When I was a kid, if I had known that I could take a ferry to the Channel Islands from Southern California, I would have relentlessly pestered my parents to take me there. The story of Karana, a 19th century Native American girl marooned on the Island of the Blue Dolphins was my very favorite book. Living on a Channel Island with my wild dog, doing whatever I wanted, finding food in tide pools, collecting shells, hanging out with sea lions and hiding in caves from grownups sounded just about as good as a girl’s life could get.
So when I was offered a trip to the Channel Islands National Park, I couldn’t wait to set foot in my childhood paradise. And if you ever wanted to experience the windswept natural beauty of these islands, now’s the time: The National Park service has hopes of developing the islands into a larger tourist destination – think Catalina – in the future.
Part of my obsession with the Island of the Blue Dolphins is the fact that it was based on the true story of “Juana Maria.” Unfortunately, as the last of the Nicoleños, her life was not as great as my 10-year-old mind imagined. Juana Maria was left behind in 1935 when the rest of her tribe was removed from San Nicolas Island after being repeatedly attacked by Russian and Aleut fur traders. She survived 18 years alone on the island before a ship picked her up and brought her to the Santa Barbara Mission in 1853. Only weeks after her rescue, Juana Maria died from exposure to mainland germs.
The tragic and fascinating tale illuminates the human and natural history of the Channel Islands. Situated between 12 and 70 miles offshore from Ventura Harbor, five of the isles are open to visitors – Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, Anacapa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara. Juana Maria’s home, San Nicholas Island, is actually the property of the U.S. Navy and off limits to visitors (the Navy even shut down an archeologist’s operation to research the tale’s history in 2015 based on a request from mainland Native American tribes.)
The April day I headed for the islands was exactly the type of day I’d always envisioned Karana experiencing: drizzly, gray and dark. Arriving at the boat jetty in Ventura Harbor, Cherryl at Island Packers Cruises told us not to worry about the ugly weather. “The wind is calm and the sea is flat so it will be an easy ride.” And she was right: The only sudden lurch we experienced was when the captain slammed on the brakes to allow a crew member to grab a floating balloon to keep a sea creature from eating it.
The boat was packed with all manner of travelers – college spring breakers decked head to toe in Goretex and backpacks for a wet weekend of camping, European tourists, LA day trippers and a massive class of fifth graders on a field trip from a private school.
Our destination was Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the Channel Islands. A direct trip to Scorpion Anchorage typically takes less than 90 minutes. Today, however, the fifth graders had to be dropped off at Prisoner’s Landing which is located quite a bit farther east on the island. The extra ferry time allowed us to see a juvenile humpback whale having the time of his life playing in the bay. He smacked his flippers on the surface as he barrel rolled again and again, waved “goodbye” with his fluke and breached several times to the cheers of everyone on board.
It was noon by the time our skiffs arrived onshore at Scorpion. The rain had subsided but the skies remained dark. The small pier stood abandoned after being damaged by an El Niño storm earlier this year. The scene looked not too unlike one from the rural California coast, with an old ranch house standing back from the beach in a narrow valley of trees and wildflowers.
The surrounding hills are riddled with trails that make for good desolate wandering. The oceanfront cliffs are riddled with sea caves that make for good paddling. Some birders in our group were heading inland to look for the endemic island scrub jay but I wanted to find me a no-longer-endangered Channel Islands Fox – and I did! This little guy was wandering around near the beach, digging for bugs.
These native foxes are easy to spot. They’re a bit like an island version of squirrels: They’re house-cat sized, incredibly cute, not too afraid of people and always looking for food near the campground and picnic areas. Massive ravens worked the scene too, with beaks that can open backpack zippers and extricate snack foods in nothing flat.
Our weekday in April did not find Scorpion overrun with people but it certainly wasn’t empty. There were campers organizing their gear and other kayaking groups already lining the beach waiting to launch their boats. “This isn’t bad at all – summer is crazy!” said Christina, our kayaking guide from Santa Barbara Adventure Company. “There are multiple boats that arrive all day from the mainland. And the National Park Service is presenting a plan to build out more facilities here in the coming years…”
For now, there are no services at Scorpion aside from restrooms, a changing room and a small visitor center in part of the old ranch house. The campground is a mile long hike inland. But back in the early 1900s, Santa Cruz’ Pelican Bay was the filming location for dozens of Hollywood silent movies. Eaton’s Camp nearby served as a sort of glamping spot for actors, writers and other elite Angelenos until it shut down in the 1930s.
