For all my travels in California, one destination had eluded me, despite my efforts to see it: the un-inhabited Channel Islands National Park off of Ventura. On this road trip I finally made my way there and what a hidden gem I found.
I’d made a couple of attempts to head out to the Channel Islands National Park in the past, but was forced to cancel due to bad weather. Access to the islands is via boat, and if the sea is high it makes the hour-long crossing out of Ventura impossible.
Not this time. We boarded our Island Packers boat at 9am on a crystal clear, blue sky Saturday morning in October. Island Packers takes guests to the Channel Islands year-round, with the exception of those bad weather days. Aboard a comfortable and safe tour vessel, we joined about 100 other passengers. The boat provided both indoor and outdoor seating as well as rest rooms and concessions that included beer and coffee. A very friendly and informative crew was available throughout the cruise.
I was traveling with my 23 year-old son and my 32 year-old nephew. Both are California residents, but neither had ventured out to the islands before. My nephew, who is a travel writer and photographer, was really interested in checking it out.
The ride was lovely and we spotted lots of California sea lions along the way. My son was actually a little confused- he thought we were going to Catalina Island, which is actually the polar opposite of the Channel Islands.
Catalina, off the coast of Los Angeles is a resort island with lots of things to do: shopping, dining and recreation. Channel Islands are a nature preserve with no services except pit toilets so we carried our own water and lunch with us. If you go, bring everything you need and prepare to pack out anything you bring in, including all your trash. There are no trashcans on the islands.
Island Packers had recommended Santa Cruz Island when I made our reservation, given it was a first visit. Additional islands that are part of the National Park include Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Rosa and Santa Barbara. Santa Cruz is the largest of the islands and provides a variety of hiking options as well as beach access and camping.
Upon arrival on Santa Cruz Island we disembarked at Scorpion Anchorage (you can continue on to Prisoners Harbor) and were greeted by a National Parks Volunteer who gave some information about the park, where to go and some rules. Just to the left of the dock was a large kayak service operation. I hadn’t realized you could take guided kayak tours off the island. I will definitely plan to kayak next time.
But for this trip we were here to go hiking and enjoy the island. I was surprised at how barren and treeless it was, but beautiful all the same. Santa Cruz Island is co-managed by the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy. The Eastern side, where we were is National Park and you must stay within in the park boundaries while hiking. We decided to do the 3.5- mile hike out to Smugglers Cove. From the dock, we started up a long pretty steep hill and then along a ridge that scooted around the southeast side of the island and finally dropped down, down and down to a beautiful hidden beach aptly named. Here we found some shade for our lunch and enjoyed a rest and beach walk. The beach was covered with interesting rocks and shells and many beachcombing treasures. But beware! You cannot remove anything from the island, so enjoy but leave everything for the next guest to enjoy as well.
Leaving Smugglers Cove we had to climb back up to the top, and the sun was now hot and high in the sky. Finally reaching the ridge again we continued onto another trail that took us around into Scorpion Canyon in the middle of the east part of the island. It was lusher in this area, and also rockier and the dissent off the ridge was slow. We finally reached the canyon floor and headed east along a dry riverbed back towards the coastline. We hiked through the two camping areas on this part of the island, both nearly full of weekend tent campers enjoying the solitude of this remarkable place. If you plan to tent camp on the island, be sure and check out the Channel Islands National Park website first. And remember you need to carry in and carry out everything you might need.
We were hot and thirsty and exhausted when we made it back to the shoreline. We took off our shoes and cooled our sweaty feet in the wonderfully fresh Pacific Ocean. It felt great after all that climbing, on the dry dusty island. We sat on the beach and relaxed in the black sand and watched kids playing in the surf and other hikers napping after a long day. Soon it was time to return to the boat for our return trip to Ventura.
Boy did an ice-cold beer sound good so we headed to the concessions and ordered up a local “Island Brew”
IPA that really hit the spot. We took our seats outside where we could enjoy the scenery during today’s very calm crossing. Only a few minutes out into the bay my son spotted dolphins off the port hundreds, perhaps thousands of jumping and playful dolphins, surrounded side and soon us. The captain slowed the boat to a crawl and we spent a good 15 minutes just enjoying the remarkable experience of being in the middle of such a show. A natural wonder and a wonderful way to end a wonderful day.
I highly recommend a visit to the Channel Islands. I hope to go again, and check out some of the other islands and also kayaking. Learn more about Santa Cruz and the other islands here. Learn about Island Packers tour boat service and other services here