Sometimes, fate gives you a little push. A family vacation in Southern California, just 10 minutes from a boat that will take me to one of the least-visited National Parks in the country? Sold!
Channel Islands National Park is a cluster of five islands off the coast of southern California. The remoteness drives the crowds away, with the islands all together averaging just 80 visitors a day. Boasting tons of unique wildlife, it’s no wonder these islands are called the Galapagos of North America. You can access the islands by boat (1-4 hours away) or plane (far quicker). Not owning a boat and being terrified of small planes, that meant going through the touring company Island Packers (departing from either Ventura or Oxnard, CA depending on destination) to take a boat to the islands.
If time is on your side, I’d start with the mainland visitor center in Ventura (just a bit up the road from Island Packers, but your boat ride and visitor center hours might not line up properly–we had to hit the visitor center on our way out of town). They offer tons of information about the islands, as well as a touch pool and film showings about the island as well (you can watch the videos online in advance if you want to save time). Learning about each of the unique islands, I wanted to see them all, but wanting a shorter boat ride, we chose Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the five.
Two big tips to prepare for your journey to the islands. First, before you leave for the boat ride, bring water–I’d recommend at minimum two liters per person. While the boat does sell bottled water (and even La Croix!), there are no concessions on the islands themselves, and not every island has fresh water available, so especially if you don’t like southern Californian tap water, pack it in. By the end of our journey, I was the only one out of seven people who still had water left, and I didn’t have a ton left. Second tip in advance is specific to those who get seasick or motion sickness–PREPARE. I had been warned in advance about the boat ride, but I was not fully ready for the swells we saw (and apparently we had a journey on a mild day!). I was quickly at the back of the boat, gulping in fresh air and sucking down ginger candy in an attempt to keep my coffee in my belly where it belonged. Others were not so lucky, so if you are planning a trip to the islands and know you get seasick, plan for that in advance.
The boat ride itself, besides the motion sickness, offers the chance for some sea life. I get excited whenever I see even a harbor seal or jellyfish floating, so flocks of brown pelicans and then, dolphins, also took the edge off from my queasiness. The office for Island Packers had a list of wildlife sightings from their various boats that included a hammerhead shark! The right time of year, you might even see whales on this journey, so make sure to pack binoculars and cleaning cloths in case they get any spray.
There are two docks on Santa Cruz, Scorpion Beach or Prisoners Harbor. Most people disembarked at Scorpion Beach, which has a visitor center and offers hikes and a campground. However, I wanted a more impressive experience–the Pelican Bay hike. Pelican Bay is part of The Nature Conservancy coastal property, and you can only access the land if led by a naturalist from Island Packers. Not knowing a ton about the flora and fauna in the park, this seemed like a perfect way to have the idiosyncrasies of the island pointed out to us–also, that way our guide would keep an eye on the clock for us. Prisoners Harbor is also how you access the backcountry campgrounds on the island, so this is the stop for those wanting more solitude.
After a few minutes on shore, we set off with our guide Dee Dee. The hike begins with a bit of a climb, and with a few other people along she took effort to make sure she was going at a pace where everyone could keep up. She would point out sights and plants along the way, as group members started petering off to go back to the beach to wait for the boat. Luckily, my group wanted to finish the hike, and as more people left the group’s average skill increased to the point we felt confident in our ability to make it to Pelican Bay.
Prickly pear cactus started popping up along the trail as we were serenaded by what Dee Dee said was the Island Scrub Jay, a bird found only on the island. Also found only on the island (well, some people might have smuggled some off island but that’s another story) is the Santa Cruz Island fox, a pygmy grey fox that has grown very keen to prowling unattended bags for food, a critter I was determined to see. We took a break right before what we were warned was one of two more difficult areas, both of which were pretty much scrambles that required your hands and steady feet. As this is an out-and-back hike, remember you’ll be going up these on your way back.
As the sun burned away the clouds, we started to see Pelican Bay in our sights. Pelican Bay is home to Tinker’s Cove, named so because a 1920’s-era Peter Pan movie was filmed here. Dee Dee let us know we have a few minutes of free time to go down to the cove. We gleefully headed down into a shaded valley and were welcomed with a stunning coastal view. We sat along the cove and ate our snacks, admiring the vibrant orange garibaldi fish Dee Dee had told us to look out for. It was fully worth the scramble and the sweat to feel the cool ocean breeze and take it in. For the first time in what felt like hours, we saw other people who had taken their boats to the cove and dropped anchor, to relax or snorkel.
Between Tinker’s Cove and Pelican Bay was a small strip of land that once had a house on it, now just a foundation and a huge cluster of stunning agave plants. It was worth the trek to see, I can only imagine what life in that house was like. We all were longing for one more hour at the cove so we could take a dip into the ocean. Sadly, our boat back called and we headed back to the trail and to Dee Dee.
Spreading out as we re-joined Dee Dee, Mama Boots started gesturing excitedly. She saw an Island Fox! I could hardly contain my envy and vowed to see one on the way back. Dreams of food (and beer) in our bellies, we picked up the pace. Determined to see a fox, I hoofed it even more, hoping being in front of the group wouldn’t scare them away. In hindsight, I wish I would have spent more time enjoying the trail and the company of my family, but as their water dwindled, I was getting more envious looks whenever we stopped, so maybe it was for the best. I also got some anxiety for the return trip bubbling–now that I had food in my stomach, that boat ride could be more dicey.
We rounded the corner to the main path back, and I heard a rustling–in the trees, not the bushes. An island scrub jay! I am hardly a bird-watcher, but this bird lives only on the island, so I was thrilled for a glimpse. Don’t let my potato-quality photo fool you, it was a stunning variety of blue jay. We headed back to the dock, with hopes of dunking our feet into the water. I decided to search for one more chance at an Island Fox, to no avail. Oh well, that’s nature for you.
I am happy to report that the boat back was basically smooth as glass compared to the ride in, and we got to see more dolphins too! I almost got an apres-hike beer (the boat offers several varieties on tap or canned) but thought that would be tempting fate with my stomach. We all raved on the boat ride back, and once at home, about our trip. If you want a National Park with solitude, wildlife, and sunshine, I think it would be hard to find a better candidate than Channel Islands National Park, and if you want to hike on a somewhat easy path that few get to tread on, you can’t go wrong with Pelican Bay.