Most know of Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California, but many have not visited the other Channel Islands that feature no modern comforts, only nature. Considered America’s least visited National Park, the area’s unique position offers biodiversity like nowhere else. The marine sanctuary and park provide a refuge for sea life and makes this one of the top scuba diving sites in the world. Experts say all you need is a mask and snorkel since there are tons of fish in the first 5 to 10 feet.
From above, the eight islands float like ribbons of dark rock and are home to thousands of species of animals and plants found nowhere else on Earth. The biodiversity is a result of isolation over thousands of years and mingling of ocean currents. The Channel Islands get their name from the deep troughs that separate them from the mainland. Today, five of the islands and the waters within one nautical mile of each island are protected as Channel Islands National Park.
The closest island—Anacapa—is just an hour from Oxnard and is shaped like a 5-mile spine of rock emerging from the ocean broken into three islets. The Chumash called it Anyapakh or “mirage,” and in 1853, a sidewheel steamer ran full speed into the rocks, crashing and sinking. In 1912 the Coast Guard built a light beacon followed years later by a light station.
Due to large swells, our Anacapa boat trip was cancelled, so we swiftly changed plans and voyaged to Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the Channel Islands and just 20 miles offshore. As we pulled away from the harbor for our day trip, our smiles stretched as dolphins rode our boat’s wake and we gleefully anticipated what was to come in this unfamiliar land. Passing Anacapa’s jagged bumps bursting from the ocean in the distance, we glided into the glistening cove near Scorpion Ranch where a steep jagged brown scruffy green-dotted landscape greeted us and brightly colored kayaks and a few snorkelers could be seen dockside.
After an orientation with a Park Ranger, my husband and I decided to spend our day hiking the 5-mile loop from Scorpion Ranch to Potato Harbor by ourselves. Once off the docks we passed a little historical museum, ranch ruins and old farming equipment. Grand-sized black crows with larger than normal beaks guarded the island from atop fig trees.
The rugged vertical climbing landscape seemed to be screaming for water as the entire hillside canyon views surrounding us was brown. It felt all too familiar, as the land felt like most of the hikes we traipse in Malibu. Due to the drought, wildflowers were nonexistent and there was evidence of once-yellow giant coreopsis along the higher elevations. Passing dried brown lonely grasslands and a few oil spurts from the ground, it was exciting to reach the rugged jaw-dropping coastline with bird dropping-laden rock islands popping from the ocean down below the steep cliffsides.
The coastal scruff led to a mesmerizing cliffhanging view perfect for a sandwich lunch break. The aquamarine cove looked like Greece as one white sailboat bobbed in contrast to the Mediterranean greenish-blue waters with its private sandy shoreline only accessible by boat or kayak. Santa Cruz Island is considered an example of what Southern California looked like hundreds of years ago.
Twenty-two miles long and from 2 to 6 miles wide, a central valley splits the island with volcanic rock in the north and older sedimentary rock on the south. Imagine what life was like for the Chumash Indians who lived here for centuries. More recently, the island was a private sheep and cattle ranch before National Park Service ownership. Half of our return hike had us hugging the island’s bluffs, making it a pleasurable return stopping at Cavern Point. We didn’t spot the island’s endemic cat-like fox or the island scrub jay, although we saw many foxes at dusk in Two Harbors in Catalina Island.
Home to Pacific grey whales in the winter and humpback, finback, blue and Orca whales in the summer, this area also abounds with dolphins--on our return trip our boat cruised through dolphin pods with thousands of frolicking dolphins swarming around the boat. Similar to pods we saw in Baja California Sur, this dolphin brigade was unprecedented, as numerous porpoises jumped all around us, rode our wake and shimmied under our boat. My screams of joy could probably be heard from the mainland, reminding us that the journey is often as exhilarating as the destination.
Tips for Your Trip
Reserve the boat trip and campsite (if you plan to stay over) with Island Packers, the official boat to get to the Channel Islands. The roundtrip ferry cost is about $60 per person but book in advance. Use the park’s website www.nps.gov/chis to help plan your visit.
Bring food with you. We picked up savory sandwiches and a breakfast burrito that morning from Honey Cup Coffeehouse and Creamery in the Channel Islands Harbor.
Water spouts are available, but bring water with you and plan to take everything back with you as nothing can be left on the island.
Bring sunscreen and a windbreaker or sweatshirt for the boat.
Book the guided kayak venture in advance with the Channel Islands Adventure Company (www.islandkayaking.com) to Painted Cave, one of the largest sea caves in the world.
If you wish to venture to more islands, Island Packers “shuttles” from Santa Cruz to other islands, mainly for campers for a minimal fee. The “Two Island Trip” departs approximately 2 dates a month (see under “special trips” on their website).
Stay at the affordable Hampton Inn by Hilton with room balconies overlooking the Channel Islands Harbor where you can watch the sunset from your room and walk along the harbor waterways. Get to know the fifth largest harbor in California with Gondola Paradiso as you are paddled under bridges and through canals in the Channel Islands Harbor.
Oxnard’s rich agricultural history allows fresh farm-to-table offerings at many of Oxnard’s family owned restaurants. Dine at local favorite La Dolce Vita Ristorante in a Victorian home in Heritage Square where Italian and seafood reign supreme. Sidle downstairs post-dinner to the 1901 Speakeasy Lounge for Prohibition-style cocktails with house-made infused liquors. Prices can’t be beat coming from LA. For casual seafood like fish and chips, clam chowder, fish tacos and a raw bar, eat outside at Sea Fresh on the patio harborside.
In Downtown Oxnard, create your own Taco Trail, as taco joints dot every block. Standouts include Pepe’s Mexican Food taqueria at the tip of the Channel Islands Harbor and Tacos La Bonita for Vampiros, beef barbacoa atop griddled cheese in handmade deep-fried tortillas. Wash the tacos down at a microbrewery like Casa Agria Specialty Ales known for sours and hazy IPAs. Sip a beer sampler at Red Tandem Brewery with options like strawberry blond ale, and at The Annex Food Hall, more suds await at Bottle and Pint Oxnard.