The Channel Islands have piqued my interest for over a decade as I look at Catalina Island (one of the 8 Channel Islands) from our Malibu pad. During the pandemic we discovered the lesser known idyllic Two Harbors on Catalina where a stay at rustic Banning House Lodge made me long for my tranquil New England homeland. But these other unfamiliar islands we yearned to explore offered no lodging, no restaurants, no zip lining, no modern comforts; only nature and camping.
Considered America’s least visited National Park, my curiosity to explore the Channel Islands also stemmed from my east coast sailor father who explored the Galapagos Islands twice and spent a year sailing around South America. He often mentioned his strong desire to visit this area due to its unique position offering biodiversity like nowhere else in the world. The marine sanctuary and park provide a refuge for sea life and due to the kelp forests, caves, clear water, and rich diversity of animals and plants, this is one of top scuba diving sites in world. However, experts say all you need is a mask and a snorkel since there are tons of fish in the first five to ten feet like the bright orange-red garibaldi.
From above, the 8 islands float like ribbons of dark rock off the coast of California and are home to over 2,000 species of animals and plants with about 145 found nowhere else on earth. The biodiversity is a result of isolation over thousands of years and mingling of warm and cold ocean currents. The Channel Islands get their name from the deep troughs that separate them from the mainland. Today, five of the islands and the waters within one nautical mile of each island are protected as Channel Islands National Park.
The closest island – Anacapa – is just an hourlong boat ride from Oxnard and is shaped like a 5-mile long spine of rock emerging from the ocean broken into 3 islets. We read seabirds abound with the largest brown pelican rookery in the United States. The Chumash called it Anyapakh or “mirage” because in 1853 a sidewheel steamer ran full speed into the rocks crashing and sinking. In 1912 the Coast Guard built a light beacon followed years later by a light station.
Less than an hour drive from home and about an hour boat ride to Anacapa or Santa Cruz islands, I wondered how we had not managed to come here earlier. Only accessible commercially by boat from Ventura/Oxnard or by plane from Camarillo, did this impede other travelers to not flock? Or was it the lack of luxury accommodations, the challenge of getting there, or just a lack of awareness?
The night before our venture to Anacapa Island, our boat with Island Packers (the official boat to get to the Channel Islands) leaving from the peaceful Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard was cancelled due to huge swells at the island landing. From our hotel base in Oxnard we soon had a new plan as we drove 11 miles north to Ventura Harbor to board a 50-person boat to Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the Channel Islands just 20 miles offshore.
As we pulled away from the harbor at 9 AM, our smiles stretched as dolphins rode our boat’s wake for a majority of the trip and we gleefully anticipated what was to come of this unfamiliar land. Passing Anacapa’s jagged bumps bursting from the ocean in the distance, we glided into the glistening cove near Scorpion Ranch at Santa Cruz Island where a steep jagged brown scruffy green dotted landscape greeted us. Brightly colored kayaks and a few snorkelers could be seen dockside.
After an orientation with a Park Ranger offering a guided hike, my husband and I decided to spend our day hiking the 5-mile loop from Scorpion Ranch to Potato Harbor by ourselves. Once off the docks we passed a little historical museum with ranch ruins, old farming equipment, and decided to head inland first. Grand-sized black crows with larger than normal beaks guarded the island from atop fig trees.
The rugged vertical climbing landscape seemed to be screaming for water as the entire hillside canyon views surrounding us was brown. It felt all too familiar as the land felt like most of the hikes we traipse in Malibu. Due to the drought, wildflowers were non-existent and there was evidence of dead once yellow blooming giant coreopsis along the higher elevations. Passing dried brown lonely grasslands and a few oil spurts from the ground, it was exciting to reach the rugged jaw-dropping coastline with bird poop rock islands popping from the ocean down below the steep cliffsides, where one wrong step would send you to your death.
The coastal scruff led us to a mesmerizing cliffhanging view perfect for a sandwich lunch break. The aquamarine cove looked like Greece as one white sailboat bobbed in contrast to the Mediterranean greenish-blue waters with its private sandy shoreline only accessible by boat or kayak. Santa Cruz Island is considered an example of what southern California looked like hundreds of years ago.
Twenty-two miles long and from two to six miles wide, a central valley splits the island with volcanic rock in the north and older sedimentary rock on the south. Imagine what life was like for the Chumash Indians who lived here for centuries before being owned privately by one family. For decades this island was a big sheep and cattle ranch before National Park Service ownership. Half of our return hike had us hugging the island’s bluffs making it a pleasurable return stopping at Cavern Point. I was hoping to see the island’s endemic cute cat-like fox and the scrub jay, but no such luck although the Channel Island’s fox was prevalent at dusk in Two Harbors, Catalina Island when we were there.
If we had more time and planned better, we would definitely have booked the kayak venture to Painted Cave, one of the largest sea caves in the world. A hundred feet wide, kayakers can explore the colorful cavern named for the various lichen and algae decorating its interior.
