Channel Islands National Park Is an Adventure Paradise Hiding in Plain Sight

Prisoners Harbor
The view out to Prisoners HarborChuck Graham

Staggered 60 miles west of the Los Angeles megalopolis, yet worlds apart in terms of biodiversity, human history and adventure, exploring the Channel Islands National Park is like traveling through a time warp to an “old California,” 300 years prior.

The five isles that comprise the park include Santa Barbara, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel. Together, they constitute one of the least visited national parks in North America. In fact, out of the 366,000 people who visited the park 2019, only 31 percent ventured inside the park boundaries. Most of those go ashore at Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island, the largest isle off the coast, and, for the last 20 years, the main offshore hub of the park. The rest go no farther than the park visitor center inside the Ventura Harbor on the mainland.

The Channel Islands are also known as “the Galapagos Islands of the north” for their rich natural history such as the diminutive island fox, the largest pinniped colony in North America, the oldest human remains on the continent, and Columbian and pygmy mammoth remains scattered throughout its eroding canyons. However, kayaking its otherwise inaccessible coastlines, coves and numerous sea caves is the best way to immerse yourself in these volcanic isles.

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World-class sea cave touring abounds for visitors willing to explore. Chuck Graham

Currently though, visitation is in a state of flux at Scorpion Anchorage. The current pier, temporary for the last 18 years, is being discarded and a new, elaborate pier is in the throes of construction. Therefore, Scorpion Anchorage, the busiest drop-off at the Channel Islands, is shut down beyond Summer 2020.

“The new Scorpion Anchorage pier will be a major improvement to the visitor experience and to critical park infrastructure on the islands,” said Channel Islands National Park Superintendent Ethan McKinley. “We apologize for the temporary lack of access for both park visitors and partners and look forward to improved access due to this major infrastructure project.”

For Island Packers, the ferry concessionaire to the islands for the last 51 years and Channel Islands Adventure Company, the kayak concessionaire at Scorpion, it means trips outside the box. Islands Packers is shuttling visitors to nearby Prisoners Harbor, six miles west of Scorpion. Channel Islands Adventure Company has also relocated kayak tours to Prisoners. The region is breathtaking with cobble-strewn coves and native island flora clinging to its wave-battered cliffs. Profusions of bright orange garibaldi damselfish abound, as do cheeky harbor seals and reestablished bald eagles.

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Island Packers, the national park’s ferry service concessionaire, is offering visitors new drop-offs this year on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands. ChuckGraham

“We want to provide trips for the visitor as much as we can to the islands,” explained Cherryl Connally, part owner of Island Packers. “We are responsible to abide by the park contract as the concessionaire. We need to be positive and know when the pier is done, it will be really great. We have learned to manage and work with the changes. At least we have some places to go. The park service is doing the best they can.”

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Fortunately, Prisoners isn’t the only stopgap for the two island concessions. There’s much to explore in this remote National Park. Island Packers will be transporting campers and day-trippers to neighboring Santa Rosa Island throughout the winter, a first for the long-time company. It will also ferry visitors to other parts of Santa Cruz Island, such as Willows and Cueva Valdez Anchorages and Frys Harbor.

As for Channel Islands Adventure Company, it is attempting to create additional kayaking trips by partnering with Island Packers and other boating companies in Ventura and Santa Barbara Harbors to various parts of Santa Cruz and Anacapa Islands pock-marked with accessible sea grottos.

“Channel Islands Adventure Company is excited throughout the Scorpion Anchorage pier construction to be able to offer sea kayak tours at the more remote Prisoner’s Harbor,” said General Manager Kim Vawter. “We plan in the Spring and Summer of 2020 to offer additional Channel Islands National Park tour options to guests through partnership with Island Packers and other local businesses that offer transport to the islands. We recommend following our social media (@islandkayaking) for further updates.”

Resources: Island Packers (805)-642-1393 / Channel Islands Adventure Company (805) 884-9283

Emerald Cove Santa Cruz Island
Paddling the Emerald Cove on Santa Cruz Island. Chuck Graham

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