The island fox is one of many endemic species to be seen in Channel Islands National Park. // © 2016 Doug Mangum
Feature image (above): A view from Santa Cruz Island’s Pelican Bay Trail // © 2016 Chelsee Lowe
Composed of five islands off the coast of Southern California — Santa Cruz Island, Santa Rosa Island, San Miguel Island, Santa Barbara Island and Anacapa Island — and the waters that surround them, Channel Islands National Park (CINP) is home to some 150 endemic wildlife species, numerous sea caves and incredible kelp forests. Despite such features, it remains one of the least-visited national parks — a matter of access, surely, not lack of intrigue.
Unless you’re an expert sailor with a vessel of your own, a trip to the remote park requires boat or air transport, which can make the venture rather costly compared to a visit to one of the many drive-in, drive-out national parks. Most Channel Islands guests arrive via Island Packers, a family-owned concessionaire that operates out of Ventura Harbor. Since 1968, Island Packers has traversed the channel, carrying passengers to various piers in the park and collaborating with other local outfitters to get people hiking, kayaking, snorkeling and diving.
We spoke with two Island Packers staffers about how to best tackle this Southern California gem.
Visiting For the Day
A day trip to CINP should not be taken lightly. It takes more than one hour to arrive at the park via boat, and since the earliest Island Packers vessel leaves Ventura at 9 a.m. and the latest return voyage from the park departs around 3 p.m., explorers will only have between four or five hours to adventure around the island of their choice.
Cherryl Connally, co-owner of Island Packers, says that Anacapa is a great island to explore in that amount of time. This is where you’ll find Arch Rock, a 40-foot-tall natural bridge; seal and sea lion rookeries; and tremendous colonies of pelagic birds, including California Brown Pelicans and various species of sea gull. Birders will further delight in the probability of spotting blue- and brown-footed boobies and albatross. Easygoing hikers can try out the 1.5-mile loop trail to Inspiration Point, while others might snorkel or kayak into sea caves.
Another solid day trip choice is Santa Cruz Island, according to Andrea Mills, education coordinator for Island Packers. She recommends hiking the Pelican Trail, a lengthy path that cuts through land that is not within the national park , but the part of the island overseen by The Nature Conservancy. As such, hikers will trek with a Conservancy naturalist who can lend expert insight into the history, flora and fauna of the island.
Mills’ advice on how to best spot an island fox? Sit still for awhile. Sightings of island foxes commonly occur in picnic areas, too — just don’t feed them.
To experience the rugged nature of a particular island — and to see more of it — an overnight trip is the way to go. Connally says that Scorpion Cove on eastern Santa Cruz Island is a particularly popular place for camping. There are 12 miles of trails to access from here, plus a rock-and-sand beach and a visitors’ center. About 1 mile inland, campers will find lovely grounds in a eucalyptus forest, not to mention potable water. Campfires are not permitted here or anywhere else on the islands, but overnight guests are privy to an incredible star show come nightfall.
If crisscrossing an island is of interest, consider getting dropped off at Santa Cruz Island’s Prisoners Harbor, then heading 4 miles away from the beach to camp in the backcountry. The following morning, trek 9 miles to Scorpion Cove to replenish water, then stay another night or two here before returning to Ventura.
The Channel Islands are a great destination for sea-animal viewing. To cater to those who don’t mind staying on the ocean, Island Packers offers whale-watching trips that never dock on the islands. April through December, three-hour narrated tours explore around Anacapa or Santa Cruz, looking for sea lions, seals and island birds, plus the aforementioned Arch Rock. From the end of December through mid-April, cruising the Santa Barbara Channel usually means seeing gray whales and orcas. Humpback whales and blue whales make their way into these waters during the summer months.
If organizing sustenance for an island trip seems overwhelming — remember, there are no shops or eateries in the park —Channel Islands Provisioners (CIP), another park-approved concessionaire, can help. CIP chef Neal Rosenthal provides nutritious options for farm-to-table snacks and meals for day trips or overnight excursions, and his menu changes with the season. This winter, options include breakfast buns stuffed with organic eggs, applewood-smoked ham, spinach and mozzarella; a roasted sweet potato sandwich with Drake Family Farms goat cheese, basil pesto and pickled red onion; and a rice noodle salad with tofu, shiitake mushroom, Napa cabbage, daikon, carrots, peanuts, cilantro and mint. Day trip provisions begin at $32.95 per person, while fare for overnight trips starts at $79.95 per person.
Additionally, in adherence to national park standards, all CIP gear is reusable, from forks and spoons to fabric napkins. As there is no trash collection on the island, travelers should limit the amount of consumable things they bring, as that will require carrying garbage with them as they explore.
No matter what island you visit or what gear you bring, Island Packers’ Mills has an important reminder.
“Don’t try to cram too much into the day,” she said. “Keep it simple and focused so you get to relax and enjoy the park. Remember, as our national heritage, it will always be here. You can come back again and again for different experiences and adventures.”