Home to Pacific grey whales in the winter and humpback, finback, blue, and orca whales in the summer, we didn’t witness those ocean masters (or sharks) but we did have a once-in-a-lifetime ocean encounter on our return trip as our boat cruised through 5-6 dolphin pods with thousands of frolicking dolphins swarming around our boat in each pod. The boat company even slowed down and made a circle so we could witness this amazing show for quite some time while unexpected pods teeming with endless dolphins continued.
Only twice before had I seen anything remotely similar in Baja California Sur off the coast of Loreto and La Paz in Mexico but this was unprecedented as numerous pods jumped all around us, rode our wake, and shimmied under our boat. My screams of joy could probably be heard from the mainland – reminding us that sometimes even the journey is just as exhilarating as the destination.
Tips for planning your trip
Reserve the boat trip and campsite (if you plan to stay over). The roundtrip ferry cost is about $60 per person but book in advance. There are toilets and a large campground near Scorpion Ranch and we heard #16-18 are great spots to camp in a forested area as well as 9, 3 and 1 (due to being close to the boat). Use the park’s website www.nps.gov/chis to help plan your visit.
Bring food with you. We picked up savory sandwiches and a breakfast burrito that morning from Honey Cup Coffeehouse and Creamery in the Channel Islands Harbor.
Water spouts are available but bring water with you and plan to take everything back with you as nothing can be left on the island. There are no garbage containers, thus whatever you bring must be brought back with you, even orange peels as not to mess with the pristine habitat.
Bring sunscreen and a windbreaker or sweatshirt for the boat.
Island Packers also provides island adventure services for camping, kayaking, whale watching, school field trips, sightseeing, and harbor cruises. A map is given so you can plot your hiking but a naturalist-led hike was available by a park ranger once on the island.
Since we didn’t book kayaks in advance, there happened to be only one spot available on the island with the organized couple hour kayak excursion part of Channel Islands Adventure Company (www.islandkayaking.com). Since we read part of the tour includes open ocean waters and caves where the water can jostle you back and forth, I would only recommend this venture for experienced kayakers.
If you wish to venture to more islands, Island Packers “shuttles” from Santa Cruz to other islands, mainly for campers for a minimal fee. They’re available from Scorpion Anchorage (East Santa Cruz Island) to Santa Rosa Island, as well as from Santa Rosa to Prisoners Harbor (Mid Santa Cruz Island). They also have them from San Miguel to Santa Rosa Island. Any of the shuttles need to coordinate with the island trip as Santa Rosa does not run daily. At this time, there are no shuttles from Santa Cruz Island to or from Anacapa Island.
The “Two Island Trip” departs approximately 2 dates a month (see under “special trips” on their website). This departs at 8:30 to Prisoners Harbor mid Santa Cruz Island for about 2 hours ashore and then land on Anacapa Island for 2 hours, returning to Ventura at 5:00 p.m.
Use Oxnard as your base
Stay at the affordable Hampton Inn by Hilton with room balconies overlooking the Channel Islands Harbor, a perfect spot for watching the sunset from your room and walking along the harbor waterways.
Get to know the fifth largest harbor in California in a gondola ride with Gondola Paradiso under bridges and through canals in the Channel Islands Harbor. Six people can fit in one boat and you can bring along wine or your favorite beverage for this hourlong experience.
Oxnard’s rich agricultural history allows fresh farm to table offerings at many of Oxnard’s family-owned restaurants. For a memorable dinner head to local favorite La Dolce Vita Ristorante in a Victorian home in Heritage Square where Italian and seafood reign supreme but we encourage you to sample the grilled onion soup and pumpkin ravioli.
The homes in this area were brought in around 1991 and turned into restaurants and businesses while preserving the architectural and historical uniqueness of turn of the century Oxnard. Sidle downstairs post-dinner to the 1901 Speakeasy Lounge for Prohibition-style cocktails with house-made infused liquors. Prices can’t be beat coming from LA. For casual seafood like fish and chips, clam chowder, fish tacos, and a raw bar, eat outside at Sea Fresh on the patio harborside.
In Downtown Oxnard, easily create your own Taco Trail as taco joints can be found on every block. Standouts included Pepe’s Mexican Food taqueria at the tip of the Channel Islands harbor and Tacos La Bonita for Vampiros, beef barbacoa atop griddled cheese in handmade deep-fried tortillas.
Wash the tacos down at a microbrewery like Casa Agria Specialty Ales known for their sours and hazy IPAs. Try the Coconut Guava Frutaleta and Porter with Ragamuffin Roast Coffee.
At Red Tandem Brewery sip a beer sampler with strawberry blond ale and at The Annex Food Hall, more suds await at Bottle and Pint Oxnard. However, save room to try a variety of exciting bites like Burnin Mouth chicken sandwiches, Silver Lake Ramen, Love Pho 805 boba tea, or a waffle desert on a stick from Don Waffly.
A different version of this article can be found soon on LA Travel Magazine print as well as Malibu Coast Lifestyle print/Conejo Valley Lifestyle print.