Editor’s Note: In this series, Off the Beaten Path, we’re telling the stories of outdoor guides and how they spend their time off, individually experiencing the very places they uncover for people every day. In this edition, we’re giving all the insights on how to get to California’s Channel Islands yourself and what to bring along for the trip.
What are the Channel Islands?
An archipelago of eight islands just off the coast of California constitute the Channel Islands. Only the five northernmost islands — Anacapa, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel — are part of Channel Islands National Park, established in 1980. (The other three, more southern, are San Clemente, San Nicolas and Santa Catalina.) The islands are close to the shoreline — you can see them from LA on a clear day — but you can only them by boat or, in some cases, a plane.
The islands are rugged, rimmed by steep sea cliffs and filled with grassy hillsides and rocky mountains. There are occasional stands of pine and oaks, but largely, the landscape is covered by grasses and wildflowers. Over 140 species are endemic to the islands. Onshore, the only mammal species are (very pesky) island foxes, skunks and deer mice; birds, reptiles and insects thrive. The sea also teems with life: many species of whales, dolphins, bountiful fish populations, plus sea lions, seals and dolphins.
The islands are almost entirely unpeopled and extremely undeveloped. This, combined with the difficulty of getting to them from the mainland, make them one of the least visited national parks. But visiting them can be done — and the rewards for a journey can be spectacular. It’s a prime — and recommended — place to reconnect. Here’s what you need to know.
How to Get There
Island Packers operates ferries to each of the islands; Channel Islands Aviation operates planes to Santa Rosa and San Miguel year-round, on demand. Boats run year-round to Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands (1-hour trip), April through November for Santa Rosa and San Miguel (3- and 4-hour trips, respectively), and spring through fall to Santa Barbara Island (4-hour trip).
What to Do
Anacapa Island, the nearest to shore, is beautiful but has no fresh water; primitive campsites, short hiking trails and minimal access to the ocean due to cliffs makes it a great spot for a day trip or short overnight stay. Similarly, there is no water, goods, or services on the more distant, relatively small islands of San Miguel, Santa Barbara, or Santa Rosa, making them best for a short visit. (Each does offer brilliant wildlife viewing, hiking, and ocean life.)
This makes Santa Cruz Island the most viable option for a prolonged stay. It is the largest island by far, at 60,000 acres, or roughly the size of Staten Island, with some 70 miles of coastline. More than half of its acreage is private land owned by the Nature Conservancy, but that still leaves plenty of area to explore on the eastern, National Park, side. Island Packers ferries operate 5-7 days of the week for drop-off and pickup. Scorpion Ranch campground, on its easternmost end, is the only place on any of the islands with drinking water and pit toilets; not to mention, the campground sits in a beautiful valley shaded by Eucalyptus trees. Nearby, Santa Barbara Adventure Company operates out of Scorpion Harbor, providing guides, gear, and tours for sea kayaking and snorkeling.
Both the Smugglers Cove trail (7.5 miles, out and back) and the Potato Harbor Trail (4.9 mile loop) begin and end near Scorpion Ranch campground, and lead through the interior and cliffs of the island for great views and wildlife viewing. Potato Harbor, on the northern side of the island, offers incredible sunset views; Smuggler’s Cove, on the southern side, is a great spot to explore.
Bring your own kayak and snorkel gear to explore the various kelp beds and over 250 sea caves along the island’s coast. Or, rent a guide and gear through Santa Barbara Adventure Company. The marine life off the coast is some of the most vibrant in the world—you’ll likely see fish of all kinds, sea lions, and maybe even dolphins and whales.
Rather than staying on the island, you can also outfit through SBAC to take a boat to the west side of the island and explore Painted Cave, the longest in North America, a cavernous delight on a kayak. Or, backcountry camp at Del Norte Campground, in the middle of the island, then hike back to Scorpion Ranch for more populated fun. (Just make sure you bring water—Del Norte doesn’t have any.)
What Gear to Bring
Because most of the Channel Islands are entirely undeveloped, you’ll need first to bring your own water and food (Can we recommend some Pad Thai?). It’s prettty essential, also, to note that Scorpion Ranch campground on Santa Cruz is the only place with potable water on the islands. For a day hike, be sure to dress in layers — temperatures swing wildly between chilly, windswept nights to blazing, cloudless days—and consider bringing along a down jacket, hat and gloves in the cooler months. Sturdy hiking boots and water shoes are a must. If you’re going in the water, don’t forget to bring or rent a wetsuit, since water temperatures are frigid three months out of the year. If you’re camping, don’t forget a lightweight stove — there are no open fires allowed on the island, so this won’t be an open-fire-grilling trip.
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