Channel Islands National Park: Boat Trip to Santa Cruz Island


As I was planning my trip to southern California, the islands off the coast of Los Angeles caught my eye.  Five of the eight Channel Islands make up a National Park.  Until I did a little research, I didn’t know much about them, but I quickly figured out that an island trip would be the perfect way to kick-start my vacation.

I’ll talk more about what I discovered on Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the Channel Islands, on the next page.  This page is all about the trip to the island, which as it turns out, can be quite a wild ride.

Park concessionaire Island Packers provides transportation to the islands.  Their boats sail out of Ventura and Oxnard.  On this day, the boat to Santa Cruz was leaving out of the Port of Ventura.  That’s the boat, right there in the middle, amongst all the smaller boats.

The Islander is one of Island Packers’ two bio-diesel fueled catamarans, which can carry up to 149 passengers.  Both boats are 64 feet long, and can travel at up to 22 knots.

Island Packers asks passengers to check in 30 minutes or more before the voyage, so after signing in and paying my fare, I had a few minutes to wander around.  Across the street from the harbor, there are some small sand dunes, a wide beach, and the Pacific Ocean.  Now that I think about it, I should have noticed that those waves are pretty darned big.

A few minutes later, I was on the boat…

… sailing past the hundreds of expensive yachts that are tied up in Ventura Harbor.

At this point, it was smooth sailing, but the easy ride was about to end.

A jetty marks the end of Ventura Harbor.  It also acts as a breaker for the big waves that lurk on the other side, in the Pacific Ocean.  Because of those waves, the trip to Anacapa Island had been canceled for the day (Anacapa is smaller than Santa Cruz, and has fewer hiking opportunities, which is why I had selected Santa Cruz instead).

After passing that jetty, I wasn’t onboard a boat anymore.  It was a roller coaster.  It’s almost impossible to take a picture of a wave on the open water, so this wave looks pretty puny.  In reality, the seas were 8 to 10 feet, and one wave after another came crashing over the boat, often spraying above my seat on the boat’s upper deck.

Within minutes, the fun wore thin.  I began to realize that I was in for a very long, very exhausting boat ride.  I was determined not to go running for the railing, and losing my breakfast.  More accurately, my goal was not to be the first to do it.

On the way to Santa Cruz Island, the boat stopped once, when someone reported seeing some whales. I grabbed my camera and moved to the opposite side of the boat, hoping to catch a glimpse. But I quickly realized that I was so seasick, I didn’t care if a whole pod of whales were swimming by the boat.  Heck, I couldn’t have even stayed on my feet if they were mermaids.  I quickly reclaimed my seat on the port side of the boat (that’s the left side, if you’re facing the bow, or front of the boat), and grabbed tightly to the bench with both hands.

I had heard that the secret to surviving motion sickness was keeping your eyes focused on the horizon, on something that wasn’t moving.  That way, there wouldn’t be conflict between the motion you feel, and what you’re seeing.  I chose to focus squarely on the sea arch at the eastern tip of Anacapa Island.

The arch stayed in view for what seemed like an eternity, but eventually it faded in the distance.  Then, I changed my focus to the high point of Anacapa: 930-foot Summit Peak 2, on the west island (Anacapa is made up of three islets).

The boat makes two stops at Santa Cruz Island.  The first is at Scorpion Anchorage, on the northeast side of the island.  This part of Santa Cruz Island is owned by the National Park Service, and all the trails that begin here are self-guided.  Most people chose to get off the boat at the Scorpion pier, which requires visitors to take several steps up a ladder.

While docked at Scorpion, I had a great chance to recover from the rough ride, and even take a few pictures.  Off the back of the boat, there’s a great view of some of the sea stacks off the Santa Cruz Island coast, with Anacapa Island’s peak appearing behind them.

When the boat started moving again, I took a few more pictures, but I didn’t waste much time getting back to my seat.  The ride from Scorpion Anchorage to Prisoner’s Harbor was just as rough as the rest of the trip, since the boat had to return to the deeper, choppier water for the trip around the island’s jagged coast.

The pier at Prisoner’s Harbor was a welcome sight.  The boat ride had taken nearly two hours.

Those of us that remained on the boat got off here.  Once again, a climb up a short ladder was required.

I’ll cover my hike from Prisoner’s Harbor to Pelican Bay on the next page.  For now, let’s fast-forward to the return trip to Ventura.

Fortunately, I had the good sense to take a Dramamine while waiting on the pier to board the boat.  The water was a slight bit smoother on the return, too.  Both factors helped free me from my death-grip on my seat, and allowed me to take a few pictures.

The trip back follows the coast of Santa Cruz Island.  I switched sides, this time sitting on the starboard side of the boat, so I would have a good view of the coastline.

Santa Cruz Island has some beautiful mountains, which plunge directly into the ocean…

… as well as numerous sea caves.  This is one reason the Channel Islands are popular with sea kayakers.  Island Packers will allow you to bring a kayak onboard, so you can spend your day at the island rowing and floating offshore. I imagine a calmer day would be more appropriate for kayaking than the one I experienced (I didn’t see anyone kayaking during my visit).

There were no more whale sightings on the return trip, and the rest of the boat ride was uneventful.  I had managed to fight off sea sickness on both legs of the trip, and still had enough strength to make the hike.  All things considered, that’s a pretty good day.

Check out the fares and schedules at the Island Packers website.

California Highway 154: San Marcos Pass Scenic Highway

In the unlikely event that you’ve grown tired of driving along the California coastline, there’s a scenic alternative to consider, west of Santa Barbara.  California Highway 154, also known as San Marcos Pass Road, quickly gains altitude as it twists and turns into the mountains.

I found this road by mistake, thanks to my GPS.  To a computer, I suppose it looks like a shorter route to head over the mountains, rather than following Highway 101 west (along the coast), then north.  The Pacific Coast Highway is almost definitely a quicker route, even if it is longer.  Route 154 is two lanes, full of curves and steep grades, while 101 is a 4-lane highway.

I started into the mountains just after sunset, and just before a downpour of rain arrived, so I didn’t get to see everything that this stretch of highway offers.  But, you can watch the first few minutes of the drive on this Drivelapse video.

San Marco Pass Road skirts the edge of Lake Cachuma, a manmade lake formed by the Bradbury Dam.  You should catch some occasional glimpses of the lake as you drive by on Route 154.

Keep following Highway 154 — it will eventually run into US 101, and you can continue on to the Pismo Beach area.

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