The Channel Islands National Park is the California Central Coast’s back yard with a total of eight islands, four of which border Ventura and Santa Barbara: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel. Though they look far away, these are great day trips to get you to unspoiled terrain and a place where life is pretty much how it was a hundred years ago, or rather a thousand years ago.
For over 30 years the Channel Islands National Park and its waters have been federally protected. Long before that they were ranch lands with cattle, sheep, and even a working winery. Even longer before that the Chumash Indians called the Channel Islands National Park home as far back as 13,000 years ago. Day trips or multi-day trips leaving Ventura and Santa Barbara harbors allow you to hike, kayak, snorkel, camp, and scuba at the islands. Anacapa is a mere 12 miles from Ventura Harbor and though Anacapa, Santa Cruz and to a lesser degree Santa Rosa can be done as day trips, only Santa Cruz and Anacapa are available year round. I have visited Santa Cruz, Anacapa and Santa Rosa; sailed to them many times, hiked them, kayaked at them and been scuba diving at all three, and there is always the wonderful feeling that these islands are some of the last vestiges of pristine and unadulterated life on the West Coast.
Channel Islands National Park Visitors Center
At the Channel Islands visitor center in the Ventura Harbor there are cool 3-D maps of the islands, books and other info, even a Pygmy mammoth skeleton on display, as these guys used to roam the islands. There’s a touch tank with Garibaldi – the California state fish – starfish and other creatures and rangers offer tide pool talks at 11 AM and 3 PM with a feeding of the fish at 3 PM, which is great for kids. About 100,000 visitors go to the islands annually, and you should be among them.
Anacapa Island – Channel Islands National Park
Best known for Arch Rock this volcanic formation has become an indelible landmark of the island. The entrance to Anacapa Island is a small harbor where boats will anchor, and you climb a metal ladder to get to solid ground. There are sheer cliffs almost all the way around Anacapa Island.
Once on top, the vegetation is sparse and low and there are few trees. From the top you can clearly see the “spine” of Anacapa island – a stunning display of volcanic formations forming a chain of sub-islands that extends for five miles. Anacapa also has about 130 sea caves and is home to the largest brown pelican rookery in the U.S., a fact you’ll discover once you land as the stench is obvious in certain spots. An old lighthouse hugs the far end making for cool photo ops.
Santa Cruz Island – Channel Islands National Park
This is the largest of the islands, some 22 miles long and by far the most popular to visit because it is the most hospitable. You offload onto a short pier directly to shore, though shore landings at Scorpion Bay from a skiff are possible depending on conditions. You can pitch a tent, store your food in metal lockers and explore the varied terrain on foot, and visit the small museum, which talks about the flora and fauna of Santa Cruz island and its ranching history. There are trees here and old dried out creeks that speak of what once was former grasslands that are often barren depending on the winter rains. Being so far removed from the mainland, the cattle operations dwindled out in the 1920s. The elusive and nimble Channel Islands fox lives here and there are ravens, too. It’s also the only place in the world to see the endemic island scrub jay. Santa Cruz island is a large, vast piece of land and it’s best to visit the center of the island if possible, where the vegetation is thick, dense and nearly Jurassic Park-like in its appearance – you half expect to find some prehistoric animal calmly eating a tree. But exploring by kayak or boat, really gets you up close to the inherent beauty of the rock formations, the multi colored strata of the rock, the numerous coves and tiny secluded beaches that are still relatively unused and nearly devoid of human exposure. Seals and sea lions make their homes in some of these coves and the craggy rocks are home to oystercatchers, eagles, pelicans and plenty of animals that crave the security and tranquility of these pockets of land. Painted Cave is here too, a sea cave that extends into Santa Cruz island about a mile, which you can kayak into.
Santa Rosa Island – Channel Islands National Park
A bit more forlorn than Santa Cruz, on Santa Rosa there are undulating hills, low flat grass and some trees in the old ravines, but aside from that there is minimal shade. The steep cliffs prohibit landing just anywhere and boats drop at Bechers Bay with a small climb of stairs to get to terra firma. There are some beautiful unspoiled white sand beaches here, coastal lagoons and places you need to seek out that seem virtually untouched, as if no one has walked these shores before. The vistas from the top of some of the plateaus are both serene and beautiful with views to neighboring Santa Cruz Island and the California coastline in the distance.