A Rare Look at the Islands: Special excursions offered by Island Packers give nature lovers a new way to explore Channel Islands National Park.

    ANACAPA ISLAND is small and close to the mainland, but teeming with wildlife. Photo by Dan Harding

    By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

    The Channel Islands off the Ventura County coast offer a myriad of adventures to be enjoyed by land and by sea. Thousands of visitors cross the Santa Barbara Channel every year to see the wildlife, underwater splendors and unique island ecosystems of Channel Islands National Park (CINP) and its surrounding Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. From pretty little Anacapa just a few miles from the mainland to popular Santa Cruz with its vast coastline and hiking trails to the remote and windswept Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara, these islands are unlike any place else in the world. And for most of us, our ticket to this Central Coast island paradise is concessionaire and boat operator Island Packers.

    Whether you’re new to the Channel Islands or a frequent visitor looking for something unique, Island Packers has an action-packed summer ahead.

    LIGHTHOUSE on Anacapa Island. Photo by Doug Mangum

    Cruising Anacapa Island

    For anyone visiting the Channel Islands for the first time, Anacapa Island is an excellent entry point. It’s the one closest to the mainlad, just 12-14 miles offshore depending on whether you’re departing from Oxnard or Ventura. Long and thin, and made up of three closely set islets, there’s just under one square mile of land to be explored.

    The coastline, on the other hand, is a haven for wildlife of all kinds. The largest breeding colonies of California brown pelicans (on the cliffs of West Anacapa) and western gulls (all over Anacapa) can be found here. Sea lions and harbor seals love its rocky shores. The offshore kelp forests teem with marine life. And on every boat trip from the mainland, there’s the potential to encounter dolphins and whales.

    One of the best ways to check it all out is with an Anacapa Island Shoreline Cruise, which leaves from Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard. This is a non-landing trip, “but such a beautiful cruise,” says co-owner Cherryl Connally.

    Viewing the island by boat provides visual access to many of the coves and beaches that are strictly off-limits or inaccessible to visitors. And where the humans are less likely to tread, the animals are sure to be in abundance. There’s also the famous Arch Rock — the landmark for CINP — and the lighthouse, perched atop the island.

    Tours leave Channel Islands Harbor, last just 3.5 hours and are perfect for ocean lovers of all ages.

    Another non-landing trip Connally recommends is the Island Wildlife Tour. This one departs from Ventura Harbor, and goes near both Anacapa and Santa Cruz Island in search of all creatures great and small. There’s a little more territory covered on this cruise, and a greater chance of seeing whales. Species vary with the season, but summer trips usually mean humpacks and blue whales. Dolphins are frequently seen year round.

    CUEVA VALDEZ on Santa Cruz Island. Photo by Tim Hauf

    Cueva Valdez

    “These are special trips that we do when we can,” says Connally of the Island Packers excursions to Cueva Valdez on Santa Cruz Island.

    Cueva Valdez is on the island’s northwest coast, within territory owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy. Special permission is required for these types of trips, and Connally is delighted that she can offer them this summer.

    “We visit a very unique, private cove,” she explains. “It has quite a bit of history. It was the quarry where they got the rock used to build the Santa Barbara Pier.”

    To access this beach, visitors have to leave the larger vessel to travel via a smaller, inflatable shore boat. (Group sizes are limited; another benefit to this type of excursion.)

    “There’s a beautiful little sea cave and we take you through that before we land on the beach,” Connally notes.

    While the landing spot is quite rocky, it still makes a great place for a picnic. She describes Cueva Valdez as less than three hours, and “a nice getaway for families that want to hang out on the beach.” It’s also ideal for swimming and snorkeling, so be sure to bring the appropriate gear.

    “It’s very safe,” Connally confirms.

    Fry’s Harbor

    Traveling east from Cueva Valdez along Santa Cruz Island’s northshore, you’ll hit another picturesque cove: Fry’s Harbor. Connally describes it as being similar to Cueva Valdez, with a small, rocky beach, but there’s no sea cave here. This is another 2.5-3 hour excursion.

    “Hiking is limited here, but there is a nice canyon to explore,” she says. “But it’s more for people who want to hang out on the beach. And it makes the perfect spot for a family picnic!”

    Feel free to load up a small cooler — Connally says her team will make sure your goodies will be safely transported to the landing spot.

    And don’t forget the sun protection, swim attire and snorkel gear. The safe, protected cove is another great spot for taking a dip.

    Fraser Point

    The westernmost tip of Santa Cruz Island is a rocky finger of land known as Fraser Point. Parts of the shore face south, west and north — and the area is a known transition zone where cold water animals meet species from a more temperate zone. A favorite spot for scuba divers, Island Packers intends to offer a limited number of trips (exact dates to be determined) to this very remote anchorage.

    In addition to a sandy beach, there are phenomenal views of Santa Rosa Island (visibility permitting) and coastal bluffs. Getting here is a treat, too: The vessel makes a nearly complete circumnavigation of the entire island. If the weather cooperates, a side trip to the Painted Cave is included. It might be the best option for taking in the Santa Cruz Island coastline and local wildlife.

    “It’s the very end of the island and very beautiful,” Connally says. “Just a wonderful spot to swim and snorkel. If the ocean behaves, it’s just a great trip.”

    DOLPHINS DANCING in the Santa Barbara Channel. Photo by Lottie Keenan

    Something for Everyone

    Cueva Valdez, Fry’s Harbor and Fraser Point excursions are three rare opportunities to explore a part of Santa Cruz Island — the largest and possibly the most visited island on the Central Coast — that isn’t often seen by the casual tourist. Trips are few and far between, however, and tend to book up quickly.

    But don’t let that dissuade you from putting Channel Islands National Park on your itinerary this summer. Island Packers operates seven days a week, with boats heading to Santa Cruz Island every day and multiple times a week to Anacapa and Santa Rosa. (Trips to San Miguel and Santa Barbara islands are on hold for now, due to damaged infrastructure.) The islands are beautiful, remote, unspoiled…and thanks to Island Packers, remarkably easy to access. Every Southern California summer should include at least one of these extraordinary offshore excursions.

    • There are no waste disposal facilities at Channel Islands National Park. Pack out what you pack in, and follow all National Park Service rules, regulations and guidelines.
    • Trips book up quickly, especially in the summer and on weekends. Advance reservations are required.
    • Island Packers operates out of both Ventura and Channel Islands harbors. Trips and times vary per location, so make sure you know where to board.
    • Bathroom facilities are NOT available at Cueva Valdez, Fry’s Harbor and Fraser Point. Plan accordingly.
    • The islands tend to be windy, with very little shade. Sunscreen, sturdy footwear, water and a hat are highly recommended.
    • Ocean conditions can vary. Check with Island Packers and NOAA for weather, temperature and surf conditions.
    • Channel Islands beaches are often rocky; water shoes are recommended.
    • Depending on the water temperature and personal tolerance, some swimmers may want to wear wetsuits for aquatic adventures.

    Island Packers
    1691 Spinnaker Drive, #105B, Ventura
    3550 Harbor Boulevard, Oxnard

    Channel Islands National Park

    Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary