This park visit promises to be one of your family’s more unusual.
A visit to Channel Islands National Park can’t be a spur-of-the-moment decision. It’s a national park trip that requires advanced planning and reservations. While the mainland visitor center is located in Ventura, the park itself is comprised of five islands off the coast of California. These islands are only reachable by park concessionaire ferries, small planes or private boats.
KidTripster Tip: Know that the ferries don’t transport visitors to each island every day of the week; there’s a limited schedule. Santa Cruz and Anacapa are accessible year round; the rest of the islands are only accessible by ferry from April to early November. Flights are on demand and year round but expensive. So if you want to visit a particular island, make sure to check in advance and plan your itinerary accordingly.
You’ll first need to decide which island to visit, as a multi-island visit isn’t really practical. Here’s a rundown of the islands and the travel times involved: Santa Cruz (ferry: 1 hour/one way), Anacapa (ferry: 1 hour/one way), Santa Barbara (ferry: 3 hours/one way), Santa Rosa (ferry: 3 hours/one way, plane: 25 minutes/one way), and San Miguel (ferry: 4 hours/one way; plane: 40 minutes/one way).
So here’s my take: a 3- or 4-hour ferry ride to Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa or San Miguel on potentially rough seas is lot to ask of kids. And for a family, I think that the cost of a flight through Channel Islands Aviation to Santa Rosa or San Miguel is cost prohibitive. A flying day trip to Santa Rosa ranges from $1200 to $1400 for up to eight people; for San Miguel, a day trip jumps to $1600. If you were looking to do an overnight camping trip, it’s even more: Santa Rosa is $1900 and San Miguel is $2600 for six to seven people with gear.
So for most families, you’d be looking at a ferry ride to either Anacapa or Santa Cruz. Between the two islands, I recommend Santa Cruz. I think that it offers more variety in activities and has more services (though limited) on the island. In addition, Anacapa is a cliff island with no beach area; sea kayaking is limited by weather. For those reasons, the remainder of this article will discuss the ins-and-outs of a visit to Santa Cruz only.
KidTripster Tip: If you decide not to stop at the visitor center in Ventura to watch the 25-minute park movie, “A Treasure in the Sea,” watch it online prior to your visit. You also can download your child’s Junior Ranger booklet in advance. If you forget, look for a booklet at the first information kiosk on Santa Cruz.
Island Packers is the only park concessionaire allowed to run trips to the Channel Islands. As mentioned, the ferry ride to Santa Cruz is an hour each way. I strongly recommend that you book your trip in advance, as these boats will fill up. I also suggest you opt for the trip to Scorpion Anchorage instead of Prisoners Harbor as I think there’s more to see here on a short trip. Take the earliest boat out at 9 a.m.; the return boat leaves the island at 3:30 p.m., giving you about 5-1/2 hours on the island. Scorpion Anchorage day trip cost: Youth (under 3) Free; Youth (3-12) $41; Adult $59. Overnight camping trip cost: Youth (under 3) Free; Youth (3-12) $57; Adult $79.
KidTripster Tip: Make sure you know which location your particular boat departs from as Island Packers has docks in Ventura and Oxnard.
On your way out to the island, you may see migrating whales, depending on the season. Dolphins that jump in the boat’s wake are a common sight, too.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re prone to sickness, come prepared. The ride out to the islands can be choppy. Pre-medicate with anti-drowsy motion sickness medication or bring ginger tablets. For the least amount of movement, sit in the back of the boat on the lower level.
KidTripster Tip: No matter how warm it may be when you leave the mainland, the boat ride is chilly. There’s a limited number of indoor seats. Bring a winter jacket and knit hat. You won’t be sorry.
If you plan to do sea kayaking on Santa Cruz, you have three options: 1) book a guided tour with Channel Island Kayak Center or Channel Islands Adventure Company, 2) rent kayaks in advance through Channel Island Kayak Center who will load the kayaks onto the boat for delivery to the island, or 3) bring your personal kayak with advanced arrangements with Island Packers for an added fee; the kayak must meet certain specifications.
What to do?
Located 20 miles from Ventura, Santa Cruz is California's largest island. It’s about 24 miles long and six miles wide; that’s almost three times the size of Manhattan. Needless to say, you’ll only see a fraction of it on a day visit. The Nature Conservancy owns and manages the western 76 percent of the island, while the eastern 24 percent is owned and managed by the National Park Service. Again, especially for a family, I’d recommend at visit centered at Scorpion Anchorage, also called Scorpion Ranch.
