Exploring Channel Islands National Park

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Looking west from the coast, it's easy to spot the Channel Islands, a run of eight mostly rocky sanctuaries floating out there in the Pacific. Santa Catalina, known to summertime tourists and roughly 4,000 year-round residents as Catalina Island, is easily the most well-traveled of the group. Avalon, the civic heart of the island, boasts thousands of campers, hotel sleepers, and day trippers every year, making it a very approachable (if sometimes crowded) introduction to the island chain.

Beyond Catalina, the other Channel islands remain relatively pristine destinations unto themselves. While San Nicolas and San Clemente are operated exclusively by the U.S. Navy, the remaining five (Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and Santa Barbara) make up the Channel Islands National Park. That means you can hike, camp, kayak, and swim along the nearly untouched coastlines that ring the five islands, all year round. Spring, with its rising temperatures, budding flora and migrating grey whales, offers the perfect opportunity to spend a few days among California's most pristine landscapes. Here's a quick guide to camping, hiking, and sightseeing throughout Channel Islands National Park.

Photo: cityprojectca/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Which Island To Choose

First things first, it's important to determine what sort of trip you're looking for. If you're just looking for a quick seascape adventure and some native wildlife, take the short boat ride to Anacapa Island. For a more rugged hiking and sightseeing day or camping excursion, opt for Santa Cruz Island instead. It's the largest island in the chain at over 96 square miles, and also features the highest peak, at over 2,000 feet. Farther off, Santa Rosa Island offers fewer camping opportunities than Santa Cruz, but features a wider variety of landscapes to explore. There are sheer cliffs and flat, unassuming beaches, as well as canyons and a grove of extremely rare Torrey pines.

San Miguel Island is the westernmost outpost in the entire park, and its isolated perch leaves it windswept and weather beaten. Still, the island's 27 miles of protected coastline harbors thousands of seals and sea lions, especially during their respective mating seasons. Many of the lovable, bellowing creatures can be seen on island's day long, ranger-guided 16-mile round trip hike to Point Bennett.

The final, and smallest, outcropping is Santa Barbara Island, which covers one square mile and rests well south of the rest of the park, where kayakers will rejoice in the easy waters and the plentiful caves that dot the island.

Photo: shankoolyahoocom/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Getting There

The National Parks Service does not operate transportation services to or from any of Channel Islands. Instead, you'll have to rely on Island Packers, a boating and excursion company based out of Ventura that's been doing island trips since 1968. There are semi-frequent routes to each of the five islands so it's imperative that you book well enough in advance to confirm a seat. Otherwise, you may miss your window to the island you were hoping to visit. Service runs year-round to Anacapa and Santa Cruz, while boats to the remaining three "outer islands" run during warmer months.

Trips to Anacapa, the closest island, drop you off on the east end of the volcanic rock of steep cliffs. Santa Cruz offers the most options, with two different drop-off points -- Prisoner's Harbor in the middle of the island, and Scorpion Anchorage to the east.

For the outlying islands, trips usually begin running in mid-April to Santa Rosa, then San Miguel in May, followed by Santa Barbara in June or July. For San Miguel travelers, there isn't a docking port; guests must transfer to inflatable rafts before landing in the sand at Cuyler Harbor. And regardless of how you get off the boat, the ride there is guaranteed to be choppy, misty, long, and rough. Anyone without a sea-faring stomach may want to stick to one of the more frequented islands or invest in some nausea-preventing wristbands.

Round-trip tickets to Channel Islands National Park begin at about $45. However, that price can quickly jump depending on the travel date and the island you'd like to visit. For example, San Miguel, the farthest island in the park (a three hour one-way ride), costs $105 and generally requires an overnight stay. The affiliated cost for weighing down the boat with all of that camping gear can also come as a first-time surprise, adding $30 to $40 extra for most itineraries.

Then again, if you'd like to eschew the choppy boat ride and the cascading fees, it's possible to charter a flight with Channel Islands Aviation to Santa Rosa. Flights leave daily from Santa Barbara and Camarillo, generally take about 25 minutes, and cost around $130 per person.

Photo: thepartycow/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Camping

All five of the islands that make up Channel Islands National Park offer primitive campsites, with Santa Cruz hosting the largest number at 31 sites. Santa Rosa comes in second with 15 sites, while the remaining islands each host ten sites or less. As a result, a reservation is required for any and all camping within the park. However, before procuring a camping permit, remember to check that there's a seat on a boat for you!

Since each of the islands is largely open to the elements (especially wind), wooden half-shelters have been erected at many of the park's campsites to protect tents and keep valuables in their place. Still, it's important to properly handle and dispose of all trash and other waste -- the park operates a strict "pack in, pack out" policy, as they lack the facilities and manpower to clean up after revelers. Remember, these islands represent some of the most biodiverse underwater ecosystems in the world, as well as several species of completely indigenous seabirds. Help the rangers keep the islands thriving.

There are some backcountry camping options for seriously advanced campers with proper equipment. On both Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa, limited backpacking is available with a permit. On Santa Cruz, the Del Norte site offers pit toilets, food storage, and a few picnic tables to any hearty hikers, but keep in mind the site is 12 miles inland from your dropping point. On Santa Rosa, limited beach camping is available from the end of August through December at a site some nine miles from the drop-off point, and -- while beautiful -- the site lacks any amenities.

