By Chuck Graham.
The two weathered, wave-battered sea stacks were prominent on the western horizon. Jutting 100 feet high and just off the beach at Willows Anchorage on the south side of Santa Cruz Island, they were an incredible site from the seat of a kayak.
The tide was low and the intertidal zone was exposed, with mussels, ochre sea stars and purple sea urchins glistening in the late morning sun. A pair of endemic island scrub jays broke the silence on a footprint-less, white sandy beach, Willows Anchorage being one of those hidden gems on the largest, most biodiverse isle off the California coast and within Channel Islands National Park.
Willows will be one of many new trips offered in 2020 by Island Packers, the only boat concessionaire to the Channel Islands National Park since 1968. The reason being? An elaborate pier structure is currently being built at Scorpion Anchorage near the southeast end of Santa Cruz. Scorpion Anchorage has been the main hub for visitors to the national park since the late 1990s. It will be at least eight months before the pier is built, but Island Packers, working in conjunction with the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy (TNC), hasn’t wasted any time in developing new trips to little-known destinations on Santa Cruz Island and beyond to appease growing park visitation.
Get ready to do some island hopping as Island Packers will explore more than ever the rich biodiversity of Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, Anacapa and Santa Barbara Islands, the five isles that comprise the remote national park. The building of the new pier may be a strain for all those involved, but there are some positives during this time of an island in transition.
“We want to keep our employees working and provide trips for the visitor as much as we can to the islands,” said Cherryl Connally, who along with brother Mark owns Island Packers. “We are responsible to abide by the park contract as the concessionaire. We have survived for 51 years and we’re hoping to get through this challenge.”
Here’s an island view of what Island Packers is offering. Some trips are more frequent than others, with weather and sea conditions dictating what’s available. There’s no denying, however, the rugged beauty and unique flora and fauna these windswept isles possess, with Island Packers offering the best opportunities to experience those natural wonders.
Island Packers has been taking visitors to Prisoners Harbor for years. With the shutdown at Scorpion, however, Prisoners has become the new, most frequented destination in the park.
Located six miles west of Scorpion Anchorage on the boundary of the NPS and TNC, Island Packers is dropping off day visitors for the five-mile, out-and-back, naturalist-led hike to scenic Pelican Bay. Backpackers disembark here as well, on their way to camp at Del Norte Campground 3.5 miles to the southeast.
Also increasingly popular are Island Packers’ half-day trips beginning with a cruise west to Painted Cave, one of the largest sea caves in the world. The massive grotto penetrates 1,215 feet into the volcanic cliffs, giving visitors the rare look inside a wave-battered cavern. As always, sea conditions determine if Island Packers can drive into the first chamber of Painted Cave. Visitors are then dropped off at Prisoners to spend two hours on the island.
Kayaking has also been diverted to Prisoners Harbor. The NPS is allowing Channel Islands Adventure Company to continue leading kayak trips beginning at Prisoners and paddling west, just beyond Pelican Bay. There are fewer sea caves, but sightings of flora and fauna are frequent, and the human history is rich.
Kayak rentals on the mainland are still available through Channel Islands Kayak Center, located next to Island Packers.
Willows Anchorage, Cueva Valdez, Fry’s Cove
Island Packers will be transporting visitors to lesser-known destinations on Santa Cruz Island with permission from TNC. Willows. Cueva Valdez and Fry’s are all idyllic coves and anchorages on the northwest and south sides of the craggy isle. Island Packers will only offer one or two trips in the coming year, in the spring and fall months, to each locale. Look for announcements on the concessionaire’s website.
Each destination is visually pleasing and different from the other, offering unique experiences for the visitor. There are possibilities of seeing the endemic island scrub jay on land, and seabirds and marine mammals during crossings to and from Ventura Harbor.
Now that the landing dock construction is complete, Island Packers has begun landing visitors on the east end of the narrow islet. Naturalist-led hikes take visitors to breathtaking Inspiration Point, and other hikes lead to Cathedral Cove and the lighthouse. Resident western gulls and California brown pelicans are seen every trip.
In addition, Island Packers will offer a lot of island wildlife cruises around the narrowest island in the chain, with excellent sightings of California sea lions, common dolphins, possibly peregrine falcons and whales.
Santa Rosa Island
For the first time, Island Packers will be running trips to Santa Rosa Island through the winter. The second largest isle off the California coast is epic, and its natural history and ranching history shouldn’t be missed.
Day tripping visitors will have 3.5 hours on land with opportunities to hike through the Torrey Pine forest. There’s only one other like it in the world (in San Diego). From the pier to the pines and following the loop trail through the pines and back to the pier is 7.5 miles.
There’s also another hike worth considering through Cherry Canyon, a narrow, botanically rich environment that offers stunning views of Bechers Bay and Santa Cruz Island. From the pier and back is 3.5 miles. There’s also time to explore the historic Vail & Vickers cattle ranch before heading back to the boat.
Camping on Santa Rosa Island is an experience not to be missed. Weather, mainly prevalent northwest winds, only enhance your time spent on this windswept isle, especially during the winter and spring.
The return to Ventura Harbor offers good possibilities of marine mammal sightings and a pitstop at Painted Cave before crossing the channel.
Pelagic Bird Watching Trips
The Santa Barbara Channel and the waters surrounding Channel Islands National Park are teeming with seafaring birdlife. Island Packers will offer at least three pelagic birdwatching trips for those looking to add to their life lists. Possibilities include sooty, black-vented and pink-footed shearwaters, murrelets, Cassin’s auklets, various gulls, phalaropes and maybe even an albatross.
Knowledgeable birders are onboard to point out rarely seen species, and there may even be a run out to Santa Barbara Island to see brown boobies that have recently colonized Sutil Island, a 13-acre rocky islet just south of the smallest isle off the coast.
“We are glad to bring people to other places besides Scorpion and bringing awareness of these special trips to the visitor,” said Connally.