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Just a few hours via boat off the coast of Southern California sits the Golden State’s least-visited national park. Comprised of five island groups south of Santa Barbara and west of Oxnard, Channel Islands National Park is a hidden mecca for nature lovers, sports enthusiasts, and just about anyone seeking to escape civilization and experience an unspoiled California from centuries past. On my recent visit to Santa Rosa Island in the national park, I was rewarded with miles of empty white-sand beaches, narrow canyons filled with springs and lush vegetation, rolling hills carpeted by grasses swaying in the wind, a forest of endangered Torrey Pines, unparalleled surfing, wildlife viewing ranging from bald eagles to one-ton elephants seals, and, well, you get the idea.
Like all worthwhile experiences, though, I earned every moment of my stay on Santa Rosa Island. It was grueling, it was dirty, it was exhausting, and it was an adventure I cannot wait to experience again.
I had chosen to visit Santa Rosa Island because even though it’s only the second-largest island in the park, it’s the one with the most land open to the public. Over 53,000 acres are accessible to visitors via 177 miles of hiking trails and roads. The other island groups in the park include Anacapa, Santa Cruz, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara Islands. All are accessible by scheduled (or private) boat service. Santa Rosa can also be reached via plane service on a grass landing strip.
The rocky nothern shoreline of Santa Rosa Island
My 4-day visit to Santa Rosa Island was prefaced with an overnight stay at the Homewood Suites by Hilton in Oxnard. The thought of rushing to drive almost four hours from Palm Springs to catch an early morning boat from Ventura Harbor did not sound like the ideal way to commence an escape from the stress of daily life, and it turned out to be the right choice. My suite was impeccably clean, with a separate bedroom and en suite bath, living room, and a kitchen that featured a full-sized refrigerator (sorry, no conventional oven). And since Oxnard is one of the closest cities to the departure point (and the closest launch point to the islands), it was only a quick ten-minute drive to the pier in the morning.
Boat service was via Island Packers Cruises. The three-hour catamaran voyage passed through pods of dolphins and a few humpback whales, as well as flocks of seagulls, pelicans, and other birds. Limited food and alcohol service was available during the three-hour trip. Roundtrip fare was $120 for adults with discounts for seniors and children under 13.
Before going any further about the island itself, though, now would be a good time to discuss the specific amenities available to visitors of Santa Rosa Island and the Channel Islands National Park.
Simply put, there aren’t any amenities.
There are pair of bathrooms and piped water near the pier and again at the Water Canyon Campground. There are other natural water sources on the island, but they are isolated, sporadic, and require filtering before consuming. Each of the 15 sites in the campground has a wind shelter, a picnic table, and a storage box for food. The campground is located 1.5 miles from the pier, and campers must haul all their own gear and food to the site (60 to 70 pound limit depending upon the length of stay). Campers are also responsible for packing out their own trash at the end of their stay. Only portable stoves are permitted.
Water Canyon Campground
And that’s pretty much it. This is camping at it’s most basic, and it’s part of what makes the trip to the Channel Islands National Park so special and rewarding. An island escape from civilization for a few days means, by definition, you have to leave civilization back on the mainland. The reward, of course, is complete solitude in a setting of stunning beauty and isolation.
After unpacking and getting my campsite in order, I took a stroll down to Water Canyon Beach. The distance from my campsite to the beach was just short of a mile, with an elevation gain of a couple hundred feet on the return. A fifty-foot cliff runs the length of beach, with massive sand dunes blown against their vertical rise. On either end of the beach, rocky outcroppings jut into the sea, creating tide pools with the receding tides. The view for first-time visitors is nothing less than breathtaking.
That initial walk along the beach also reinforced for me a few themes visitors to the park should just accept (and embrace). First, anything worth seeing on the island requires a hike of at least an hour one-way, usually significantly longer. Be prepared to walk and hike a minimum of five miles per day, and upwards of 10 to 20 miles or longer if you plan on exploring some of the more rewarding sites on the island. Another point to consider is that every walk on Santa Rosa Island, even those to the beach or along the rocky cliffs, involves fairly significant elevation gain and loss, and usually at a steep grade. Also, just about all the roads and trails on the island are broken, uneven, and rarely level (something to consider for folks with joint or ligament issues).
