Channel Islands Insight
“Lean back and stow your paddles,” I bark out as our kayaks approach the narrow sea cave entrance. Sunlight reflected in the water, lights the cave from below and creates a majestic emerald glow that glistens off of the volcanic rock ceiling. We’re in the “Green Room.”
Our kayaks enter the main chamber where more than 20,000 years of winter waves have beaten the more erosive rock away. This is one of over 200 sea caves at the Channel Islands National Park, one of the best places in the world to explore these types of rock formations. “Oooohs” and “Ahhhhs,” are all I hear as the kayakers glide through the chamber and back to the exit.
When I first set foot on the Island Packers ferry at Ventura Harbor in 2002, I knew nothing about these remarkable islands. Having grown up in New England, I pictured islands off of Southern California to have white sandy beaches and palm trees lining gentle sloping shores. My arrival at Santa Cruz Island proved that my imagination was tainted by Hollywood and that the Channel Islands were far more dynamic than the tropical Gilligan’s Island portrait I had painted in my mind.
Instead, steep black cliffs with white veins rose sharply from the crystal clear water’s edge. The beach was sandy, but a dark sand that made more sense to me after noting that the rock was volcanic. The canyons were juvenile and gave me the impression that I was on a newly formed planet where the effects of water were clearly displayed by each rainstorm and flood. I was blown away!
Since that first boat trip over a decade ago, I have been working as a professional guide at the Channel Islands National Park. I have explored all eight islands in the Northern and Southern Channel Islands chain (some more than others) and circumnavigated three by kayak. I have crossed the channel from the coast of Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz Island six times and from Oxnard to Anacapa Island twelve times. And after all of this, I still have a laundry list of adventures in this unique region that have yet to be accomplished.
Often asked what my favorite island is, I honestly can’t answer definitively. But here are a few of my favorite Channel Islands adventures!
East Santa Cruz Island seems definitely crafted for everyone’s optimal enjoyment. With a nice broad valley opening onto a rocky beach, the options for kayaking, snorkeling, diving, hiking, and camping are pretty awe-inspiring. Guided kayaking tours depart daily from this beach with sea caves—cluttering the cliffs in both directions—accessible almost immediately after launch.
A perennial kelp forest in the leigh of the pier is usually home to several Harbor Seals that curiously poke their head out of the water like a submarine’s periscope to inspect snorkelers. The beach at Scorpion Ranch is nicely protected from the prevailing north-west winds that are common in the afternoons. These winds make the mornings a preferred time for venturing out on the water. Only .4 miles to the West lies the secluded beach of Potato Harbor, a destination that is only reachable by kayak or small vessel (or a very dangerous cliff descent). And just beyond Potato Harbor is a cluster of sea caves at Coche Point well worth the additional hour of paddling.
Kayaking Anacapa Island
Known for its ubiquitous arches and through-caves, Anacapa also offers an unbelievable display of amazing island life, most notably marine mammals. But while many elements of this island are enticing, (90% of which reside in the surrounding waters), the onshore options are limited. Camping is available, and highly recommended ONLY if you plan on circumnavigating the island by kayak the next morning. Otherwise, a visit with hike included requires about an hour at most.
Circumnavigating Santa Barbara Island
Sea lions, and Elephant seals, and Cormorants, Oh My! Postage stamp-sized Santa Barbara Island rests far from the mainland. And while surrounded by four other islands, its distance from each adds to its air of isolation. Sea caves, arches, enormous kelp forests, and beaches with pinniped orchestras create a stunning backdrop for camping. But be sure to bring kayaks and gear for snorkeling or diving.
Go with those in the Know
One important point to remember about visiting the Channel Islands National Park is that unless you have your own boat and a knowledgeable Captain, you’ll only see select areas using the public ferry system. If you want to truly explore distant and less visited locations, you need to be on a live-aboard vessel packed with kayaks and dive/snorkel gear. This gives you the ultimate freedom to explore where the weather is good and the crowds are non-existent. In fact, the only crowds you’ll probably encounter on these adventures are rafts of sea lions or pods of Common dolphins. And the more the merrier!
Along with being a professional guide for the Channel Islands National Park, Garrett Kababik is also the co-owner of Channel Islands Outfitters, a water sports adventure store offering kayak and paddleboard rentals as well as tours. You can also find guided Channel Islands trips here.