This post, day trip to Channel Islands National Park, comes after a hiatus of a year, a year during which my most significant achievements were finding a job, finishing my PhD, and relocating. Clearly, I have been busy writing things other than my travel memoirs- my dissertation, research papers, and my CV. Given how less I write here, I was still surprised to find my name in the list of top 20 authors.
I was on house arrest most of the time, but there were some interesting travel experiences.Notable were a trip to Kashmir, a brief layover at Dubai, and visiting Delhi and Agra. More about that later. This park had always fascinated me for two reasons, one, because it is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, away from the coast, and two, because I did not see many people traveling there.
When people visit California, I see pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the seacoast of Los Angeles and San Diego, Universal Studios, Disneyland, Lake Tahoe, or Yosemite. When I looked at the map and read up more, I was all the more intrigued. I was going to be in San Diego for a conference in August, and this place seemed near enough to make a daytrip. I needed no further nudging.
Channel Islands National Park (located in California, United States) is a cluster of five small islands- San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Anacapa, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz, varying in area and distance from the mainland. Although close to the shores of Southern California, they are isolated for many reasons. There is no way to reach there unless you take a park concessionaire boat, plane, or private boat.
You carry your own food, and bring back your own trash. Overnight camping needs prior permission. Even riding the boats need advanced booking, and are totally sold out during the weekends in summer. Given the amount of planning that goes into reaching there, I am not surprised that it is somewhat less crowded, and rightly so.
I chose to go there on a Monday, because the weekends had totally sold out. When I visited the website for Island Packers, Santa Cruz was my only option. A roundtrip cost me $60, where the boat would leave Ventura at 10 in the morning, and would head back to Ventura at 4:30 in the evening. A good 7-8 hours sounded perfect.
They asked me to check in 45 minutes before the trip. So I started from San Diego before dawn, drove up to Ventura, parked my car for the day (car parking is free), and collected my boarding pass. The boat are nice and spacious, with clean restrooms and food services (they only accept cash). It was a cloudy and cold morning in Ventura, and I wondered how much I would be able to see in the cold. They oriented us to the ride, clearly telling us that the one hour boat ride would get bumpy and if any of us had a history of seasickness, we should sit in the lower deck.
I was already feeling brave for a day of adventures, and I had no experience riding a boat in the middle of the ocean. Most of my ferry rides were limited to taking one to Howrah from Calcutta, or the ones that go to Bainbridge Island or Vashon Island from Seattle.
Even the one in Outer Banks in North Carolina hadn’t been that bad. Needless to say, I headed straight up to the upper deck to get a better view of the ocean. They promised us seals and dolphins and whales if we were lucky. The first thing I did when I went up was put a thicker jacket on. It was cold even at ten in the morning, and we had not yet started.
On a side note, if you are used to Southern California weather, you will know that morning does not show the day despite the popular adage. Sometimes the mornings are cloudy and gloomy, with barely any sun visible, and by the time it is close to noon, it is brilliant and sunny. I did not want to lose hope.
The boat ride started after a brief orientation about how to use a life jacket (this always happens during my plane rides as well; I always wonder how much I’d be able to act smart and save myself, lifejacket and all, in case of an emergency). I looked around, and other than another Indian family, I was the only Indian. It was just an observation. I wasn’t really planning to chitchat with anyone on the basis of shared cultural heritage.
The hour long boat ride started well, and I did see seals, whales, and a lot of birds I did not identify. However as we went deeper into the ocean, I realized the full impact of what the people had meant when they said that the upper deck was not for the fainthearted. Saying the ride was bumpy was an understatement.
In less than an hour, I felt my insides being churned like the contents of a mixer grinder, and I was not too far from falling sick with dizziness. The ride was so bumpy that I could not even dare to climb down to the lower deck in the middle of the trip. For some unknown reason, the title song from the movie Titanic kept playing in my head, annoying me.
