Channel Islands National Park

Days 8 & 9 of our honeymoon adventure

Okay, so before revealing one of the best well kept secrets of National Parks, I want to emphasize how much of our honeymoon was planned just days before. Not the days before we left Virginia to go California for 15 days, but we literally planned day 8 on day 4. Enter Channel Islands.

We originally planned to spend more days in Yosemite than we did because we were originally going to hike a section of the PCT before there was record snow fall and that would have been treacherous. We decided Yosemite would be a better way to get the backcountry camping experience while still remaining in a somewhat civilized area. We saw a bear of course, and we went a day or two without really seeing any other people at one point, but within a state park seemed safer than somewhere in the wilderness on a stretch of a trail that is 2,600+ miles long. So, when we were staked out in our tent to hide from the mosquitoes that have claimed Merced Lake as their home, we drew a map of California and Dan labeled the points of different things we decided we would also like to see, and we calculated travel times. We thought of new things we might need from an REI that was conveniently close to one of our destinations, he changed the rental car plan, and that was that.

One of the new destinations Dan suggested for our amended travel plan was a National Park called Channel Islands. He explained that it was kind of like an American version of the Galapagos Islands and that we could kayak through caves and camp on the island after taking a charter boat. It seemed like a lot of things to coordinate, and it totally was. Here’s how it went.

After leaving Yosemite, we drove to San Francisco and saw the bridge and John Muir National Monument, but it was while walking around San Francisco that I called the Kayak place to schedule a guided tour and also reserved our campsite on Channel Islands to be able to book tickets on a boat to take us there. I felt very guilty at first because we reserved a campsite for a group, meaning like 15 people, but once we actually arrived and saw the camping wasn’t very busy there, I felt relieved to see other couples on group sites too. I would like to emphasize how amazingly lucky it was that we were able to get a campsite and boat tickets with such short notice. Other people we talked to during our trip said they’ve been planning their Channel Islands visit for months.

So from San Francisco we drove to Sacramento for our new convertible rental car, then we drove to Pinnacles National Park for a quick day trip, and then we drove to Ventura, California. We arrived pretty late in the day and I don’t even remember what we had for dinner, but I do remember being mesmerized by the palm tress.

It was pretty foggy and dreary, but the palm trees were ever present.

We arrived a little late to the charter boat place in the morning, which was stressful because apparently there’s a whole check in process and we almost got left behind. But, again, we were extremely lucky throughout this whole trip, and everything worked out. I was surprised to learn that there are 4 islands off the coast of southern California: San Miguel Island, Santa Rosa Island, Santa Cruz Island, and Anacapa Island. Like with many other things in California, these islands were born from plate tectonics and volcanic activity, plus fluctuating sea levels. According to the brochure, during the ice age when water levels dropped, the four different islands were just one island called Santarosae. There is also another island called Santa Barbara Island that is much smaller and farther from the coast than the other islands, and maybe another couple of islands that are now underwater for a total of 8 islands. I’ll have to research this more later.

We had to store our big back packs under the boat, and it was about 30-45 minutes to get from the harbor in Santa Barbara, CA to Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island. We were greeted by Park Ranger Cody who gave us the basic campsite ground rules, but specifically emphasized not taking rocks or shells back with us to the mainland, how the deer mice have hantavirus and you have to be super careful about not stirring up their dusty mouse poop and breathing it in because it could kill you, and also about the very sneaky animals living on this island.

He warned of us about the ravens who could unzip pouches and pockets to get food, and little foxes that know to send one fox as a decoy for campers to ooh and ahh at since they’re so cute and little, while other little foxes sneak around campsites when backs are turned to ravage food supplies. He also warned us to zip our tents up high because these foxes have learned how to push their cute little heads in through zippers low to the ground. We all laughed and could’t wait to see the animals he described, but never thought it would happen to us.

Background on Island Life: At some point, when the water levels were lower, Mammoths swam the channel, mice and foxes drifted over on rafts of vegetation, and plants and seeds floated over. The water levels rose again as glaciers melted, and these animals living on the islands became more isolated and evolved over time. Mammoths became Pygmy Mammoths, Mice and birds grew to be bigger, and those foxes that drifted over shrank to the size of house cats. So, not only do these animals live far from many natural predators, but they are also protected since they are within a National Marine Sanctuary. In other words: these islands are the home of some audacious little critters.

