Sea kayaking off Santa Cruz Island is the rare adventure that's both authentic and yet readily accessible. While close enough to Santa Barbara that you could comfortably go there and back for a day trip (the island is one of five off the coast, which together comprise Channel Islands National Park), you could also opt to spend a week camping on the island and still see something new every day. The kayaking is safe for everyone from soft beginners to callused pros, and yet when you're paddling through sea caves or below the 390-foot cliffs surrounding parts of the island, you'll get a legit buzz – a completely different affair from your typical no-experience-necessary Mickey Mouse ersatz adventure. Even the ferry ride out to the islands is amazing.
The 22-mile trip from Ventura Harbor to the Scorpion Ranch anchorage off Santa Cruz Island takes a little over an hour. Though that depends: "Sometimes it takes us a little longer," warns the captain over the loudspeaker as Island Adventure I pulls away from the harbor. "That's because we brake for cetaceans." An astonishing near one-third of all the cetaceans in the world (that's whales, dolphins, and porpoises to you and me) are found in the waters surrounding the Channel Islands, including gray, blue, humpback, minke, sperm and pilot whales. There's also the occasional orca, as well as a collection of porpoise and dolphin species, large populations of sea lions, seals, and a variety of sea birds. At any rate, when the boat slows, you know you're likely to see something memorable.
Once on the island, our Santa Barbara Adventure Company guide gave us a brief overview of Santa Cruz's often curious history – for one, that Santa Cruz was once a working sheep ranch, and remnants of its ranching days still exist – followed by an introduction to the kayaks, paddles, and gear for exploring the island's coastline and caves. Once on the water, we paddle in to explore some of the caves (colorfully dubbed Elephant's Belly, Green Room, In N' Out, and Cavern Point) as our guide explains the unique geology that formed the islands – like how once attached to SoCal, the islands are volcanic rock directly over a fault line – and the complex ecosystem all around us that the islands support. In an afternoon, we saw harbor seals sleeping on top of kelp paddies, large groups of sea lions feeding, cormorants perched on cliffside nests, brown pelicans skimming the crystal clear water, and chirping newborn western gulls. Whether you're running solo or toting a family of six, it's one of the most rewarding and time- and cost-effective trips we know of, and one of our favorite trips on the entire West Coast. [From $172 single day, ferry included; sbadventureco.com]