I had soon loosened my clothes to get some fresh air, contorted myself into a fetal position, and prayed that I did not fall sick. The foamy sea waves splashed on me as the boat navigated the crests and troughs of the ocean waves. I tasted salt on my skin. The cameras and lenses quickly went inside the bag.
My sickness receded somewhat as the view of the islands became clearer. The sky had started to clear up, the sun was showing, and the ocean had changed colors from a depressing grey to brilliant blue. The sight of the islands from a distance reminded me of my trip to Sicily. I was definitely excited. When we anchored there and it was time to get off the boat, I stood up and walked with wobbly legs. There was a woman who got seriously sick, poor thing took a long time to recover, and kept sitting by the banks with her son and husband.
The water sparkled so clear, I could see the seaweeds floating. The big group of people wearing blue jackets and blue helmets were on yellow kayaks. The boat dropped us off and left, asking us to be on time in the evening. The park ranger was a young lady who oriented us to the island, asked us to not throw trash around but to carry them with us, and told us about some of the hiking trails.
Some enthusiasts had already walked off to hike before she was done. I on the other hand was tired after my first taste of seasickness. There were a bunch of tourists who sat by benches to grab a bite, and I did the same. Although I was planning to eat an apple, I had a blueberry muffin, to get the extra sugar before I started the hike. I was glad that I had packed bottles of Gatorade and cold water too.
Around the bench were interesting looking exhibits, remnants from a ranch. There were old skeletons of tractors, machinery, and house models. They even have a tiny museum where there are models of the way people lived here, what they ate and what they did. Archeological exhibits said that people have been living in this island for more than 9,000 years.
Now how did they end up there in the first place, families and animals and all, way before electricity was invented or gas was discovered, I have no idea. How they kept themselves warm (or cool, depending on the weather), how they transported animals, and how they survived harsh weather, I have no idea either. Some more details are here.
The sun was blazing by that time, and I started hiking the cavern point trail from Scorpion Anchorage which goes up to the very top of the island and has a breathtaking view of the oceans. It is an easy hike, but I took my time, taking pictures, exploring, and basking in the wowness of the views as I hiked higher.
There were birds, pelicans, ravens, and the ones I did not recognize. The amazing thing about ocean weather is that one moment it is cloudy, and the other moment it gets sunny, and then cools down again. It was a very windy day. I met a few fellow hikers on the way, chatted them up, and spent a long time exploring, walking around, and taking pictures. By the time I came back, the apples, Gatorade, and oranges were all over.
From the top, you get an amazing view of the other islands (probably Anacapa island). When you hike further, you get a beautiful view of the coves, the flying birds, and the kayaks below that look nothing more than tiny yellow lines in water. One feels small and humble in front of the mighty Pacific.
I wish I had stayed for the sunset, but my boat was leaving at 4:30 pm, and it gets dark much after that in August. When I came down, I spent some time sun basking, lying down on the cobblestones and watching people go kayaking and diving. There was a huge crowd of people on our way back, these were people who had camped the night before.
They were armed with backpacks, camping gear, ice boxes, and other paraphernalia. I was wiser on my way back and chose to sit in the lower deck, still enjoying the views but not getting seasick this time. The wind was chilly, and I even dozed off at some point.
When I came back at around 5:30 pm, the cold and cloudy Ventura that I had left in the morning was now golden sunny. The palm trees very characteristic of southern California stood in rows of hundreds, and much to my amusement, I discovered private boats that had names like “The Godfather” and written on them. When I got off the boat, I was a much happier person for having done this day trip.
Notes: Although this is a national park, you do not pay entry fees. The boat ride is all you pay for.
There are restrooms in the island. They said they even have drinking water, but I carried my own. The restrooms on the boat are way nicer, so I used them.
The other islands are even farther off, and were sold out even on weekdays. If you are a first timer, it doesn’t matter where you go since I am sure all islands are equally pretty. However, make reservations in advance.
Remember, everything goes with you and comes back with you. Even trash.
Dress in layers. It could get anywhere from uncomfortably hot to biting cold.
For more information, you should explore this page.