A Day at Channel Islands National Park

IMG_2078_LUCiDOn January 31, Seattle-area news outlets reported that there had been 28 rainy days in Seattle throughout the month, tying records set in January 1953 and 2006.

We’re pretty accustomed to clouds and rain after having lived here almost five years, but even this was a bit much for me! I don’t mind the rain and cold, but I did find that a month without sunshine was—well—a bit gloomy.

Thankfully I had three sunny trips in the books for February to help combat any early traces of seasonal affective disorder. This past weekend we went on the first of these adventures, traveling to Los Angeles to spend the weekend exploring Channel Islands National Park, Malibu, and Venice Beach.

My parents visited the Channel Islands several years ago and loved their experience. I thought visiting this lesser-known national park would be an easy weekend away for us as well, especially with direct flights to multiple LA-area airports out of nearby Paine Field. As luck would have it, Brian needed to be in LA for work this week, so we tacked on a weekend to do some hiking in the sunshine.

We decided to visit the main island, Santa Cruz, since this was our first trip and to prioritize time on the island hiking vs. some of the alternative experiences like kayaking or taking a boat along the coast to some nearby caves.

While most excursions to the island take visitors to Scorpion Anchorage, we were headed for Prisoners Harbor because the pier at the Scorpion Anchorage point was under repair. There were basically two hiking options from the Prisoners Harbor dock—an easy, four-mile roundtrip guided nature hike to Pelican Bay, which traveled at the pace of the group, or one of a handful of more adventurous hikes into the hillside for views of the island and coast.

We opted for the latter and decided to tackle the Navy Road/Del Norte Loop—an 8.5-mile ‘strenuous’ hike that we weren’t entirely sure we could complete in the three and a half hours we had ashore. But who doesn’t like a challenge?!

After a delicious breakfast at our hotel in Ventura Harbor, we walked around the harbor to the Island Packers building to check in and get our boarding instructions. There were quite a few people out on their boats, walking their dogs, and buying fresh seafood from a few pop-up vendors along the water.

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We made reservations in advance, so it didn’t take long to pick up our tickets before getting in line to board.

I recommend lining up early if you want your choice of seat on the boat. We really wanted to be up top and in the open air for ideal views around the boat in case we spotted marine life (which we did!), and there were only so many of those seats to be had. In fact, we were a completely full boat and a number of people had to take the hour and a half trip standing!

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The boat was nice with a galley full of drinks and snacks, clean restrooms, and a friendly captain and crew. Each time we came across marine life, the captain would slow down and he or one of the crew would point out the nearby animals and share more about their migration patterns, food sources, and more.

We lucked out and got to enjoy the antics of several groups of common dolphins and a group of three gray whales that were in the process of mating! (According to our captain, it always takes three—two engaging in the act and one who is there to support by keeping the other two close together!)

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I wasn’t feeling great after we had been sitting and rocking around watching the whales for a while and was happy we didn’t have much farther to go to the island. I’m usually ok when the boat is moving, but I cannot sit and rock for very long before getting sick. If this is a concern for you, consider taking along some medication or sitting in the lower back of the ship where it’s more stable than anywhere else.

Once we were on the island and had listened to the brief talk by Ranger Sean, everyone disbursed to the activity of their choice with strict instructions to return to the dock by 2:45 p.m. in preparation for a 3:30 p.m. departure for Ventura. The crew explained that the tide would be low that time in the afternoon so the boarding process would take twice as long given each person would have to climb down a ladder into the boat.

We set off at a quick clip, genuinely concerned about making it around the loop in three and a half hours. The ranger said he thought we could make it—it just depended on your skill/health—and I thought we did enough hiking in our everyday life that we had a chance.

After an uphill climb to the lower cut off to Del Norte Trail where most people were hiking, we took a quick break to apply sunscreen before continuing up Navy Road to the second trail entrance, which we would take all the way around to the first juncture.

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We only passed five people the entire time we were on Navy Road, all of whom were returning from having camped overnight. Apparently no one else was opting to tackle the loop with us!

I appreciated the ranger’s suggestion we make the loop in this direction to get the vast majority of the elevation gain out of our way on our hike in. Doing this section first also meant we were enjoying some of the highest points of our hike during mid-day when the clouds were high enough we could enjoy amazing views of the surrounding area. By the time we were finishing our hike, the marine layer had returned and the views weren’t quite as clear.

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When I didn’t think we could go any further up, we finally reached the second entrance to the Del Norte trail, which looped us down through some grassy areas toward the Del Norte campground. We were ahead of schedule time-wise so I began feeling better about our pace and ability to make it back to the dock on time.

Embracing this new-found peace of mind, I really began enjoying the world around me. There were interesting cacti, bamboo-like plants, and other native species that aren’t found anywhere else in the world, and we saw a variety of birds along the way.

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Once we passed the campground, the trail wound down into a valley followed by an extremely steep ascent back up to an overlook of the coast.

We were both red-faced and gasping for air when we made it to the top, but the relatively flat and easy trail the rest of the way to the dock gave us time to stretch our legs and catch our breath. And the views along the coast were gorgeous!

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We arrived back at the dock around 2:15 p.m. (8.5 miles and 1,680 feet of gain in just under three hours—boom!), which gave us plenty of time to eat some snacks, drink some water, and cool down before catching the boat.

As we were wandering around the dock area, we spotted an island fox! We saw lots of evidence of this creature on the trail—so much so I really couldn’t believe we hadn’t seen one yet—and I was thrilled we were able to catch sight of one before our trip concluded!

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Our boat ride back to Ventura was replete with more whales and dolphins, as well as the sinking sun behind us over the islands.

It was an incredible day and made me want to immediately head back over to explore the other islands. Given how easy it was to make this a day-trip from LA, I have a feeling we will be back!

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2 thoughts on “A Day at Channel Islands National Park

  1. Pingback: Ultimate Travel Bucket List – Heather's Compass

  2. Pingback: Hiking in Malibu, California – Heather's Compass

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