We couldn’t leave California before knocking one more National Park off our bucket list, so the day before we moved to Colorado we headed up to the Channel Islands with Andre’s sister Lisa and her husband Seth. Lisa took all the photos in this post so make sure to oooooh and ahhhhh appropriately.
GETTING THERE: If you are lucky enough to have your own boat and a fun captain’s hat (required), grab a map and head straight to the island of your choosing. If you’re like us, you’ll need to make a reservation with Island Packers and head to Ventura or Oxnard California to hop on a ferry. The ferry takes just over an hour to make the trip to Santa Cruz Island.
COST: Ferry tickets are pretty expensive, and a trip to Santa Cruz will run you $59 for adults, $54 for seniors, and $41 for kids 3-12 years old, so make sure to bring a lot of children under the age of 3 because they get in free. To be clear, these are not fees for the National Park, they are fees for the boat that takes you TO the National Park, so your National Parks Pass will NOT cover the cost of the ferry as it is run by an independent company. There is no cost to make a trip to the islands if you have your own boat, helicopter, or are this lady. Check out the Island Packers list of fares for exact prices on all their trips.
HIKING INFO: Santa Cruz island is over 96 square miles, (that’s 3x the size of Manhattan,) and is the largest of all the Channel Islands. The islands themselves make up only about 50% of the National Park itself– the other half is under water! There are miles and miles of trails, and we found ones of all different ability levels. Most involve walking uphill at some point, to varying degrees, but all the trails we found were fairly wide, well maintained, and easy to find. There is a really cool 3D map of the park located at the unmanned visitors center, with clearly marked trails that include distances for each one. We used this to plan out our treks for the day.
WHAT IT’S LIKE: We went at the end of September during a 5 year drought, so everything was pretty dry. This did not detract from the AMAZING views of the island and its coastline, so don’t let the dryness factor dissuade you. Just don’t light any fires. The island is supposed to have deer mice, foxes and a few other small animals, but we pretty much only saw lizards and heard sea lions. If you’re interested in the animal life on the Channel Islands, check out what the National Parks page has to say. Our ferry was packed, but due to the large size of the island and the wide variety of activities to do, we barely saw a dozen other people on the trails. The people we did run into were friendly and we frequently stopped to exchange trail info.
OTHER THINGS TO DO: Most of our trip was spent hiking around above sea level, but many people bring snorkeling or scuba gear and spend the entire day under water. Others bring or rent kayaks (must be done before you get on the boat) and others just sneakers and a day pack. Any activity you choose will be filled with breathtaking views either above or below the water.
ISLAND HISTORY: The Island Packers website says that the island has “10,000 years of Chumash Indian habitation and over 150 years of European exploration”, which sounds like a nice way of saying “Native Americans lived here for a really long time until white colonists came, planted a flag, and destroyed an entire deeply rooted and sophisticated culture in a very short period of time with their diseases.” I headed over to the National Parks History & Culture page on this subject and learned that this was indeed the case. I bring this up because while we were there the Chumash tribe were holding a celebration on the beach. They had built a beautiful Tomol (canoe) by hand and it took them 6 hours to paddle it all the way from the mainland to the island for a yearly event called the Tomol Crossing. The boat was displayed on the beach for all to see, and it was a true work of art. The National Parks page has more information on the Santa Cruz Tomol Crossing if your’re interested.
- The islands do not have any food available, so your last chance to grab some nosh will be on the ferry.
- Make sure to pay attention to your ticket’s RETURN TIME. The ferry only runs in the morning and evening, so once you’re on the island you are there until 4 or 5:00. That being said, bring lots of snacks and water!
- If it’s even remotely warm outside I’d bring a swimsuit. We didn’t bring them on this trip but the water was so clean and warm we just went in wearing our clothes. It was a really nice way to end a day of hot hiking.
- There are bathrooms but no trash cans. Make sure you are prepared to pack out all your trash (as you wold in any NP!)
- If you spot any whales while on the ferry be sure to tell a crew member. They will slow or stop the boat so everyone can take pictures. In our case they turned the boat around and we followed a whale for about 10 minutes! (From a respectable distance, don’t worry.)
FINAL THOUGHTS: Although this isn’t a park we would return to over and over again due to cost and accessibility constraints, it is absolutely worth visiting at least once. If we go again we’ll definitely be bringing our snorkeling gear and some fins to check out what below-seas has to offer. We heard that each of the Channel Islands has a unique feel to it so we’d probably check those out before returning to Santa Cruz.
Have you been to the other Channel Islands? What were they like? Any recommendations?
– C. Egli