Educational Opportunities Await you at the Channel Islands National Park
Recently my family traveled out to Santa Cruz Island in order to visit a national park we had not been to before. We try to choose a few to see each year, and since we call Southern California home, it made sense to get out to the Channel Islands. We're so glad we did. Here is our step-by-step guide to help you plan your visit.
Visitor’s Center in Ventura Harbor
Begin your visit at the Channel Islands Visitor’s Center located in the Ventura Harbor, just 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles in Southern California. I think Visitor’s Centers are always the best place to begin a national park visit. This national park is includes five islands and 390 square miles off the Southern California Coast. The Visitor’s Center is located in the Ventura Harbor on the mainland, not at any of the actual park locations. Due to their opening hours and the hours required to take a boat ride out to which ever island you choose to visit, you’ll need to plan this visit for the day before or the day after your visit. I recommend the day before so you can prepare for what you’ll see when you arrive at your island of choice. The Visitor’s Center is located at 1901 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura, CA 93001 and is open daily from 8:30am until 5:00pm. Plan to arrive no later than 3:00pm so you’ll have time to watch the informative film, see the island displays, participate in the interactive exhibits, talk to a ranger, climb the flight of stairs to the lookout (on a clear day you can see Santa Cruz Island), and browse the gift shop. Then at 5:00pm, when the Visitor’s Center closes, you’ll be ready for dinner in one of the many family-friendly restaurants located right in the Harbor.
Where to Eat
There are many family-friendly options in the Ventura Harbor, but we opted for the Greek Ventura. There was something to please everyone in our family with the delicious gyro plates and fresh salads. There is also a yummy ice cream shop next door.
Where to Stay
As our boat was leaving at 8:00am the next morning, we wanted to spend the night nearby. We chose the Holiday Inn Express & Suites and were pleased with the simple, yet clean guest rooms. The free breakfast buffet was nothing special, but it did the trick for our early morning. What we liked best, was being just a quick five minute drive over to Island Packers.
Pack your Picnic
There are no services available on any of the Channel Islands and you must pack your own food, water, etc. There are several grocery stores near the harbor area for grabbing picnic fare including a Trader Joes. It is recommended that you bring a hard case cooler to store your food because the critters that live on the islands are smart and know how to open soft case coolers.
Island Packers is the official company that provides boat transportation out to the Channel Islands. They are located in the Ventura Harbor just a short drive from the Visitor’s Center. When trying to decide which island we would visit, we got on their website and read about all the things to do on each one. Although there are five to choose from, we narrowed it down to two right away because of their closer proximity to the mainland. Santa Cruz Island and Anacapa Island are both about a one-hour boat ride away. The others are further and the ocean water can have rougher conditions. That didn’t sound like the right choice for us. In the end we chose Santa Cruz Island because we wanted to kayak and hike. Not wanting to venture out and kayak on our own, we decided to book a sea kayaking excursion with AquaSports. We purchased our day trip through their website and when we arrived at Island Packers that morning, a crew from AquaSports were there to greet us. Our excursion with AquaSports included the ferry ride with Island Packers.
Our Boat Ride Out to Santa Cruz
We boarded the boat with a hundred or so other people. The weather was beautiful and everyone was excited to be heading out on a great adventure. After the safety talk we exited the harbor and made our way into the open ocean. Moments later we were stopping to admire a few sea lions that were basking in the sun atop a floating buoy. The captain, who also must have been a marine biologist, proceeded to give us all an educational explanation of these friendly-looking creatures. After everyone had sufficient time to snap pictures, we were on our way again. We also stopped along the way for pods of dolphins and perhaps most exciting of all, gray whales migrating! Everyone aboard felt fortunate that our visit to Santa Cruz Island had also turned into a whale watching expedition complete with expertise narration.
A recent storm had knocked out the dock, so for the time being, arrivals to Santa Cruz must be done by rubber skiffs. This just added to the adventure for us! We waited in line while rubber skiff after rubber skiff transported everyone from the boat to the beach. As everyone was exiting with their personal belongings, we noticed that a number of people had camping gear and would be staying overnight. The majority of the passengers just had coolers and backpacks for a one-day adventure.
