Our Visit to Channel Islands National Park:
Close, But Not That Accessible
The sun rises on yet another sunny Southern California morning as we drive from the huge metropolis of Los Angeles towards Oxnard. The urban landscape and traffic melts away and is replaced by vast swaths of farmland. Soon, the smell of salt water waffles through the window. We turn into the harbor where large vessels intermix with small sailboats and sea lions sunning themselves on the docks. The sea is calm and the temperature is a perfect 70 degrees. Looks like a glorious day for a boat ride.
We are visiting Channel Islands National Park, a collection of 5 islands off of the coast of Southern California. Most of the park is under water. Kayaking around the sea caves, scuba diving, and boating are the main attractions. We are generally water averse, so dealing with ocean waves around a rocky shore or caves is not our cup of tea. Our water related activities would be limited to a boat ride to Anacapa island with Island Packers.
We chose Anacapa Island by the process of elimination. The official transportation concession does not offer trips to San Miguel or Santa Barbara islands. Due to a broken pier (since fixed), Santa Cruz island requires transfer to a skiff and a beach landing, something that sounds exciting to me but absolutely a non-starter for my wife. As the saying goes: “happy wife, happy life”, so that rules out Santa Cruz. Santa Rosa requires a 3 hour boat trip, which takes too long. The alternative is a seaplane ride, which is too expensive. We defaulted to Anacapa island, the closest one.
Into the Fog We Go
With eager anticipation, we board the boat that will take us across the channel to Anacapa. As we leave the sunny harbor, we speed up and headed right towards the thick fog bank just off the coast. The water is still and the waves nonexistent as the boat plows through the fog, with barely 50 feet of visibility. The air smells like a mixture of salt water and the dampness of the fog. Trepidation sets in – are we going to get lost in the fog? Will we run into an ocean liner? Settle down, I say to myself. They are professionals. They know what they are doing.
Suddenly, the fog lifts. The sun shines on the deep blue ocean. The cliffs of Anacapa island appears in the distance with deep blue sky in the background and the deep blue ocean in the foreground. I’m getting excited. What will we find? As we get closer, the boat slows down and ready to dock. Flock of seagulls dance around the cliff, finding crevasses to rest their wings.
Flat and Barren
We follow our fellow passengers up the stairs along the cliff. As we reach the top of the stairs, we discover a land that is flat, treeless, and barren. This is a dry and desolate place. On one side of the island there is a lighthouse and a couple of buildings, but nothing otherwise. No trees, and only small bushes dot the landscape. This island rises out of the ocean with cliffs on all sides, yet it’s very flat at the top.
The sun beats down on us. A small building housing a tiny exhibit is the only shade available. Since there are no trees, the pretty ocean is visible in all directions.
The Figure-8 Loop
After taking photos by the flag pole with the Anapaca sign to document our visit, we embark on the only trail on Anacapa Island. Even though the park gives a different name to different sections of the trail, there is really only one trail. There is no way we can get lost even without signs. I can see one end of the trail from the other, and the full figure-8 loop is only two miles. We were forewarned to bring water and food, since there are no services except for a bathroom on the island. We walk at a leisurely pace as the sun is relentlessly beating down on us. There is a hint of foul smell in the air, mixed with the smell of dry dirt. Despite being surrounded by water, my skin feels the desperate need for moisturizer. Peering over the cliff, I steady my wobbly legs and see the waves lapping the coast below, with kayaks trying to make its way around the rocks. Looks like they are having all the fun down there. I can only imagine how beautiful the scenery is from down under, and the terrific sense of adventure exploring sea caves.
Soon, we reach Inspiration Point, the other end of East Anacapa island. The view out towards Middle and West Anacapa islands is, well, inspiring. This is the perfect spot to enjoy our lunch with the inspiring scenery as the backdrop. Somehow, the otherwise uninspiring Subway sandwich tastes great.
