By Pat Kramer
The Channel Islands, off the coast of Ventura provide a fascinating day trip or overnight camping trip for anyone looking for a new adventure. There are five islands located across the Santa Barbara Channel that are part of Channel Islands National Park. While each of the islands is unique, the trip out there is just as exciting as it offers sightings of schools of dolphins, sea birds, seals, sea lions and even whales, depending on the time of year you visit.
Channel Islands National Park comprises nearly 250,000 acres of land while Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary covers an additional six nautical miles of water around the islands. Once connected to each other, but not to the mainland, the islands developed unique ecosystems of flora and fauna that are found nowhere else on earth. You can learn about the islands’ history and efforts to protect it by visiting the Channel Islands National Visitors Center, located at 1901 Spinnaker Dr. in Ventura, where a free film takes you on a rare journey back in time.
Channel Islands National Park includes the islands of Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara and San Miguel. Of this group, the small volcanic island of Anacapa is closest to Ventura, just 12 miles off the coast and less than an hour by boat. Best known for Arch Rock, a visually engaging 40-foot high natural bridge, Anacapa is home to 69 species of birds, including the largest breeding colony in the USA of the California brown pelican. Also native here are sea lions and seals, lizards and deer mice that are not found anywhere else in the world.
A trip to Anacapa is great if you are into birding, but for hikes it is very limited. There are 157 stairs from the docking platform to the top of the cliff where you depart the boat. There’s also a lighthouse to visit and the views, of course, are great. In addition to day trips and overnight camping, you can visit Anacapa on a sightseeing tour via Island Packers (www.islandpackers.com), the charter tour company for visits to the Channel Islands.
The next closest island is Santa Cruz, the largest of the Channel Islands. It’s 22 miles off the coast and an hour trip by boat from Ventura. This island’s history goes back 10,000 years when ancestors of the Chumash Indians lived here. Starting in 1782, when the Spanish missionaries arrived, and up until the last of the Chumash people left for mission life in 1822, the island was known for sheep and cattle ranching until the 1930s.
Today, you can visit historic ranching buildings on Santa Cruz, as well as a small museum. The Nature Conservancy manages most of the island and certain areas are protected and off limits to visitors. However, there are still many trails to traverse on this picturesque island to capture the incredible views from the top of the high cliffs. You can also kayak the sea caves or snorkel and scuba dive in the vast kelp beds that surround the island sustaining many varieties of sea life.
Santa Cruz Island is home to the bald eagle, island foxes, island scrub jay, and island fence lizards, barn owls, spotted skunk and brown pelicans. Marine life around this island includes harbor seals, sea lions, the endangered blue whale – the largest mammal on earth – and great white sharks.
Farther out from the coast of California lies Santa Rosa Island, 26 miles out into the ocean. Santa Rosa is the second largest of the Channel Islands and offers great recreational opportunities with easy hikes along white sand beaches, kayaking the sea caves, snorkeling and scuba diving. A trip to Santa Rosa takes approximately 2½ hours from Ventura Harbor via Island Packers. There is also a charter flight company, Channel Islands Aviation, which offers scenic flights to Santa Rosa as well as over all of the Channel Islands (www.flycia.com).
Archeology finds on Santa Rosa Island include the oldest human remains in the Americas, dating back 13,000 years, and preserved remains of pygmy mammoths, which went extinct around that same time. After the Chumash left the islands in the 1820s, white settlers established cattle ranching until as recently as 1996. Elk were later introduced to the island for hunting-for- profit purposes. This is no longer allowed. Since 1980, Santa Rosa Island has been a part of the Channel Island National Park and is maintained by the National Park Service.
Here, you’ll find all levels of hiking, great snorkeling and kayaking, or you can kick back and relax among the sand dunes on the pristine beachfront. The terrain is mixed with island oaks as well as rare groves of Torrey Pines. Native wildlife include island fox, spotted skunk and deer mice and well as many species of birds, sea lions, seals. Just out in the water there’s an abundant range of marine life with the noted predators, the great white shark. While there is overnight camping here, it can be very windy so many people come for a day trip and find it’s well worth it.
The remaining two islands, Santa Barbara and San Miguel, are not well traveled and trips to these islands are limited. San Miguel was just reopened to tourism in May 2016 after being used by the U.S. Navy for bombing tests. Santa Barbara Island, which is 38 miles off the coast of Palos Verdes, is home to a sea lion rookery and seabird nesting colonies.
All in all, there’s much to discover on these beautiful islands, just an hour or two from Los Angeles. For reservation information or pricing, visit www.islandpackers.com or www.flycia.com.