Because we were short on time, Christina took us directly to Santa Barbara Adventure’s setup area. We donned wetsuits, grabbed gear, picked boats and pushed off into the black, glassy Pacific on a tour of the west face of the cliffs. The water was so clear that we could see fish swimming and kelp floating underneath us. But Christina said El Nino’s warm waters had killed most of the giant kelp forest last year, “It used to be like paddling through kelp soup…”
We paddled along behind a hunting and grunting bull sea lion and headed toward the cliffs. I perfectly timed the waves (NOT) and deftly glided through a crack in the wall (NOT) to a sea cavern on the other side. Each ledge in the cliffs above was decorated with nesting sea birds. While most of the birds on Santa Cruz are migratory, nearby Anacapa Island serves as the nesting ground for most of California’s brown pelicans and an unbelievable number of Western gulls. Our guide urged us to stay back from the overhanging cliff walls because the birds tend to drop rocks on the heads of kayakers (though allegedly not on purpose.)
Heading around the next set of cliffs, we paddled into a sea cave that Christina said extended hundreds of feet into the black. “You need a headlamp to go farther in. It’s completely dark in there.” Relieved, I threw my boat in reverse and popped out into the cove just in time to see a rarely sighted osprey overhead. Later, a pair of harbor seals – mom and teenager maybe? – bobbed up, watched us go by, then swam with us all the way back to Scorpion.
According to Christina, this was a lucky day. “I haven’t seen that much wildlife on one trip in at least three months.” Indeed, I felt lucky to live out my childhood Island of the Blue Dolphins dream – even if for a few short hours – and equally lucky to be able to travel back to the mainland on a warm, dry boat.
Good to Know
Visiting the Channel Islands National Park Day trips to the islands are most easily booked through Island Packers or Santa Barbara Adventure Company (see below). If you’re like me, you might find a day trip provides precious few hours on the island and want to stay overnight. Camping reservations for a maximum of five nights are available through Recreation.gov. The NPS site has lots of details on what is involved in camping on the islands. You’ve gotta pack in all your gear and there is no shelter if the weather is ugly. Unplugging is a must and boredom is a possibility. “There’s pretty much nothing to do,” says Christina. “If you’re looking for excitement, the Channel Islands are not the best place to go.” Camping on the islands is not for everyone so be sure you are up for the challenge!
Pick an Island Unless you’ve got your own sailboat, island hopping isn’t possible. You need to pick an island and return to the mainland before you can visit the next one. Each island is quite different so visit the NPS web site for descriptions, photos and lots of ideas on what you can do on each one. Here’s a quick guide:
- Santa Cruz Island – At 24 miles long, Santa Cruz is the biggest island in California and offers a variety of spectacular hikes. Treks to Cavern Point or Potato Harbor are popular for the coastal views. The trip up to Montañon Ridge is a difficult one but rewards visitors with a 360-degree view of the entire Channel Island chain. Take one of the multi-mile, cross-island routes and you’ll likely not see anyone else the whole day. The population of island foxes makes camping here cuter. Santa Cruz is also popular with kayakers because it has a large number of sea caves, including one of the world’s largest – Painted Cave – that stands on the two-thirds of the island that is governed by The Nature Conservancy, not the National Park Service.
- Anacapa Island – Anacapa is the most popular Channel Island (actually three islets combined) for visitors. It is the site of California’s most-recently constructed lighthouse (lit in 1932), the home of innumerable seabirds and marine mammals, and the closest island to the mainland.
- Santa Rosa Island – It’s the second largest and most consistently windy of the islands but attracts day trip and overnight visitors with its white sand beaches. Santa Rosa made headlines this month when scientists announced the discovery of a fossilized pygmy mammoth skull in a stream bank on the island.
- San Miguel Island – After two years of Navy efforts to clear any remaining ordinance from the island, San Miguel is again open to visitors but hiking is possible only on marked trails with a guide. It is known for its otherworldly landscapes – like the Caliche Forest and giant coreopsis – and its own highly cute and endemic island fox.
- Santa Barbara Island – Because Santa Barbara is quite a bit farther south than the other four islands in the national park, boats here are infrequent. It is the closest island to Juana Maria’s San Nicholas, however. And its remote location means visitors often have the island’s five miles of hiking trails all to themselves.
Island Packers Cruises Hauling tourists to the Channel Islands since 1968, these folks know their stuff. Visit their web site for ideas of day trips to the islands, their current boat schedule, and rules about what you can bring on board. Adult daytrippers pay $59 for the return voyage to Santa Cruz while kids under 12 pay $41. Overnight campers pay slightly more – $79 -because of their gear. Their office in Ventura Harbor has a great sundry shop where you can buy just about anything you’ll need for your voyage and any souvenir you’ll need to remember it.
