mainland.

Santa Rosa and San Miguel are more remote, and Island Packers does not have daily service to them. They do offer a few trips per month; refer to their website for sailing schedules. It is also possible to fly to Santa Rosa; there is an airstrip on the island and 25-minute long charter flights by Channel Islands Aviation, departing from Camarillo Airport. The flight is $1,200 round trip and will seat up to eight people. It includes a driving tour. If seven others join you, that is only $70 more per person than Island Packers charges for the 2.5 hour boat ride.

Elephant Seals catch some rays on San Miguel, image courtesy NOAA.

Elephant Seals catch some rays on San Miguel, image courtesy NOAA.

Camping on Santa Rosa is also a great option, especially if you’ve come all that way, plus you can stay for up to 14 days if you wish!

San Miguel is the westernmost island, only accessible by boat service and popular with multi-day overnight campers—be sure to have reservations well ahead of time on recreation.gov, as there are only nine tent sites available. On San Miguel, the big attractions are the Caliche Forest, a series of petrified sand casts of ancient tree trunks, and Point Bennet, where enormous populations of seals and sea lions rest on the sand during the day and night. The National Park Service maintains staff on the island and restricted areas will require ranger escort if you wish to access. Contact the visitor center for more information if planning a trip to San Miguel. If you aren’t a camper but don’t mind spending most of the day on a boat, Island Packers offers one or two day trips per year to San Miguel in October when the sea is calmer.