Water Canyon Beach
Finally, there’s the wind (and wind-blown sand). Simply put, it never stops. During my entire four-day stay on the island, sustained winds ranged from 5 to 10 mph and up to 20 mph and higher. 40 mph winds are not uncommon and must be prepared for by all campers. Sand is another consideration. It’s everywhere and gets into everything. I tried cleaning the fine-grained sand from my tent for about the first 24 hours, then accepted the inevitable and opted to perform a more thorough cleaning upon my return home. The blowing sand on the beaches should also give pause to those wearing prescription lenses. Folks should strongly consider bringing an alternate, more expendable pair of glasses.
The first hike of my trip was to Lobo and Cow Canyons on the island’s north shore. The entire 14-mile hike took the better part of the day, and included over a thousand feet of elevation gain and loss. It should be noted I did not encounter another person during the entire hike, leaving me to feel as if I had the entire island to myself for the day.
The reeds of Lobo Canyon
The first few miles traversed up and down rolling grassy hills that comprise much of the northern interior of the island before reaching the mouth of the canyon. The trail then descended into Lobo Canyon meandering over a mile in length between steep vertical walls and amid flowing springs and lush vegetation. At one point I was walking on a shaky wooden plank over a marsh filled with reeds growing well over my head. The canyon finally opened to a small cove perfect for a picnic lunch or cooling off those hot feet.
The coastal trail between Lobo and Cow Canyons
I then continued west along the rocky shore walking past tide pools, crashing waves, and an alien landscape of sandstone rock formations carved by the winds. Clearly visible along the route were the refuse piles of shells from indigenous people who inhabited the islands for thousands of years. Known as midden piles, these prehistoric trash heaps are found across the islands and can rise up to several feet in height. Santa Rosa Island, as do all the Channel Islands, has a rich cultural and archeological history. One of the earliest known specimens of human bones in California was found not far from Cow Canyon. Originally dubbed Arlington Springs Man, the bones were actually from a woman who lived on the island over 13,000 years ago. Pygmy Mammoths remains have been discovered on the island as well.
The spring-fed waterfall of Cow Canyon
One current resident of the island is the native Island Fox. This cute critter the size of a small dog has no predators on the island, so you’ll frequently see them roaming and exploring at will. Don’t let their adorable looks and antics fool you, though. These foxes are the ultimate thieves (they reportedly have a penchant for small shiny items), and will find their way into any open (or even unopen) tent or food source, hence the food storage box at each campsite. At one point, I watched a group of four foxes search through several campsites, pausing only to periodically roll around and play in the dirt like puppies, before resuming their kleptomaniac ways.
The cute Island Fox is native to the Channel Islands
Back at my campsite later that afternoon, I was able to get acquainted with the diverse group of human residents at the campground. The 15 sites were filled with several obviously partnered couples, two surfers, several nature lovers, and two other single campers (both women). The best site was taken by two older gay men who told me they and their friends had been coming to the island for years, and rarely stayed for anything less than a week. Using a small travel wagon, they had packed enough items collectively to turn their wind shelter into a veritable tiny house, with a fully functional kitchen, hanging lights, wall decorations and art, and more. Their nightly meals were impressive affairs, with freshly caught fish to go with the items found in their well-stocked portable pantry.
The author's minimalist campsite
Rather than lug around a full cooler of food for my stay, I opted to go light with Good To-Go freeze-dried individual meals. If you think freeze-dried backpacking meals are limited to bland chili mac or cardboard-like lasagna, then you haven’t tried Good To-Go. They’re the creation of chef, restaurateur, and co-founder Jennifer Scism and her co-founder husband David Kooritas. Scism made history on TV’s Iron Chef when she was part of the first team to best Mario Batali. These are real gourmet recipes using only quality herbs, spices, and ingredients, and it shows. The Chicken Pho, Thai Curry, and Cuban Rice Bowl were my absolute favorites, and it seems I am not alone. Good To-Go’s Chicken Pho earlier this year won Backpacker’s 2021 Editor’s Choice Award and was featured along with the Cuban Rice Bowl in their Spring Gear Guide.
