If visiting Channel Islands National Park is not on your bucket list, it should be! With nine National Parks in the state of California, visitors are often tempted to explore some of the larger, easier to access parks. However, this one isn’t to be missed! Five remote islands off the coast of southern California make up the Channel Islands—San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa and Santa Barbara. Isolation from the mainland for thousands of years has created unique animals and plants found nowhere else on Earth.
Channel Islands is remote--there is no question. When on one of the islands, you feel far from civilization. However, Channel Islands National Park is not very difficult to get to despite its isolation. In fact, it is less than 30 miles off the coast of California and near literally millions of people. Ask any Californian living near L.A. whether they've visited, and they’ll likely know all about Santa Catalina Island and nothing about Channel Islands. While the park’s visitor centers get over 360,000 tourists per year, only 30,000 of those people travel out to the islands (another 60,000 experience the islands from the water). The park ranked 41 out of 59 in attendance in 2016; but, if you only considered those that visited the islands, it would be number 53! It is hard to believe that more people visit Wrangell-St. Elias National Park (in remote Alaska) than Channel Islands! Take the time to make your way out to the islands to experience the real magic. We are glad we took the day to visit Santa Cruz Island on our recent trip to California.
The mainland visitor centers in Ventura and Santa Barbara are readily accessible by car. However, you must take a boat or plane to get to the actual islands. Transportation to the Channel Islands is available year-round, but only by park concessionaire boats (Island Packers) and planes (Channel Islands Aviation ) or by private boat. Advanced planning is highly recommended, especially in the summer months. Once you get to the islands, be prepared to hike! There is no transportation on the islands—unless you have arranged for a kayak excursion. Once you get to the island, make sure you know what time the boat is scheduled to leave and how to get back. If you miss the boat, you’ll be in for a long night!
Due to the time of year (late February), our options were limited to Santa Cruz and Anacapa Islands. Island Packers makes trips out to those two islands in the winter months but only on certain days. Since we were looking to do a lot of hiking, we chose to visit Santa Cruz Island--the largest island at 22 miles long. Some prefer to visit in the summer months due to warmer temperatures and a wider range of activities, but late winter/spring visits bring rolling green hills and coreopsis blooms. Plus, winter visitors are often able to spy grey whales migrating south on the boat trip or from Cavern Point.
Our boat was scheduled to depart Ventura at 9 AM. We arrived early, signed in and spent some time in the Island Packers gift shop, where we picked up a couple of shirts for our family. If you hurry, you can make your way over to the Channel Islands National Park visitors center (about a 5-minute walk away). However, since they don’t open until 8:30, you’ll be cutting it close. We decided to skip the visitors center to be safe and used the time to apply sunscreen. If you choose to sit outside on the boat, you’ll need it, and there’s little shade on the island.
We boarded the boat and were underway shortly after 9 AM. The trip was a straight shot over to Scorpion Anchorage. We saw a few sea lions as we left the harbor. Within fifteen minutes, we came across a grey whale. The skipper slowed down and rotated the boat so that all on board could view the animal. This was the first of several whales we saw that day. As we continued our trip, a pod of dolphins caught up with our boat. Dozens of dolphins jumped and played near the bow and traveled with us for about ten minutes.
While we only paid for a trip to Santa Cruz Island, we ended up getting a mini-whale watching tour for free! The ride took about 75 minutes and was fairly calm although very breezy. Our oldest son was glad to have brought along his Sea-Bands, which helped to stave off any motion sickness. A school group headed out to the island had a few students who didn’t fare so well with the rocking motion. We stayed on the open upper deck the whole way out and enjoyed the ride and the views, while others stayed below and close to the rail! Either way, be prepared if you’ve never been on a boat before or have motion sickness. Sea-Bands and ginger treats, like Gin Gins, work well. Also, be sure to check the weather and bring extra layers because the boat ride can be chilly especially in the off-season.
When you get to the island, you exit the boat via a metal ladder. Depending on the tide, this can be quite a few steps. After crossing the bridge, setting food on land and being debriefed by crew, you are on your own. Be sure to use the bathrooms (pit-toilets) before heading off to hike since there are few on the island, and they are only found near campgrounds. From Scorpion Anchorage, there are essentially three paths you can take. Preferring to be on our own for most of the day, we headed straight inland for about 0.5 miles.
Near the picnic area, we came across our first island fox, an animal unique to the Channel Islands. These little guys left us alone but were fun to watch. We saw about ten fox throughout the day on various parts of the hike but most seemed to hang out around the picnic and campground areas.
