Much as we love the mountains, the coast calls to us in summer, beckoning with the promise of sun, sand and ocean. So in early July, we loaded our vehicle with boogie boards, wet suits and a sunshade, and drove west to Oxnard, California.
Channel Islands National Park
We visited Oxnard for two reasons: beautiful, unspoiled beaches and Channel Islands National Park. Comprised of five islands, Channel Islands National Park is sometimes called the “North American Galápagos.” Like the famous islands to the south, the isolated Channel Islands are home to many species of plant, bird and mammal found nowhere else on earth.
From 1850 until the middle of the 20th Century, ranch cattle roamed the larger islands, part of an anachronistic offshore cowboy culture. Remnants of this agricultural past remain, in the guise of abandoned ranch houses and settlements. Today, however, the primary human activities at the islands are hiking, camping, snorkeling, scuba diving and kayaking.
Sea Caves and Kayaking
We came for kayaking. We kayak on a high alpine lake during the summer and are quite comfortable paddling. Still, while researching options on the Park website, it became clear that we would need a guide. One of the attractions of kayaking at Channel Islands National Park is exploring sea caves. In addition to the inherent danger of kayaking along a rocky shore and venturing into caverns with fluctuating water levels, many of the caves are used by sea lions and seals as nurseries. When protected sea mammals are in residence, humans must stay out.
Which Tour To Take?
The NPS website provides links to a list of kayaking outfitters, some of whom run tours from Santa Barbara, some from Ventura and two from Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard. We went with Blue Ocean, an Oxnard outfitter, because they had their own boat (the others require clients to book a round-trip ferry separately for many of their expeditions). With this outfitter, we would put in at one end of Anacapa Island and kayak to the other, where the boat would pick us up. We chose tandem kayaks, which not only cost less, but are more fun for a family (of all ages – there were children as young as three on our trip).
Water, Warm Sun and Wildlife
Anacapa Island, the closest of the Channel Islands, rises 11 miles off of the California coast. When we left the harbor, it was chilly and foggy. About six miles out, the sun broke through and the ocean changed from grey to a light-spangled deep blue. Dolphins swam alongside the boat, gliding, diving, jumping and epitomizing the word “play.”
The first thing we noticed at Anacapa Island were the abundant water birds. Thousands of oystercatchers, cormorants and brown pelicans make the island their home. Paddling near the rocky shore, we passed brilliant red starfish clinging to the rocks, eternally washed by the waves. We dug our paddles into the canopy of underwater kelp forests and saw seals and sea lions. We explored large caves and entered passageways so narrow that we had to turn our paddles parallel to our boats to get through.
When we weren’t paddling, we relaxed in our boats, enjoying the warm sun. The guides let our group naturally divide into fast, medium and slow paddlers. There was no pressure to keep up or keep a schedule, so long as you stayed within shouting distance of your guide.
Three Islets Equal An Island
Although it looks like one long, narrow island, Anacapa Island is actually a rocky five-mile spine of three islets. We paddled for about four miles, starting in a bay near the western end of one islet. At the far eastern tip of the second islet is an iconic stone arch, created by erosion. When the weather is clear, you can see this arch from the mainland and it is a recognizable symbol of the Channel Islands.
Our journey ended with us paddling through the arch accompanied by the clamoring bark of sea lions on a nearby beach. Exiting our bright kayaks, we climbed onto the boat and claimed our lunches and coolers. Sitting in the sun, enjoying a sandwich and drinking lots of water, we listened to the sea lions vocalizing over the crash of waves, while watching brown pelicans skim the water, rise and dive. We may be inland mountain people, but we too, can appreciate an excellent day at sea.
When You Go…
We did things a little bit backwards and didn’t visit the Channel Islands National Park visitors’ center until our last full day in the Golden State. This was a mistake, because the Park Rangers have a wealth of information on whales, dolphins and other sea life in the park.
Twenty-seven species of whale, including Blue Whales, are found in the Channel, as well as schools of 5,000 or more dolphins. Had we been aware of the huge numbers of sea mammals being spotted, we would have added a whale watching trip to our itinerary.
The rangers also have advice and information on hiking and camping on the islands. Now that we’ve dipped our paddles into park waters, we plan to step on land and spend the night on our next visit. Tents, sleeping bags and a stove will join our boogie boards and wetsuits as we head west.
The visitors’ center is located in Ventura Harbor and is open 8:30-5:00 daily. There is an observation tower, excellent interpretive exhibits covering the rare species found on the islands, as well as archaeological information about the prehistoric mammals and Native Americans who once called the Channel Islands home. There is also a Junior Ranger program and an excellent short film, which is shown by request.
For more information, please visit the NPS Channel Islands National Park website.
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