Take a day to explore the “American Galapagos,” otherwise known as Channel Islands National Park. Home to eight unique mammal species found only on the islands, including the island fox and deer mouse, you’ll find solitude and beauty on the islands.
It takes between 1-4 hours via an Island Packers (www.islandpackers.com) ferry from Oxnard or Ventura Harbor Village to reach the islands. The closest islands, Anacapa and Santa Cruz, are a one-hour ferry ride. Along the way, your captain may point out blue and humpback whales during the summer season.
Santa Cruz Island
The boat ride to Santa Cruz Island via the Ventura Harbor Village is one hour but can be longer, depending on stops and wildlife sightings. In summer, you can spot blue and humpback whales from the ferry. The island is home to one of the world’s largest sea caves, Painted Cave. If the weather is good, the boat makes a stop here.
The island spans more than 96 square miles, making it the largest island in California. Once inhabited by 1,200 Chumash residents who lived in 10 villages, it was later settled by European descendants who built ranches and brought cattle to the island. Santa Cruz is the most developed of the Channel Islands. At Scorpion Anchorage, you’ll find an open-air visitor center with interpretive displays and the path to a campground with water and pit toilets. The bay is the starting point for guided kayak, snorkel and scuba tours. The sole National Park Concessioner at Scorpion Anchorage for kayak and snorkel tours is Channel Islands Adventure Company.
You can also rent kayaks and snorkel gear in Ventura and bring them for a self-guided adventure. Prefer land? Hike the Cavern Point Loop, a clifftop trail to Potato Harbor, for tremendous coastal views.
“I would encourage everyone to go,” says Rebekah Evans, former executive director of Ventura County Lodging Association, who learned to scuba dive off the islands. “You can go for the day or take a dinner cruise around the island and see whales. What I love is our captains are so aware of our animals. They’ll even spot whales with babies.”
No one lives on the islands today, but the Island Chumash people inhabited them for thousands of years, making tomols, a type of plank canoe, to navigate between islands. Human remains dating back more than 13,000 years were discovered on Santa Rosa island in 1959, making them some of North America’s oldest ever found.
Stretching five miles, Anacapa Island is 14 miles from Ventura but feels worlds away. In fact, it’s so isolated from the mainland that the Anacapa deer mouse and two types of plants are only found on Anacapa. It’s a popular spot for harbor seals and California sea lions to rest and breed. And the island’s iconic lighthouse, first lit in 1932, was the last permanent lighthouse built on the West Coast.
Santa Rosa Island
Santa Rosa is the second largest island in California at approximately 53,000 acres, and its 40 nautical miles from Ventura. While it is teeming with life, some of its inhabitants date back to the Pleistocene era like the the Santa Rosa Island subspecies of the Torrey pine, one of the rarest pines in the world.
Santa Barbara Island
The smallest island is Santa Barbara – it’s only one square mile. But it’s got a lot to offer including an opportunity to snorkel in the Landing Cove. You also can also spot California sea lions, harbor seals and northern elephant seals.
San Miguel Island
The farthest west island is San Miguel Island where you can spot more than 30,000 seals and sea lions, depending on the time of year, that breed, give birth and lounge on the island’s 27 miles of coastline. If you’re in great shape, join the ranger-guided all-day, 16-mile round-trip hike across the island to Point Bennett. It’s a four-hour ferry ride one way to get to San Miguel.