Channel Islands offer pristine beaches, rugged mountains off coast of California

The eight Channel Islands off the coast of California offer plenty of incredible views, including marine life and kelp forests. At 22 miles long,  Santa Cruz Island is the largest island in Channel Islands National Park.

“Whole lotta things I ain’t never done…

“I ain’t never had too much fun.”

— Commander Cody

Abundant marine life, pristine kelp forests, rugged coastline and hidden sea caves make the Channel Islands a world-class destination for someone who “ain’t never had too much fun.”

The eight Channel Islands span 160 miles off the west coast of Southern California. Five of them (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara islands) are included within Channel Islands National Park, approximately 25 miles west of Santa Barbara and Ventura in the big, blue Pacific Ocean.

All eight islands (the other three include San Nicolas, Santa Catalina and San Clemente) help form the Santa Barbara Channel, the sixth busiest shipping channel in the world.

Yet, the islands offer pristine beaches, rugged mountains, lonely canyons and grass-covered hills, all surrounded by an incredibly lush ocean environment that preserves and protects a wealth of natural and cultural resources.

Sea kayaking here is fabulous for weight loss, stress reduction, improved core strength and increased cardio vascular health, not to mention the fact that it’s a whole lotta fun, and it’s great for the head!

These islands lie in a region between the mainland coast of southern California and the deep ocean called the Continental Shelf. According to the National Park Service, the sea floor here is comprised of “canyons, banks (underwater plateaus), escarpments, sea mounts and deep basins.”

In fact, at a depth of 6,448 feet (1,996 meters), the Santa Cruz Basin is deeper than the Grand Canyon.

This topography — shallow and deep, smooth and rugged, sunlit and dark — creates habitats for a diversity of species, says the Park Service.

While on this water, we were joined by a pod of about 65 common bottle-nosed dolphins, a plethora of harbor seals, sea lions and starfish, hundreds of species of unidentifiable fish, tiny plankton and sponges — but we didn’t see any orca or giant blue whales.

Good reason to go back!

Santa Cruz Island is the largest island in this incredible national park. Apparently it’s a miniature of what southern California looked like more than 100 years ago, including the leftovers of a major sheep ranching operation that over-grazed much of the local native vegetation.

Encompassing 61,972 acres, Santa Cruz is 22 miles long and from two to six miles wide. Two-thirds of the island is now owned by the Nature Conservancy and the remaining one-third is owned by us, through the National Park Service.

That’s where we camped, and where we met up with the Chumash Nation. The Chumash had inhabited this area for at least 9,000 years at the time of European contact (Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s voyage in 1542).

They ate fish, shellfish, sea mammals and seabirds. Europeans introduced them to veggies, grapes, wine, fruits and nuts. It messed with their digestion, and with the native plants and animals once found here.

There were approximately 1,200 Chumash living on this island in 1542. They traveled on “tomols” — handmade dugout canoes — between the islands, trading for food and various other goods needed for survival. However, the Spanish also introduced diseases as they began to colonize California.

By the early 1800s, the Chumash population had been devastated by measles and other introduced epidemics. The last of the Chumash islanders were relocated to the mainland in 1822.

At the turn of the last century, Santa Cruz Island was actually home to the largest wine operation in the country, featuring fine Zinfandels. However, that operation ended with Prohibition in 1919. It was then that the island was taken over by a massive sheep herding operation.

In 1976, the Chumash re-created their journey from mainland to island in historic, hand-carved “tomols.” Since then, the Chumash Nation still living in and around the Los Angeles area gather once a year on Santa Cruz Island.

We happened to show up on the island during the annual Chumash Nation re-creation of this historic journey, and the island was packed. However, after a wonderful two-mile hike that provided magnificent coastal vistas, the campground cleared, serenity — and five or six endangered Island Fox — returned to our campground.

In 1938, Anacapa and Santa Barbara islands became Channel Islands National Monument. In 1980, Congress established the national park.

The waters extending out six miles from each island are a National Marine Sanctuary. Since then, the NPS and the Nature Conservancy have made every effort to safeguard and preserve plants, animals and cultures found within this park.

Private boaters may land on all five islands within the park. Public boat transportation is available year-round by the park concessionaire Island Packers.

In addition, Island Packers offers whale-watching trips, sea kayak rentals and excellent guided tours. Call 805-642-1393, or contact them at

“I ain’t never had too much fun,” but sea kayaking around Santa Cruz Island sure came close!


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