The Torrey Pines Trail
The next day I decided to follow the surfers to Skunk Point on the island’s southeastern tip. The hike took me past a grove of Torrey Pines, the rare tree that can only be found along the coast in parts of San Diego County and Santa Rosa Island. Following my 4.5 mile one-way hike to Skunk Point, I found not only my fellow campers riding the crisscrossing waves, but also at least a dozen other surfers who had arrived by multiple boats anchored off the shore. Skunk Point itself was an empty expense of white sand, dotted only by nesting birds and the wrecked remains of the Jane L. Standford, The aging vessel had been damaged beyond repair in a collision with another ship, and was towed to Skunk Point and was sunk using 26 naval wrecking mines over four days in 1929.
The shipwrecked remains of the Jane L. Stanford at Skunk Point
Later that afternoon, I spent several hours alone on Water Canyon Beach reading and contemplating my visit to Santa Rosa Island. Throughout the afternoon, not a single person disturbed my solitude. When was the last time you had a two-mile long beach in Southern California all to yourself during the middle of summer?
My final day I packed up early and decided to explore the remains of the Vail cattle ranch and buildings located next to the pier. The island has a rich history of ranching, with cattle raised on the island before they were loaded onto barges to be shipped to Port Hueneme. The operations stopped in 1998, and the buildings and equipment have been left exactly as they were after that final cattle drive.
A barn from the island's cattle ranching days
My return boat trip to Oxnard took a more direct route and arrived back in port in just a little over two hours. I stayed an additional night at the Homewood Suites by Hilton in Oxnard, before hopping on the 101 freeway to begin my trek home. As I was driving back to Palm Springs, though, my mind alternated between memories of the experience while also planning my next visit to the Channel Islands.
Looking southeast on the trail to Skunk Point
A wealth of information on all the islands in the Channel Islands National Park, including how to reserve a campsite, important planning tips, seasonal weather forecasts, what not to bring, and more can be found online at their site listed below. Visitors to the park should be advised that travel to and from the island during the winter months can be delayed due to inclement weather, and campers should be prepared to remain on the island for several days beyond their scheduled departure. You can learn more about the Channel Islands, including the opportunity to camp on the beach during the winter months, at www.nps.gov/chis/.
HOW TO GET THERE
Island Packer Cruises offers roundtrip overnight and daytrip service to the Channel Islands National Park. They offer a fleet of clean and comfortable catamarans that regularly depart from Ventura Harbor to Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara Islands. Be advised you must have reserved a campsite on the island prior to booking overnight boat service. You can learn more and book a reservation at their website www.islandpackers.com.
WHAT TO BRING
Overnight visitors are allowed to bring 60 pounds of food and equipment, with those staying three nights or longer allowed an additional 10 pounds. You will need to bring in all your own food and the equipment to prepare it, and pack out all your trash. Small portable backpacking stoves and larger Coleman-style camping stoves are permitted, but open campfires or barbeques are strictly prohibited. Bring sturdy hiking shoes or boots, clothes for temperatures ranging from the high 70s during the day and low 40s at night, sunscreen, and bug repellant. You can also bring fishing poles, as freshly caught perch made nightly appearances on stoves throughout the campground during my stay.
WHAT TO EAT
While you can bring in a fully-stocked cooler or portable pantry, I chose to bring Good To-Go freeze-dried meals. They cost not much more than the mass-produced meals you can find at most big box stores and online these days, but taste far better. Their gourmet recipes and choice ingredients make for delicious, healthy, and easily prepared meals one might be tempted to enjoy at home because they are just that good. You can learn more at www.goodto-go.com and @goodtogofoods.
WHERE TO STAY
Homewood Suites by Hilton is conveniently located just off the 101 freeway in Oxnard only ten minutes to the departure point. The rooms are clean and comfortable, and the facilities include a fitness center, pool, jacuzzi, and even a barbeque area and basketball court. You can learn more and reserve a room at their website and Hilton.com.
All photos by Donald Padgett
This piece originally ran in Out Traveler print magazine. The Winter 2022 issue is now available on newsstands.