It's also important to note that San Miguel, Santa Barbara, and Anacapa all lack potable water and shade trees of any kind. Any camping trip (not just backpacking) within the park will require a strenuous hike, ladder climb, or shin-screaming stair ascent. Pounds and pounds of weather-proofed camping gear and untold gallons of water can turn even a simple camping excursion on Anacapa into a back-breaker. Be prepared, know your limitations and what the park expects of you, pack well, and stay safe.

Photo: cityprojectca/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Exploring

The outdoor exploration options on the Channel Islands are almost limitless. Hikes range in difficulty and distance depending on the island and the desired itinerary, but they all offer a relatively untouched look at life on the rugged outposts. Download any available trail maps on the National Park Service website here. Whale and sea lion watching are in full effect for much of the year, much of which can be done from shore, or along designated coastal hiking routes.

While rugged, there are plenty of slices of walkable beachfront within the island chain as well. The most accessible can be found on Santa Rosa, particularly along Becher's Bay. However, the backcountry beaches and sand dunes that run to the eastern edges of the bay are closed from March through September to allow for bird nesting. For some seriously secluded white sand beaches, book a trip to San Miguel. The infrequent boat rides and isolated locale make it perfect for experiencing a quiet afternoon with your toes in the surf.

Kayaking is also a popular Channel Islands pastime, with the lush kelp beds acting as a haven for hundreds of species of animals and untold plant life. Along Santa Barbara island, there are breathtaking coves and inlets, perfect for paddling through or stopping off in for a quick break. However, as the southernmost island in the park, your opportunities to reach those inlets may be few and far between. Instead, try kayaking off the coast of Anacapa Island, where the jutting shoreline still offers amazing views as you float along with the waves. Santa Cruz Island is another alternative, with quieter bays and often calmer waters that may appeal to younger kayakers.

While coastal kayaking operations are certainly nothing new to Southern California, the expansiveness and proximity to nature afforded on a trip around the park is truly unrivaled. At any given time, you may find yourself floating silently as whales cascade farther off shore, or being led (keep your distance!) to the beach by a helpful sea lion. And don't let those kelp beds put you off; you can even snatch up a bite of the floating stuff for a briny, salty bite, sort of like a pickle.

Please note that equipment will not be provided on site, and must be brought along by kayakers, usually for an additional fee. If you don't own the necessary equipment, link up with one of the park's approved vendors for rental opportunities. It's also important to know the potential dangers of ocean kayaking around the Channel Islands, particularly for novices. With often rocky shorelines, blustery winds and choppy water, experiencing the outdoors requires diligence and intelligence. Be sure of your experience level and approach sea caves with the proper amount of caution.

For first-timers or small groups that may include children, there are near-daily guided hikes provided by the rangers that operate the park. These often include stops at the many tide pools that dot the island inlets, and can be a fun, informative, and safe way to spend a day exploring the park.

Finally, be sure to look (but don't feed) the islands' native kit fox population. The small, adorable creatures can be seen on hikes throughout the day on Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel, but will also not hesitate to tear open camping bags or scrounge around for unattended food items, so be mindful when setting up camp. The cute little fellas used to number in the many thousands, but as of late their numbers have dwindled significantly, due to ecosystem changes, which are currently rebounding. They are supremely resourceful animals, and have adapted so specifically to survival on the desolate islands that there are actually fox subspecies that exist only on individual islands and nowhere else in the world.

Photo: cityprojectca/Flickr/Creative Commons License

General Rules

No matter what, planning ahead for your Channel Islands National Park trip is absolutely essential. With harsh and fluctuating weather conditions, remote locations, lack of amenities, and infrequent return trips to the mainland, the park is no place for underprepared visitors. And because of the large number of moving parts (camping registrations, seasonal availabilities, charter trips), even a simple day hike can seem like a pain in the neck at first. That being said, the park's unspoiled beauty and desolate location off the Southern California coast make it a must-see for anyone truly interested in the history and beauty of the region.

Some campers may be disappointed to know that campfires are strictly forbidden on all of the islands. The lack of available fire services makes such exposed flames impossible to allow. It's also important to maintain a safe distance from cliff edges and use caution when climbing, hiking, or even scaling the stairs that lead away from the docks. Available medical supplies are extremely limited, as are the trained professionals that know how to properly use them.

It's unwise to interact with any marine life you may find, as these wild animals may not share your sense of lighthearted fun. The same goes for any birds or mice you may think it prudent to snatch up with your hands; it's likely they carry diseases and similarly bad attitudes.

More than anything, it's important to remember that the Channel Islands National Park is a living, breathing coastal ecosystem. Despite the sometimes harsh weather conditions and the lack of many public services, the park is also used by thousands of tourists, hikers, campers, and explorers every year, which means there are countless opportunities to trample and worsen the surrounding vegetation and native wildlife. If everyone does their part to respect the Channel Islands, the park will provide generations of unstalled beauty for thousands more visitors every year.

About the Author

Farley Elliott is a freelance food writer and comedian. He currently writes for KCET.org, SeriousEats.com, LAist.com, and L.A. Weekly. You can catch Farley doing comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Hollywood.
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