A long weekend on the Channel Islands

I had been trying to make it to the Channel Islands since last December, but was stymied by the fires that were raging in the hills of Santa Barbara at the end of 2017. When a friend proposed a camping adventure over the long Labor Day Weekend (we had just planned to do a day trip originally), I was all aboard! We planned to camp on Santa Cruz Island, the largest Channel Island and the easiest to camp on.

A couple of logistics to keep in mind:

Booking the campsite:

Like all national parks, you have to be on your game via the recreation.gov website about 6 months in advance of when you want to stay in order to secure a campsite. There are some hacks to the system where if the weekend you want to book falls at the end of one month and the beginning of another, you can usually book the whole weekend when normally you would not be able to book those days in advance.

Transportation to the island:

In order to get to the Channel Islands, you either need to take a private ferry or charter your own yacht. Since most people don’t have access to the latter, it is important to book your tickets for the ferry in advance as it only runs a few times a day and can fill up. Island Packers is the designated outfitter for this.

Logistics:

  • Because of the way the reservations for campsites work on the island, it makes sense to get to Ventura or Santa Barbara the night before you camp.

  • Depending on how much weight you want to carry, pack like you are backpacking.

  • Bring snorkel gear if you are interested in taking advantage of the reefs! Otherwise, you can pay a big chunk of change to go snorkeling and kayaking with an on-island outfitter.

Packed and ready to camp on the Islands! This is gear for 4 people.

Saturday:

The boats leave early from the Ventura harbor! Make sure to pick up a parking permit to leave your vehicle in the Island Packers lot for a few days. Also, pack your bags so that no loose items are hanging off, as your bags are thrown under the boat while you sit above. All bags have to be weighed as well to make sure the boat has the capacity it needs for all the campers. Before you set sail, make sure you are equipped with anti-nausea medication - the ocean can be quite rough, as I learned the hard way!

Depending on how rough the seas are, the 30 mile boat ride can take between an hour and two hours. Along the way, you can see some of the other Channel Islands, like the islands of Santa Barbara and Anacapa. Also, there is much wildlife to enjoy such as harbor seals, sea lions, porpoises and dolphins. If you are lucky, you may even catch sight of a humpback whale!

When you arrive on the island, you have to form a line from the boat to carry everyone’s items off of the boat and onto the land. The dock is very narrow and there is no other simple way to get everyone’s belongings on and off the island!

Harbor on Santa Cruz Island, with Island Packers ferry in the background.

Once you are on solid ground, you get a nice debrief of the rules from the park ranger on-site. Normally I would want to zone out at this point but the tips I received about food storage (you have to protect yourself against the wild foxes!) and other activity tips were actually super helpful.

The walk to the campsites is only about half a mile (to Scorpion Canyon). Though we packed like we were backpacking, many folks had rolling coolers and tons of food, stoves, and a more relaxed “car camping” experience gear list.

A few of the structures and museum areas in Santa Cruz, Scorpion Harbor.

After settling in to the campsite, we went for a brief snorkeling adventure where we saw stingrays, kelp forests, and many large fish. We warmed ourselves in the setting sun before heading out on a beautiful sunset hike with the park ranger. She spoke about the history of the island, like that of the Chumash Indians who consider the Channel Islands as part of their origin story and lived on the islands peacefully for thousands of years. She also spoke about the influx of European settlers who grazed cattle on the islands, which eventually nearly destroyed the ecosystem. The National Park Service has taken great strides to bring back some endangered species like the Golden Eagle and the Channel Islands Fox. Nowadays, the foxes run wild in the islands and are pretty much at full population capacity. They are adorable and look like small dogs, unafraid of getting very close to you and trying to snag your food!

A previously endangered, adorable island fox.

Sunday:

Our party split up and while some friends opted to do a day-long kayaking adventure (you can check out the options and book here!), J and I chose a nice 8.2 mile hike for the day. We packed lunches to go and set out on an adventure across the island, with our goal to visit the other main beach area, Smuggler’s Cove. The hike ascends then descends 1500ft, and has vistas in all directions as well as a perspective on what the interior of the island looks like. In the summer, this is quite dry but the elegant tall grass makes for the feel of being in the middle of nowhere and pioneering a new land. Once you get to the cove, you can enjoy running around on the beach, using the picnic tables and pit toilets, as well as check out a nearby path to an old settler’s ranch home. Warning: the entire trail is exposed and there is no water in Smuggler’s Cove, so bring enough to get there and back. In general, water is quite scarce on the islands and only available in the campsites, and not even all of them at that! Some of the Channel Islands you can technically camp on but you have to bring all your water with you (this is not the case on Santa Cruz). A hiking guide to the island can be found here.

The beach at Smuggler’s Cove, on the opposite side of the island from the harbor. Many private yachts and sailboats docked past the shallows and day trippers would take kayaks in to hang out on the island.

After returning from the hike, we rested up and then set out for a brief lap back up to Cavern Point for the sunset. When you are in the middle of the ocean on the west coast, you have to take advantage of the sunsets!

Amazing sunsets over the Pacific.

Monday:

The boat back to the mainland was scheduled for noon, so we had the morning to pack up slowly, read in the hammock, and play some board games. This was certainly one of the most relaxing camping experiences I have ever had, as it felt like we had enough time to enjoy all the sites but also laze around in camp.

Finally, we headed back to the mainland and made good time into the Ventura Harbor. We celebrated our arrival back to the mainland with some delicious fish tacos at Baja Bar Surf N’ Taco in the Ventura Marina.

Rolling hills and setting sun on Santa Cruz Island. Add it to your bucket list!