KidTripster Tip: Because there are few services on Santa Cruz, you’ll need to bring lots of stuff - extra clothes for the boat ride and swimming, camera, food for the day, water bottles (there is a potable water station at the campground), and sunscreen. You can rent wetsuits and snorkeling gear at the kiosk by the campground, but we brought our own. You certainly don’t want to lug all that gear on a hike, so fortunately, the park service provides free use of fox boxes, storage units so named to keep out the curious Santa Cruz foxes that are endemic to the area. While you could bring a lock for your box, no one really does; our belongings were untouched. By the way, you’ll definitely see foxes roaming around the visitor center. While they’re typically harmless, do not approach or feed them.
The island was inhabited by the Chumash people for over 10,000 years and later by European ranchers in the 1800s and 1900s. You still can see remnants of the ranching days at Scorpion Ranch including the adobe ranch houses, barns, and blacksmith shop. Be sure to take some time to walk through the visitor center. My family and I found the exhibit on what the islanders ate particularly interesting.
But the real focus of your trip will be the island’s natural features. Our favorite activity on Santa Cruz was kayaking through the many sea caves near Scorpion Ranch. We elected to simply rent kayaks through Channel Islands Kayak Center instead of signing up for a tour. If you have any kayaking experience at all, I’d recommend that you do the same. You’ll want to kayak first thing when you arrive on the island; this is very important. In the morning until about 11:30 a.m., the water is usually calm. But toward the afternoon, the winds start to pick up, making kayaking very difficult and dangerous. You don’t want to have to be rescued by the Coast Guard because you got blown off course. Also important, you want to kayak to the right (as you’re standing on the beach facing the water) first to the “L” cave, which I think is the best cave in this area. Take a look at the video here. After paddling through this spectacular cavern, turn around and head pass the landing dock and up the coast. No other area in this national park offers more opportunities to explore sea caves! As you paddle, you’ll glide over giant kelp forests below. Keep your eye on the clock, as you’ll want to be back to the beach area no later than noon.
After eating your packed lunch, I suggest heading out on a hike to a higher vantage point for a view of the island. You can head up Smuggler’s Road or the 2-mile, coastal Cavern’s Loop Point trail where you may spot migrating whales offshore, if you’ve got your binoculars. Birders come to the island to spy the endemic Island Scrub-Jay, not found in any other place in the world. If you skip the morning kayaking, you often can join a morning, guided hike with a volunteer naturalist.
KidTripster Tip: To avoid a steep climb on the Cavern’s Loop Point trail, hike clockwise, beginning from the campground near site #22 and loop back to Scorpion Anchorage.
KidTripster Tip: Make sure to bring enough water as the hiking can be strenuous.
As your time winds down on the island, you may consider snorkeling around the kelp forest which is accessible from the beach. However, know that the water is cold! Wetsuits are available to rent for $25 at the kiosk near the campground. My teenaged sons, who swim in nearly any temperature of water, lasted less than five minutes without wetsuits in late March. Me… I just dipped a toe.
Photo courtesy: National Park Service
Where to eat?
There are no food concessions on the island. You eat what you bring. At Scorpion Anchorage, picnic tables are available at the beach and near the ranch. At Prisoners Harbor, tables are located near the beach.
Where to stay?
While I am a camper, the camping at Scorpion Ranch is more primitive than I’d want to take on personally. The campground is just a half-mile walk from the beach and includes 31 tent sites with water, picnic tables, food storage boxes, and pit toilets (no showers); shade is available. Cost: $15/night; reservations required.
Backcountry camping is available year round at the Del Norte Campground, which is 3-1/2-miles from Prisoners Harbor. There’s no fresh water or beach access here.
If you’re traveling in an RV, you may be tempted to stay at the Ventura Beach RV Resort on the mainland. While it’s a highly manicured property with excellent proximity for biking into town or along the beach, the staff can be very persnickety. Not to mention at more than $100/night for a pull-thru site, it’s extremely expensive. A better option for RVers? Check on the beachside RV parks run by Ventura County.
In addition, our friends over at RVFTA's Campground of the Week podcast have another recommendation. Check out what they have to say here.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re traveling with a dog, know that pets are not allowed on the islands. My family and I used K9 Coastal Dog Walking and Pet Services to provide two walks for our dog while we were gone. We were very happy with the service and communication, complete with texted photos throughout the day.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah travels to national parks with her husband and two sons. She’s logged thousands of miles behind the wheel of the family’s 38-foot RV.
This writer received complimentary transportation and activities for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.