The horn of the lighthouse blares every so often, warning the sea faring vessels of the danger, as we complete the figure-8 loop with plenty of time left before the return trip. The island is a flat piece of rock that rises 200 feet from the ocean. It is arid, dusty, and the shrubs are all dormant. Why is this even a National Park? Talking with the very friendly lone ranger (yes, there is one ranger that lives on the island), we learn the shrubs and plants come alive during the late winter months with spectacular color on a backdrop of green. The island is teeming with birds nesting in the spring to the point of being difficult to hike the trail without being attacked. Certainly, for the water adventurers, the clear water and unique rock formations afford excellent water activities. If I view Channel Islands National Park only based on my experience to Anacapa, I would not do it justice. First impression can be very misleading.
The Dolphins Join the Party
We line up by the pier at the appointed hour, straining our necks looking for the boat that will take us back to the mainland. The weather is clear and we can see the mainland in the distance. We eagerly get on the boat, waiting patiently for the crew to load the large quantities of gear for the campers returning home, and headed for port.
The captain took us around the arches to the ocean side of the island, where the water is actually much calmer than the channel side. The sea lions are stretched out, enjoying the glistening sunshine.
As we motor towards Oxnard, several dolphins swim right along with us, frolicking in the waves. They are playful, darting in and out of the wake of the boat, with a big smile on their faces. The party is just getting started. Several seagulls join the party, flying right over the boat with their wings stretched, just gliding and looking down on us humans. The boat is speeding towards shore, the dolphins swim with us on both sides, the seagulls flying just behind the stern of the boat, and humans gawking at them both in the afternoon sun. Wonderful.
Thought for Channel Islands
Don’t be fooled by the initial impression. Just as changes in season bring dramatically different landscapes to Channel Islands, look for better outcomes resulting from different environments. Take advantage of the change.
Impressions of Channel Islands
Anacapa island is nice, but not all that interesting, especially during the season we visited. The real uniqueness is in the water around the islands. We did not experience the kelp forest, the sea caves, and the marine life, so I can not comment on them. I also can not comment on the other islands. Our visit did not do the park justice. I’m glad to say we went to this park, and can check it off of our list, but it’s not one of my favorites. This is from MY vantage point only. I’m sure water sports lovers and those with private boats have a much better perspective.
Have you visited Channel Islands National Park? Leave a comment below on your experience.
Channel Islands National Park Rating:
(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings. All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)
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Guide to Channel Islands National Park:
Top Attractions at Channel Islands National Park:
- Each of the five islands are different.
- Your visit may be dictated by the availability of transportation. Docks at some of the islands are closed due to prior damage
- Santa Cruz island is the largest, at nearly 3 times the size of Manhattan with a peak of 2,450 feet
- Frequency of service is different depending on the island. Some are 5-7 days a week, some are seasonal and only 4-6 days per month.
- If you have a private boat, or can rent one, it’s a better option to explore the sea caves.
- Camping is possible, but be sure to reserve ahead of time for both the campsite and the boat trip.
One Day Visit Plan:
- Pick your island and mode of transportation (boat or plane)
Practical Info for Visiting Channel Islands
- Plan ahead. View the NPS website for latest schedule and information
- The boat schedule varies by season and island. Check carefully and book ahead
- The launch point is different depending on which island you are going. Check carefully to be sure you go to the right port.
- You must bring all supplies with you. There is no food or water available on the islands.
- Seasons matter. Spring is the best time to visit.
- Wear layers of clothing. The boat ride can be chilly while the islands can be hot.
- Bring hat and sunscreen. Anacapa island has no shade except for what you can get next to the buildings.
- Channel Islands National Park is close to Los Angeles, but accessible by boat or air only, limiting the number of visitors despite its proximity to a major city.
- Each island is a full day trip.
Channel Islands Facts
- Size: 249,561 acres, ranked 27th. Most of it is under water
- Visitors: 369,345 in 2017, ranked 42nd. Record was set in 2002 with 613,935.
- Peak month in 2017: July with 55,543
- Low month in 2017: December with 10,991
- Entrance fee: None, but the boat ride is expensive
Date Visited: October 9, 2016