We didn’t have much time to explore before we had to meet our kayak guide and get suited up. The only days the weather wasn’t perfect was during our time at Channel Islands National Park, but even this weather was mild. It was overcast and a little breezy and drizzly, but this only limited how far we were able to see into the distance and not much else. I wore a full body wet suit kind of thing over my bathing suit, plus a water proof jacket. Dan just wore the jacket. We both had to wear helmets, in case of falling rocks, and adventure crocks, in the event that our kayak capsized. Our guide’s name was Jeremy, and he led our group of 4 couples with our tandem kayaks down to the harbor to push off.

Our Kayak crew. We learned about how the caves are created by the wind and water continually wearing away at the sides of the island, which is why we had to wear helmets.
I believe this was on our way to see Scorpion Rock, a mini-island only inhabited by birds. There were many different types of birds, but my favorite was the cormorant. They are diving birds that have dense bones to be able to dive up to 150 ft deep. They also poop on their nests to cement them.
I think if the sun was out better the camera would do the scenery better justice, but the water was such a beautiful, clear blue. Some places were pretty shallow and really helped highlight just how dazzling the water was.
Giant Kelp Forests encircle the islands. I tasted it on the recommendation of our guide. It wasn’t as slimy as it looked, but it was pretty salty.
Santa Cruz Island from kayak.

On this Kayak tour, we saw and held a purple sea urchin (below), we saw some beautiful orange starfish, a harbor seal, a bunch of huge snails, a Garibaldi (orange fish, also below) and some other fish I don’t know. We saw many birds.

Star Students

We also did some, in my opinion, scary cave kayaking. I feel like you can never really control boats or water crafts because the wind and water will do whatever and you have to do your best to navigate around rocks and razor sharp barnacles. This could also be because I do not have super highly developed kayak skills, but all of my worry was for nothing. Our guide gave us the tools we needed and very explicit instruction on how to enter and exit the caves. He also demonstrated successful entry and exit. I loved this experience and would highly recommend it. I took a lot of videos, and will include some of the more exciting ones below. We also got out of our kayaks and into the Pacific Ocean at one point, which was scary (unknown creatures potentially lurking) and exciting (first time to California).

Can you guess why this cave has elephant in the name?

After our kayak tour, we finally made our way to our campsite, set up our tent, and then went exploring.

This is me accidentally quizzing Dan all about random facts we learned throughout the day.
*Chumash Indians

So after our first day of hiking we went back to our campsite and weren’t back for even 5 minutes before a raven unzipped a pouch on my backpack and flew off with a snack bag of mixed nuts. I didn’t get any pictures because Dan and I both tried to chase after it and then it was gone. In Yosemite there are metal boxes to prevent bears from getting food, but on Santa Cruz Island there are metal boxes to keep ravens and foxes from stealing food. A fox was going through other peoples’ campsites before they got back, and while I didn’t get a good picture or video of that instance, this is a demonstration of how adorable and also indifferent to humans these cute little foxes are:

They just come and hang out while people are eating, which is bad because that means other people probably feed them, but it was nice to be able to see them.

We went to bed at like 7:30 because traveling and the exhilaration of cave kayaking is apparently exhausting. After sleeping for 11 hours, we hiked to Potato Head (Harbor). It was so foggy that the water droplets clung to our rain jackets, and then it started misty raining to add to the mix. Everything was squishy and wet, especially the soil. We couldn’t walk 5 steps before the bottoms of our shoes were so clogged up with a sticky muddy mixture that it was like walking on very poorly designed high heel shoes. We sort of got lost at one point, but Dan’s uncanny sense of direction led us along a dry creek bed to return to the trail. We saw several foxes and lots of cool plants along the way.

The remainder of our stay was pretty damp and windy, so I bundled up in all my warm clothes and just read by the pier to await our boat ride back to the mainland. They were very insistent about being early to get on the boat because they didn’t want to have to wait for anyone or leave anyone behind. While we waited, we saw a 10-ish year old struggling to carry coolers and totes of camping supplies all by himself (not sure where the adults were or why this kid was tasked with this), so Dan jumped up and helped him carry stuff back to their campsite.

After our boat ride back to Santa Barbara, we tried to see the flower fields in Lompoc, but we must have missed them because all we saw were vegetable fields.

From there we drove 4 and a half hours to the resort Dan booked in Carmel-by-the-Sea, which is near Monterey, Ca.

**I got most of the facts in this post from the brochure that I saved from our trip to Channel Islands National Park. Anything that is incorrect is my own error in typing or remembering.