Meeting Up with AquaSports
Once ashore, we met up with our kayaking guide and the rest of the group we would be spending the next couple of hours with. There were large containers for us to keep our cooler and backpacks while we would be away. Our guide was a 60 year old man that had been leading kayaking groups for more than 30 years. An expert kayaker, he was also a friendly and knowledgeable man on all things geology, native cultures, flora and fauna regarding these diverse islands. If this homeschooling mama thought we had already learned our load at the Visitor’s Center or the ‘marine biology’ class on the boat, I had another thing coming. As we kayaked around the coastline and in and out of caves, he filled us with more information over the next three hours. It was awesome! Every classroom should be so engaging!
A note on sea cave kayaking: It was quite a bit more work (because of wind mainly) and more adventurous (think about entering caves in tight spaces with water rushing in and out) than we were expecting. We were glad we had put the stronger of our boys with me and the younger one with my husband. It also worked out well that every cave entry was optional. My younger son doesn’t like enclosed spaces and opted to not go inside a few of the caves. It was absolutely fine to do that and he and my husband just waited outside for everyone to return. We felt safe the whole time and were well-looked after.
Once back onshore, we helped get the kayaks out of the water and headed back up to where our belongings were. A little wet, we were glad to have a change of clothes and headed over to the changing area. Then it was lunch time and we were glad we had packed ample food! We had really worked up an appetite.
Learning about the Island’s History
After lunch we walked over to an area with a few buildings and artifacts on display. With the Island’s varied past, we saw artifacts and records to represent thousands of years of history. The Chumash were the first people to inhabit these islands and may have first arrived 9000 years ago. The first European to explore Santa Cruz Island may have been Sebastian Vizcaino in 1602. He called it Isla de Gente Barbuda which means Island of the Bearded People. Maritime commerce took place on the island in the 1800s. Hunting otter pelts was very popular and these islands even became an area where hunters traded with each other. Ranching began on Santa Cruz Island in the 1850s with some 24,000 sheep grazing the hillsides and valleys. Wool became very important during this time as America had entered into the Civil War and wool was in high demand for soldiers’ uniforms. The ranching period eventually came to an end. Although the island was briefly used for military purposes, it eventually became a national park in 1980. For a more complete history on Santa Cruz Island, check out this link on the NPS website.
A Note about National Park Stamp Books: If you have a National Park Stamp book, you’ll find the stamp inside the Ranch House right here on Santa Cruz Island.
A Hike and the Island Fox
We were now down to two hours and we knew if we were going to get a hike in, we had better head out. We chose the Cavern Point Loop, a moderate 2-mile hike. We thoroughly enjoyed the spectacular views as we made our way along the cliff-side trail. I must be honest, for this mama, it was a little bit of a nail-biting experience. Even though everyone stayed on the trail, there were a few moments where I felt like one unplanned mis-step could send someone over the edge. I was glad when we rounded the loop and made our way inland for the final portion of the hike. And the inland portion also provided something we hoped we would see… island foxes! These little creatures are one of only four terrestrial mammals to call the Channel Islands home. In fact, they are found nowhere else on the planet. We found a few near the campground. They were curious and seemed rather indifferent to our presence, but cute none-the-less.
Once back at the beach, we had about 30 minutes before it was time to get back on the boat. As you can imagine, after a full day in the sun with the sea air and exhaustion of paddling and hiking, we were spent! As we made our hour-long voyage back to the mainland, we were ready to lay down and take a nap! We did get to enjoy more dolphins, whales and sea lions on our return as well.
Channel Island National Park is a treasure trove of beauty, wonder and educational opportunities. Because it takes a little more effort than other National Parks to visit, many pass it up. But it’s definitely worth the time and effort. What are you waiting for? Plan your next national park visit out to the Channel Islands National Park.
What to pack:
• Paperwork/registration confirmation for Island Packers or AquaSports
• Picnic lunch in a hard cooler
• Plenty of water (no water on the island)
• A plastic bag for trash (no trash cans on the island)
• If you’ll be kayaking:
-Wet suits and snorkel equipment for kids (They don't carry children's sizes)
• Change of clothing
• Hiking shoes
• Cash for on-board snack bar and tips