The balcony of the Motel 6 was bathed in California sunrise, the mountains across the highway covered in the same light. Even from the third floor the palm trees stretched over my head. They swayed in the morning breeze, a scratching desert song. We had four hours to get from Twentynine Palms to Ventura, with the Mojave and the city of LA to pass through before arriving at the ocean where our ferry waited to take us to Channel Islands.
Channel Islands National Park is a chain of 8 islands off the coast of Los Angeles. Though they sit mere miles from one of the most densely populated cities on the planet, the islands themselves are almost completely undeveloped. They are a home to many plants and animals that don’t live anywhere else in the world.
The average number of visitors to the Islands in a year is 30,000. This is a relatively small number if you consider the Grand Canyon gets over 4 million. So if you’re seeking a chance to experience some rare peace and quiet along the gorgeous California coast, Channel Islands could be just what you’re looking for.
The easiest way to get there is through Island Packers. They are located in Ventura right next to the Channel Islands Visitor Center. 5 of the 8 islands are available for exploration. I chose Santa Cruz because of its campgrounds and also because it promised to be less crowded than the more popular Anacapa Island.
Book your trip early. I suggest reserving your ferry tickets first and then correlating your campsite if you are staying overnight. There are many people that take the ferry out and stay for the day but I highly recommend bringing along a tent and a few supplies and staying at least one night.
We arrived safely in Ventura after a rushed morning of driving through the desert and then LA. Our ferry left at noon which gave us a little time to explore the Visitor Center. It was an amazing place. Even if you’re only in the area or just thinking about planning a trip out to the Islands, the Visitor Center is worth a stop.
After an hour and a half on the boat, watching the blue Pacific Ocean glide past and seeing sea lions, dolphins, pelicans, and a plethora of other interesting sea birds fly by us, we arrived at Santa Cruz Island.
The ferry deposits you at a long dock and then you’re on your feet for the rest of your Island stay. No cars are allowed on any of the Islands.
We stood on the dock for a long time just gazing down at the ocean floor. You could see crabs climbing around in the sand and beautiful garibaldi fish swimming through the orange kelp.
Walking along the edge of the island you will see this incredible black & blue volcanic sand.
Santa Cruz Island is the one and only home for the tiny Island Fox which is no bigger than a common house cat. They aren’t extremely shy and there is a good chance you’ll see one. Or in our case, quite a few.
The campgrounds are only about a half mile from the dock. We had with us our small tent, a couple sleeping bags, a bag full of food and other supplies, a lantern, and my photography bag. The ferry has a limit on how much weight you can pack onto the boat but we were well under it. The walk took us past golden hills and the old Scorpion Ranch, its farm equipment rusting into the ground, made beautiful by its submission to nature’s embrace.
Just one more thing to love about California: their reservation website for campgrounds lets you choose your own site in any National Park. For Channel Islands we picked a secluded spot next to a gently flowing creek. Gorgeous snow white flowers grew all along the water’s edge. A towering California Oak shaded our site.
We spent the rest of the day exploring the top of Santa Cruz Island. We hiked up towards Potato Harbor. We wound up the golden mountains on an empty trail lined with dry plants, tall thin white flowers that glowed translucent in the sidelight.
We sat by the top of the first ridge and thick fog furled up over the top like smoke from a giant rugged chimney.
We had the entire afternoon and evening at our leisure. That is the one of the most incredible aspects of spending time in an undeveloped piece of land; there are no obligations and no distractions. Each turn led to an even more dramatic view as every harbor got deeper. The ridges of the Island spread out like a rocky pinwheel of cliffside, ocean, and light.
The fog lifted as the sun began to sink lower and lower towards the blue mirror ocean. It seemed unfathomable that 60 miles across its depths there was a city full of 18 million people. When right before my eyes, no single other soul in sight, I had miles and miles of coast all to myself.
Albatross filled the air, constantly moving.
Now that sunset was near, the day-trippers to Santa Cruz were all off the Island. Not that it even mattered because we hadn’t seen another person since we started our hike. But knowing the ferry was gone and wouldn’t be back until tomorrow morning, realizing that it was just us and the handful of other campers on the Island for the entire night was a lonesome and thrilling experience.
We walked on and on, adding our footprints to the vacant trail as I searched for the perfect ridge to view the sunset. There is no such thing as a perfect ridge, though. I just wanted to keep going.
Eventually there came a point where we went no further on the trail. There was only time to stop and stare. The alpenglow shone onto the distant isles. The clouds turned soft and the sky deepened.
I crouched down on a rocky ledge, using my tripod as leverage as the wind whipped around me. We watched the last light of day sink into the water, the ocean hundreds of feet below.
It’s hard to say how far we walked. Time was too easy to lose track of. I’m guessing it was around 8 miles in all, though it’s difficult to say for sure. The Island has many trails and many spectacular hikes. Some take days to complete. There are several more primitive campsites nestled among the mountains for these hikers. Needless to say that is an experience I am determined to have some day.
The bright white moon and the dying fires of fellow campers were the only lights that night.
The next morning I awoke at dawn. A heavy fog had rolled in through the night, blanketing everything around us. We walked back to the dock and sat on a wooden bench, listening to the ocean and admiring the gulls.
No other souls were stirring that morning. We had the entire beach to ourselves. We walked among the volcanic sand and watched the blue waves appear out of grey sky. It was a much different experience from the day before.
For the first time I noticed that the Island has moods. It occurred to me that every piece of particular land has its moods, but it’s become nearly impossible to determine what they are because the majority of the earth that we spend time on has been taken over by humans. By their roads, cars, houses, lawns, stores, farms, fields, cemeteries, churches. There are so few places left that are allowed to just... Be.
And Channel Islands is one of those places.
Something happens when you can’t see city lights, when you can’t hear the rush of cars. There is an anxiety of the restless spirit that drifts away, like a wave taken under and returned to sea. When you spend time in a place like Channel Islands, you are being surrounded by the loving arms of someone much older and wiser than you. It’s why we feel like ourselves when we return to Nature. It’s like going home. It is a home that your soul remembers even if your present body does not.
I haven’t felt this way since Havasu, the other true solitary venture I’ve had. The older I get and the more I travel, I realize these are the experiences I crave most of all. They are a long forgotten necessity inside an ancient dream. I’m slowly waking up to them.
Go and visit Channel Islands National Park. You won’t have any other option than to stop and smell the moonflowers.