A Trip to One of the Least Visited National Parks

Channel Islands
Paddling above thick giant kelp forests.

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Only an hour from the traffic choked freeways of Southern California, Channel Islands National Park is a different world. Established back in 1980, this national park’s five islands and their surrounding ocean environment house a wealth of natural and cultural resources, all blissfully devoid of cars, buildings, and people. This is what California used to be — thousands of years ago, of course.

Similar to the other least visited national parks in the US — like Dry Tortugas in Florida or one of my favorites, Gates of the Arctic in Alaska — its inaccessibility by car dramatically cuts down on visitor traffic. For those of us willing to endure what can best be described as a spicy ferry ride or the lack of facilities on the islands, we get this mini Galapagos all to ourselves.

Island Packers Cruises out of Ventura is the official concessionaire for access to and from the park. While they do ferry passengers to all the islands, the schedule and available destinations vary by season — right now they are heading to Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and Anacapa. We chose to spend the day at Santa Cruz — the largest at 96 square miles and most diverse of all the islands. It’s an outdoor playground, with kayaking, hiking, camping, snorkeling, diving, and backpacking opportunities galore. And isolation over thousands of years has created unique animals, plants, and archeological resources (the Chumash lived here for millennia) found nowhere else on Earth.

Sea Caves
Checking out one of the many sea caves.

After drop off at Scorpion Anchorage and a quick introduction from one of the park rangers, we headed straight to the beach to hit the water with our kayaks, hoping to explore a small section of the 77 miles of craggy coastline. A few miles of coast surrounding Scorpion Beach are open to day trippers, but there are plenty of natural features — with intriguing names like Scorpion’s Rock Cave, Marge Simpson’s Archway, Hungry Serpent (it really does growl), and Neptune’s Trident Cave — to keep you occupied for hours.

Giant kelp forests lurk deep along the shoreline, making it hard to paddle at times. Flocks of brown pelicans flew alongside us, diving every now and then to catch a fish or two. We paddled close to a few of the caves that pocket the towering volcanic cliffs — many were off limits at the time because of nesting seabirds. In the aptly named Harbor Seal Cave, we hung out with a few playful harbor seals who got a kick out of playing hide-and-seek behind our boats.

Cavern Point
The view from Cavern Point.

Arriving back at the beach early afternoon, we had an hour or two before the ferry was due back to pick us up — plenty of time for a quick hike along the coast. We headed out on the Cavern Point Loop — the trail quickly climbs up from the beach, passing through thick blankets of yellow wildflowers. Once you gained all the elevation, the trail pops out on the most impressive mesa flanked by the mountains to the west and to the east, sheer drop cliffs with views out to the Pacific and beyond to the mainland. It was absolutely breathtaking.

Island Fox
Hanging with some island foxes.

I would have loved to hike all the way along the coast to Potato Harbor but given the time, we headed back towards the campground once we reached Cavern Point. It was here we had our close encounter with one of the mammals exclusive to the Channel Islands — the island fox. No bigger than a house cat, these little foxes are incredibly cute and also not very shy. The ranger said they will steal a sandwich out of your hand when you are not looking. Beware — the seagulls will, too.

While the day was packed with adventure, I would have loved to stay longer. I can just imagine the stars and the silence out there at night. Next time, we’ll be sure to bring our camping gear.

The Gear

Apart from bringing all the food and water you will need for your time on the island, here is the gear I used for our adventure.

oru kayak
Paddling by the napping harbor seal.

Oru Kayak Beach LT: Channel Islands is the absolute perfect place for this folding kayak. There is limited spaced onboard the ferry for full kayaks but with the Oru Kayak, you can just carry it on with you and place it in the corner of the stern.

I was worried about our ability to put the folding kayak together upon our arrival but after watching the video a couple of times to make sure we had it down, the entire process literally only took us a few minutes — tear down was even faster. Since it was a new kayak, I found it took both of us to push the sides together to get snaps and buckles in place, but as time goes on, the folds should break in to the point where one person can easily set it up on their own.

At 12-feet long with a 28-inch width, the kayak is super stable. For me, the biggest surprise was its speed and how smooth it moved through the water. I had no problems maneuvering in and out of tight cave openings and take off/landing from the beach was a breeze.

I am definitely sold on folding kayaks — not only do they save your from the car rack hassle, but they easily store in your garage. And you can take this kayak practically everywhere — I am headed to Florida soon to hang with the manatees and plan to bring the Oru Kayak on the plane as normal checked luggage.

Oru Pack
Boarding the ferry with my Oru Kayak and Pack.

Oru Pack: This purpose built backpack makes it super easy to transport both the kayak and paddles. Just throw it on your back and go — the whole thing weighs less than 30 pounds.

Astral Layla: Don’t forget your PFD. This is one of my favorites as it is built with a woman’s figure in mind. The front pouch makes a great place to store your phone or GoPro.

Dramamine: You are crossing deep Pacific to get to the island — a space where gray whales and dolphins roam. This means waves and swells — the day we made the crossing, the ocean was classified as rough with seven to 10-foot swells. I get notoriously motion sick so Dramamine or Bonine is a must for any boat trip. If you suffer from the same affliction, you might even want this miracle drug for kayaking — as you explore the sea caves and hang out with harbor seals, you bob up in down with the swells. I got smacked out of nowhere with some bad sea sickness when hanging out in the Harbor Seal Cave.

Dry bag: When kayaking, you’ll want to store all your food and gear in a dry bag for obvious reasons. You can leave gear on the beach of course but don’t leave ANY food on the beach — the ravens and even the foxes will make quick work of it. They even know how to open zippers. There are storage bins up by the ranger station if you want to leave stuff for the day.

If You Go

Santa Cruz Island
The coastline of Santa Cruz Island.

How to get there: Contact Island Packers Cruises. Tickets costs $59 roundtrip– this includes the park entrance fee.

Kayak rental: Islands Packers does offer rental kayaks but be sure to call ahead as there is only so much room on the boat for kayak storage. Alternatively, you can join a Santa Barbara Adventure Company tour — they have a fleet of kayaks already on the islands and offer you guided paddle and hiking trips for the day.

Camping: You must have a camping permit to stay overnight — you can make the reservation on Recreation.gov. Note that absolutely no fires are allowed — camp stoves are ok.

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