Santa Barbara Adventure Company These outfitters provide tourists a variety of outdoor experiences – from surf lessons to mountain bike rides to kayaking trips in the Channel Islands – manned by knowledgable and friendly guides. Be aware: You must book on-island activities in advance. Several visitors approached the kayak setup area at Scorpion asking to rent boats and found it was not possible. The trip I took was the Sea Cave trip which runs $179 per person for the day, including the return voyage on Island Packers as well as the guide and kayaking equipment ($162 for kids under 12.) During calm seas, the paddle is not difficult; teens and tweens should have no trouble and younger kids can ride with a parent.
When to Go If you can stand a bit of clouds, wind and rain, there really isn’t a bad time of year to visit the Channel Islands – this is Southern California, after all – but autumn weekends would be fantastic with good weather and low crowds. If you can swing a night or two of camping outside the summer season, you might have an island all to yourself.
Don’t Forget! Food and water! Island Packers serves food and drinks (including beer on tap for your return voyage) on board but there is no food on sale on any of the islands. You must also check in advance for sources of drinking water on your destination island and pack accordingly – especially for day hikes. For kayaking, you’ll want a dry bag, Keene- or Teva-style water sandals, a GoPro or waterproof housing for your camera (a Ziploc around a smart phone can do in a pinch), rain gear and Dramamine if the sea is rough.
Mainland Visitor’s Center The national park’s main Visitor’s Center is located at the end of the Ventura Harbor, a long walk past the Island Packer’s office and boat jetty. It is a nice small one but not a must-see if you are short on time.
Stay on the Beach Whether you stay on the islands for few hours or a few nights, consider recharging afterwards at the Embassy Suites at Mandalay Beach in Oxnard. It’s 15 minutes from Ventura Harbor, less expensive than Santa Barbara, friendlier than Malibu and more comfortable than camping at Carpinteria. Just hang a hard left before Ventura and you’ll drive straight into the dunes of Oxnard. The town is home to the Port Hueneme (“why-nee-me”) Naval Base but has been working on polishing up its image with Mandalay Beach. The Embassy Suites stands at the entrance to the harbor and offers a great SoCal beachfront experience at a reasonable price – especially offseason. The hotel offers bike rentals, onsite family-friendly restaurants and a resort-like pool area. You might want to stay quite a while…
Stay on the Harbor If you want to stay as close as possible to the Island Packers jetty, there is a Holiday Inn Express with a pleasant pool at the entry to Ventura Harbor.
Eat in Downtown Ventura – Upon your return from the islands, head away from the harbor for dinner. The San Buenaventura City Hall sits atop a hill overlooking several blocks of Ventura’s rejuvenated downtown, with streets ripe for walking, shopping and eating at local establishments. For a quick bite, locals recommend pub food at Social Tap, Thai at Rice on Main, coffee and gelato at Palermo’s, beachfront tacos at Beach House Fish Tacos and a NY slice at Tony’s Pizzaria – but there are dozens of other great options. If you’re into thrifting, Ventura and Oxnard are both renown for their well stocked second hand stores.
Visit Juana Maria’s Memorial – The Santa Barbara Mission’s visitor’s center is one of the only spots with information about Juana Maria’s life. You can also visit her grave in the mission cemetery. Her personal effects were donated to San Francisco’s Academy of Sciences but later destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.
Take the Train!? Who knew you could take a train from the Burbank Airport up the Californian coast? You can avoid the infamous traffic of the 101 freeway by simply walking across the street from the airport terminal (literally – it is less than 5 minutes away) and boarding the Amtrak Surfliner heading north. You can stop in the beach town of your choice – Oxnard, Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo – for a very reasonable fare (Oxnard is $19 one-way per person). It is completely possible to Uber or taxi around when you arrive – I found Ubers with no problem all over Oxnard and Ventura.
Sponsorship Disclosure My kayaking trip to Santa Cruz Island and my Amtrak Surfliner ticket were provided on a complimentary basis as part of the North American Travel Journalist Association’s conference. However, the recommendations and opinions in this article are offered as if I had paid the actual price of these activities myself. Taking the family to the Channel Islands is by no means a budget excursion. But if you have fond memories of reading Island of the Blue Dolphins and love California’s coast, wildlife and history, I’d recommend a trip to the Channel Islands National Park before I’d spend the same or more on a trip to Disneyland or Universal Studios (just don’t tell my kids 😉
by Maryann Jones Thompson, August 2016
© ROAM Family Travel 2016 – All rights reserved
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