Off the coast of Southern California sit five islands that make up the Channel Islands National Park. The only way to get there is by private boat or by the park’s concessionaire boat service, Island Packers. We took a day trip to Santa Cruz Island, a little more than an hour away by boat. What we found once we reached the island was a whole different world from the busy California coast.
Preparing for the trip
Our trip to Santa Cruz Island was scheduled to leave at 9:30 a.m. We wouldn’t leave the island for the return trip until 4 p.m. Since there is no food or beverage service on the island, we had to take our own. We hadn’t prepared for the Channel Islands trip before we left on our road trip, so we made a quick stop at Target the evening before. We purchased a six-pack of water, snacks and a backpack. Since I have a tendency to suffer from motion sickness, I also bought Seaband wristbands and Dramamine Non-Drowsy Naturals. The morning of our Channel Islands visit, we ate a light and not-too-salty, not-too-greasy breakfast. We were ready for our adventure.
Onboard the Island Packers boat
Before boarding the boat at Ventura Harbor, we were required to wipe the soles of our shoes across a brush to remove any potential non-island native plant or insect that we might otherwise have carried onto the island.
We shared the boat with a class of high school biology students who would be camping overnight and studying the ecology of the island. The island has over 1,000 species of plants and animals, some unique only to the island.
The trip over to Santa Cruz Island was uneventful. The only significant wildlife we saw were some seals sleeping on a buoy. The real treat would come on our return trip. So after getting a little chilled sitting on the open-air upper deck, we moved inside for the remainder of the ride.
Channel Island history
As we were getting off the boat we heard an announcement about a free guided hike. We and a half dozen other people took up that offer. After climbing the ladder from the boat to the dock, we met our guide, Matt, who was to lead us up to Cavern Point. But first, he gave us a short history of the island.
Centuries ago the islands were inhabited by native people, but in more recent history, beginning in the mid-1850s it became ranch land and orchards. The ranchers brought in pigs and sheep, and introduced trees and plants not indigenous to the island. Over the years the natural ecology began to fade as new predators were wiping out the island’s natural population.
Fast forward to the late 1970s when the Nature Conservancy purchased most of the land and began to restore it. Ranches were gone but feral sheep and pigs roamed the island. The Santa Cruz Island fox, previously the largest animal on the island, became prey to pigs and to the golden eagle, which had moved in from the mainland. The native bald eagles, which prey on fish—not foxes—had been wiped out. Native plants were uprooted by the pigs, bringing much of the native vegetation to near extinction, as well.
In subsequent years the Nature Conservancy removed the feral animals and started breeding programs for the Santa Cruz Island foxes. They reintroduced native bald eagles, and native vegetation is again flourishing.
All that remains of the ranches are rusted antique farm equipment and a few buildings, including a blacksmith shop, kept for history sake.
Our first Santa Cruz Island Fox sighting
We spotted our first fox before Matt had even mentioned them. They’re no bigger than a large house cat.
Matt warned us not to set our backpacks down. Between the foxes and ravens that are plentiful, our bags would be pecked and chewed in no time as they go for easy food. There are metal bins in the park’s campgrounds and near picnic tables to put your belongings into for safekeeping from the animals.
The Channel Islands hike
Matt led us on the trail that climbs up to Cavern Point, pointing out native plant species along the way.
The view from Cavern Point is worth the uphill hike. Magnificent coastal vistas, rocky cliffs jutting into the glistening blue water, spread before you as you relax a bit following the somewhat strenuous walk.
Matt left us at that point, free to go back the way we came or hike another trail. Skip and I took the Potato Harbor trail almost to the end, then cut down to the road, explored a couple of campgrounds and headed back toward the boat dock.
We were resting on the ride back, eyes closed, after a long day in the sun when one of the boat’s crew members announced there were a couple of dolphins alongside the boat. That brought everyone to attention. First there were two, then three, then a half dozen. Before we knew it there was an entire pod of dolphins surrounding the boat, jumping in and out of the water, performing an amazing show for us. The performance went on and on, and the crew held the boat out in the water as long as possible before having to head back to Ventura Harbor.
To be honest, we were both a little apprehensive about spending the entire day on an island with no amenities. What would we do all day? As it turned out, the day flew by. There was plenty to explore. In fact, we want to return some day, bring camping gear and spend the night.
If you go
- Boat tickets can be purchased online on the Island Packers web site. Pay attention to which harbor your trip leaves from. Depending on the island you visit, your trip may leave from Ventura Harbor or from the Channel Islands Harbor.
- Arrive at the harbor well ahead of time to check in, as noted on your reservation confirmation.
- Take only as much with you as you can comfortably carry. The only transportation on the island is your own two feet.
- Take all the water and food with you that you will need. No food or beverage is available on the island.
- There are no trash cans in the park. What you bring in you must take back with you. Take along a plastic grocery bag for your trash, especially if you pack fresh fruit or other foods with messy waste.
- Be sure to carry a watch or cell phone to keep an eye on the time to make sure you don’t miss the boat back. Boats are often filled to capacity, so you must return on the boat on which you are scheduled.
- Visit the Channel Islands National Park web site for camping or other park information.
Accommodations: We stayed at the Embassy Suites Mandalay Beach during our stay in Oxnard. Find the best hotel deal, compare prices, and read what other travelers have to say at TripAdvisor.
Disclosures: Our visit to the Channel Islands National Park was hosted by Oxnard Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Island Packers. Our transportation tickets were complimentary, but any opinions in this article are our own.
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