Channels Islands National Park – Anacapa
[Channels Islands National Park – Anacapa Island, March 29, 2018]
The five islands that make up Channel Islands national park sit just off the coast of Ventura, CA. They had been on my list for a long time, but their proximity meant that I prioritized other national parks before them. With a four-day weekend for Easter looming with no solid travel plans, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to explore my own back yard and finally visit this national park.
Choosing which island to go to was tricky. Here is the run-down on the five islands:
- Anacapa is the closest one and it only takes an hour to get there, but it’s also the smallest. The trail that loops around the park is just 1.5 miles round trip. The boat schedule can vary seasonally, but either way you are looking at spending between 4-6 hours on this small island, which didn’t sound that appealing.
- Santa Cruz island is the second-closest island and it’s also the largest. It is actually the largest island in California. The two mountain ranges on the island ensure there are hiking opportunities with great views. There are also caves and canyons carved into this island that are fun to explore. There is an adventure outfitter on this island, which makes kayak and snorkeling easier since you don’t have to bring in your own gear.
- Santa Rosa is the second-largest island but it’s farther way – it takes 3 hours one way to reach it, making it tough for a day-trip. Due to its distance from the shore, travel to this island can be choppy and the weather on the island may be windy. Hiking opportunities abound. For those interested in plant life, there are six plant species that only grow here.
- San Miguel islands is even more remote. Travel time is 4 hours one way. Most of the island is off-limits to protect plant life, but you can visit a monument and a ranch site here. You can visit other parts of the island with a ranger.
- Santa Barbara island is the most remote, and currently inaccessible. A recent storm took out the pier where boats dock, and it has not been rebuilt.
Unfortunately, the national park service web site for this park is also difficult to navigate. Info for each island is scattered among several menus. Therefore, to get all the info for a single island, you have to go to multiple places. After much reading and deliberation, I had decided that Santa Cruz island would be the perfect destination for my first day-trip to the Channel Islands. It’s big, it’s close and it has a variety of trails for me to check out during the day. However, my plans were foiled by a fire that broke out on Santa Cruz two days before, so my trip got cancelled. My boat outfitter, Island Packers, offered a refund or a visit to Anacapa island instead. Not wanting to miss an opportunity, I figured a visit to Anacapa island would be better than nothing.
My drive from LA to Venture took just under two hours. When I arrived at the harbor, my first order of business was to duck into the visitor center, which had just opened a few minutes before.
Boarding for my trip was just down the road – so convenient! I checked in for my trip, then walked through the little shop on site. You can grab last-minute items here that you may have forgotten to pack such as water, snacks, disposable camera, a hat, an extra layer of clothing, sunscreen. It’s important that you dress in layers as the weather can be unpredictable on the islands; also, the boat ride can be cold and windy.
The marine layer – the thick layer of fog common in the spring and summer along the Southern California coast – had made its first appearance of the season the day of my trip to Anacapa island. I know that seems hard to believe from the photo above – the coast had started to clear by mid-morning. However, the islands were still shrouded in fog when we arrived. At first I was bummed that I won’t get a clear sunny day for photos. Then, our captain said that the water is calmest when there is fog, and I was thankful for a calm and smooth boat ride to the island.
Once we approached Anacapa, we got close to the three islets that make it up – East, Middle and West Anacapa. Most commercial boat trips take visitor to East Anacapa, which is the only islet open to the public. A limited number of boat trips go to Frenchy’s cove on West Anacapa, pictured below. There is a nice beach here but no trails whatsoever.
We arrived on East Anacapa around 11 am. A ladder climb off the boat and 157 stairs later, we were on shore!
One of the first things I noticed was the beautiful blue of the water. Once again, we had the fog to thank for that. Visibility was great due to the fact that the water was calm, which was thanks to the fog! We could see the kelp forests this island is known for. They are teeming with marine life, which make this island a great spot for divers. The boat you can see in the photo below is actually a diving boat. 🙂
Thanks to technology, you don’t have to dive yourself to see this underwater world. I just happened to google “kelp forest anacapa” while writing this blog and found a live underwater camera feed! There is a total of 7 feeds from the Channel Islands on this site, including a bald eagle cam. I encourage you to explore them!
I was surprised to see that there are a few buildings on Anacapa. They are left over from when the US Coast Guard operated the lighthouse here. It was built in 1932 – the last one to be built on the West Coast. Once the lighthouse was automated in 1968, the buildings were no longer needed. One of them has been converted into a visitor center.
The lighthouse and fog horn are still operational. In fact, the fog horn goes off every 14 seconds, even in sunny weather. Did you know that each fog horn is set to its own unique interval? Approaching ships can use this unique interval to tell which landmass they are approaching if they are completely disoriented.
One of the crew members on our boat offered to do a tour of the island. I would normally take off on my own because I rarely have patience for group tours. However, the island is so small that I thought doing the tour would help me pass the time.
One of the first things we noticed were the seagulls. They were everywhere – thousands and thousands of them. Between them and the foghorn, this was not the quiet idyllic place I was expecting.
For a small island, East Anacapa offered several gorgeous viewpoints. The first one was Cathedral Cove. The little beach here is frequented by sea otters and harbor seals.
Our next stop overlooked Middle Anacapa – you can see it in the distance in the photos below. Our guide asked us to look at our feet and look for something that shouldn’t be there. Someone eventually made out some broken sea shells. It turns out the tiny fragments of shells are evidence of the presence of the Chumash Native American tribe. The Chumash visited the island to fish and hunt. The lack of freshwater kept them from living here permanently. Nevertheless, this island was an important stop on the shortest route between the mainland and the rest of the islands.
Our next stop was Inspiration point, the most scenic viewpoint overlooking Middle and West Anacapa. The clouds were still hanging over the islands, but the view was still amazing.
The last scenic view was at Pinniped point, named after the seals that visit the beach below.
Our final stop was the lighthouse. Getting close to it meant being in proximity of the fog horn, which meant possible ear damage, but we still managed to get a good view.
As you can see, the clouds were starting to lift at this point, but they were still in flux. I debated going back to Inspiration point, but I had been standing for about 3 hours at this point and I was ready to sit down and rest my legs a little. There are picnic tables by the visitor center, so I sat there to eat a snack. Some people had brought full-on picnics and were having a great time eating and laughing.
Once everyone was back on the boat, we went around the easternmost point of the island to get a good view of the sea arch I had seen in the distance on our morning approach. With the clouds finally lifting and the blue sky peeking through, it was a breath-taking sight! We got to see it from all angles and, even though I try not to do this, I took too many photos. 🙂
On our ride back to Ventura, we were very lucky to see a blue whale! Our captain first spotted the “spout”, which is not a water spout at all but a stream of warm air being forced out of the whale’s lungs. Whales only breathe when they are on the surface of the ocean, and the spout is actually their breath. I did my best to take a video, but it was hard due to the motion of the boat and the fact that we didn’t know where exactly the whale would come up for his next breath. Blue whales are the largest mammals on earth and seeing one was a great way to end my trip to Channel Islands national park! I look forward to coming back to explore the rest of the islands in this unique place.