Just before the campground, we turned right at the trail junction (west) and headed up Potato Harbor Road. The chalky white dirt road was easy to find but was unmarked and looked more like a hiking trail than a road. A steady climb up the trail yielded amazing views of the grassy canyon and eventually the ocean. Due to recent heavy rains, the hills were green and lush with grass and wildflowers--such a change from the typical Southern California experience of dry, brown vegetation.
At the top of the climb, we arrived at a junction overlooking the ocean where Potato Harbor Road met with the North Bluff Trail. This was the first time we encountered other people (a family of four) since leaving the boat launch. From the junction, we could see Cavern Point to the right, but we continued left along the cliffside trail to Potato Harbor. By the time we arrived at Potato Harbor, it was time for lunch. We sat down on the cliffside overlooking the harbor, took in the view and had the most memorable meal of our week-long trip in California. We challenge you to find a better place! (Note: there is no trail down to Potato Harbor.)
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After a relaxing lunch, we heard the large school group approaching and decided it was time to move on and let others enjoy the view. We made our way back to Scorpion Anchorage via the North Bluff Trail, which is a level path along the coastline. The path yields open ocean views the whole way and, on a clear day, you can see mainland California as well as Anacapa Island.
About halfway through our return hike, near Cavern Point, our 9 year-old son exclaimed, “Look! It’s a peregrine falcon!” As a side note, you must understand that Andrew has reported numerous peregrine falcon sightings in the past few years. He claims to have seen them on nearly every hike. Amazingly, when the other four of us see them, they look strikingly similar to turkey vultures, red-tail hawks and, purely by coincidence, ravens. You can imagine our surprise when we zoomed in with our camera and were able to confirm his sighting! This fascinating bird is known for being the fastest animal in the world, able to travel at speeds greater than 200 mph (320 km/h)! This sighting was a first for four of us, but Andrew was happy to add another one to his list. For some reason, he seemed a bit prouder of this sighting than his previous ones. Again, purely coincidence, I’m sure…
After stopping at Cavern Point, we finished our trek back to Scorpion Anchorage via a fairly steep descent. Our youngest slipped on the loose rocks but finished strong--only needing a cleaning and band-aid to repair the damage. After spending ten minutes in the small visitor center and chatting with the ranger, we visited the rocky beach near the anchorage to explore while waiting for the boat to return.
Our excursion to Potato Harbor, short picnic and return via the North Bluff Trail totaled about 5 miles and took nearly the entire time we had on the island. Most people arrived at the anchorage or rocky beach with a half hour to spare, but one couple barely made the boat. A park ranger located the missing couple rushing down a trail and the boat waited, but that isn’t always the case. Be back in time or the boat will leave without you!
The wind had picked up during the day and our boat ride back was choppy and cold. However, we all chose to remain on the open upper deck for the views and fresh air and huddled together. One more grey whale sighting and another pod of dolphins playing in the boat’s wake only briefly interrupted the trip. We made it back to Ventura before 5:30 PM.
Channel Islands National Park is as beautiful as it is sparse. Aside from a few pit-toilet bathrooms near the small ranger station and campgrounds, there isn’t much in the way of services. You should plan to bring everything you need with you--from water containers (there is a small filling station) to food and hand sanitizer. There are no restaurants or stores and running water is only available at Scorpion Anchorage. The park also has a carry-in/carry-out policy for trash. If you are going to stay overnight, you’ll need to have all your own food and camping supplies. However, the Island Packers staff will help load and unload all camp gear and allow campers to board the boat first. There did appear to be a helicopter landing area in case of extreme emergencies, but besides that you are on your own!
On the island, hiking is the main activity if you are there for the day. Other options include birdwatching, kayaking (which we hear is amazing, particularly in the summer and fall), snorkeling and camping. We wish we could have stayed longer. If we return, kayaking the sea caves will be on the top of our list!
In a sense, we’re happy that the millions of people only a short boat ride away haven’t ventured out to the islands. However, they are missing out and so are you if you’ve never been! Everyone in our family loved the trip, and we’ll never forget our visit to Santa Cruz Island. Go ahead and add Channel Islands National Park to your must-do list!
To download a .pdf copy of our 8-page itinerary to Channel Islands National Park’s Santa Cruz Island, which includes ideas on places to stay, reservations to make, a packing list, convenient map links and other sites to see while you are in Southern California, visit our product page at this link.
Download our NATIONAL PARK ROAD TRIP PLANNER and 5 GREAT ROAD TRIP ITINERARIES: