Lifestyle

Here’s how to explore an uninhabited California island for one day or 10

You don’t have to travel to the South Pacific to entertain dreams of desert islands. There’s a chain of  uninhabited islands — Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara and San Miguel — just off the coast of California, all easily reachable for a day’s jaunt, an overnight or more. No shipwrecks or Robinson Crusoe shenanigans required.

The five islands of Channel Island National Park are accessible only by boat, with ferries from Ventura Harbor Village available to transport the 100,000 or so guests who visit each year. No hotels — this isn’t Catalina, after all — but each island has campsites where you can pitch your pop-up tent or sleep under the stars. If you’re willing to truly unplug and spend an overnight away from it all, you’ll experience a quiet solitude unlike any other.

Start your adventure at the Channel Islands National Park Visitors Center in Ventura Harbor Village, where Island Packers offers island access cruises of one to three hours, depending on which island you choose. Santa Cruz and Anacapa are the closest — at 20 miles offshore and 12 to 14 miles, respectively — and therefore the most widely explored.

On a clear day, the Channel Islands can be glimpsed from Ventura Harbor Village, your starting-off point for ferry service to Santa Cruz, Anacapa and the other uninhabited islands. (Ventura Harbor Village)
On a clear day, the Channel Islands can be glimpsed from Ventura Harbor Village, your starting-off point for ferry service to Santa Cruz, Anacapa and the other uninhabited islands. (Ventura Harbor Village) 

If you aren’t prepped for an overnight — you’re essentially stranded by your captain until the morning liner cruises in — a day trip can be a great way to see the wilds on foot or by kayak. The 62,000-acre Santa Cruz Island offers 15 trail options, with more on its craggy neighbors. You’ll find trails of all sorts, from quick and easy to long and challenging, on National Park Service maps.

Some of those trails extend a daunting 18 miles, but we recommend something a bit more moderate, especially if your time is limited. Santa Cruz’s Potato Harbor Overlook hike — named for the potatolike appearance of the cove — offers spectacular ocean views and coastal vistas. Start at Scorpion Beach for a five-mile trek or Cavern Point for a two-mile loop with options to keep trekking. (Tip: Do the hike clockwise to avoid a steep climb.)

Island Packers provides ferry service to Channel Islands National Park, dropping off guests at Scorpion Cove on Santa Cruz Island, for example. (Courtesy Chuck Graham)
Island Packers provides ferry service to Channel Islands National Park, dropping off guests at Scorpion Cove on Santa Cruz Island, for example. (Courtesy Chuck Graham) 

Hiking tiny Anacapa instead? Head for the lighthouse, one of the few permanent structures on any of the islands, for an easy, half-mile climb.

If sea caves pique your interest, hop in a kayak. You can take a guided kayak tour, bring your own watercraft or rent one from the Channel Islands Kayak Center, next door to the visitors center. (Tip: Make sure you book that kayak ahead of time and reserve kayak space aboard the ferry, too.)

Just make sure you’re back from any day tripping before the final ship leaves the dock, or you may find yourself camping out without any of the comforts of REI.

While island exploration is likely the crux of your visit, the journey itself is a bit of an adventure. If you tend to get seasick, grab a seat on the upper deck, which provides not only a steady stream of fresh air but the best views. You may spot pods of dolphins swimming past or — with a bit of luck and calendar serendipity — migrating humpback and giant blue whales during the summer months or gray whales between December and April. (Island Packers offers whale and wildlife cruises, too, that don’t include island landings but increase the odds of humpback sightings near the western end of the channel.)

From your perch on an Island Packers ferry or cruise, you can spot dolphins, sea lions, whales and other wildlife on your journey out to Channel Islands National Park. (Courtesy Bob Forbes)
From your perch on an Island Packers ferry or cruise, you can spot dolphins, sea lions, whales and other wildlife on your journey out to Channel Islands National Park. (Courtesy Bob Forbes) 

Back on the mainland, Ventura Harbor Village invites exploration, too. The waterfront shopping complex is home to restaurants, shops, a comedy club and three escape rooms. If you prefer to take your kayak or SUP out into the protected harbor rather than an island cove, you can rent that watercraft here, too.

After your day at sea, grab dinner or mezes at the Greek Mediterranean Steak & Seafood restaurant at Ventura Harbor Village. (Courtesy Ventura Harbor Village)
After your day at sea, grab dinner or mezes at the Greek Mediterranean Steak & Seafood restaurant at Ventura Harbor Village. (Courtesy Ventura Harbor Village) 

Enjoy sunset from the Greek Mediterranean Steak & Seafood restaurant, which is known for its mezes, flaming cheese — served tableside, of course — and seafood entrees and pastas, as well as live entertainment by Greek folk musicians and belly dancers.

No trip is complete without dessert, and the fish cones at Coastal Cone Ice Cream are certainly Insta-worthy. Choose from 40 flavors of ice cream, including pina-vanilla, matcha, ube and caramel pretzel, served in a fish-shaped taiyaki waffle cone.

Staying the night? There’s a Four Points Sheraton and Holiday Inn Express nearby. Or you can lean into the aquatic theme and book a “boatel,” a 39-foot classic yacht, complete with queen-size stateroom, salon and galley, right at the harbor.


If You Go

Channel Islands National Park: Find details on the park, trail maps and virtual tours at www.nps.gov/chis/.

Island Packers Cruises: The national park’s official boat concessionaire offers transport to all five islands with varying frequency — daily crossings to Santa Cruz, for example, and significantly fewer to San Miguel, which is primarily used by overnight campers. (Santa Barbara Island is currently closed due to storm damage.) Crossings for Santa Cruz and Anacapa are $45-$63 for day trips and $61-$84 for overnight campers; prices for the outer islands, which run limited schedules, are higher.

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