tldr; SeaWorld, but in the wild.
We spent less than 24 hours in Channel Islands National Park but we saw so much incredible wildlife and went on so many adventures that it warrants a blog post of its own.
Channel Islands is one of the lesser known National Parks despite the fact that it’s only 77 miles from Los Angeles. Those 77 miles are over the Pacific Ocean though, so you have to take a ferry or a small jet to get there. Lacking access to a jet, we opted for the ferry. The National Park is made up of five islands, each with their own unique appeal. We only visited Santa Cruz island on this trip so we’ll have to come back to explore the others on another trip.
Santa Cruz is the largest island in California with rocky beaches and coves, small mountains, cliffs, wildflowers, and even some inland waterfalls. It is also home to lots of wildlife, including our favorite, the adorable island fox. We spent just one night on Santa Cruz Island but the adventure began when we left Ventura Harbor on our ferry. On the hour and a half ferry ride, we saw so many amazing marine mammals.
Our first encounter was with an old favorite, sea lions. These sea lions were just as noisy as the ones in La Jolla, barking at each other as they swam around or lounged on a buoy near the coast.
Shortly after leaving the sea lions, we came upon a huge pod of dolphins leaping out of the water and swimming right alongside our boat. Our captain estimated that there were around 1,000 dolphins in the pod. We’d never seen anything like it!
Shortly after leaving our 1,000 new dolphin friends, we spotted an even more incredible find, a humpback whale! This humpback was unusually curious and swam right up to our boat, poking her huge head out of the water to get a better look at us. She hung around the boat for a while, blowing out of her blowhole and even showing off her incredible fluke for us, half of which was missing from what we assumed to be a close encounter with a large boat. We were concerned about how close she got to our boat, but the captain assured us that the propeller was off and there’s no way the beautiful whale could be injured by us. She spent about 20 minutes checking us out and then took a deep dive and we continued on our trip to Santa Cruz Island.
After a jam-packed hour and a half ferry ride, we already felt like our trip to Channel Islands was well worth it. Once we arrived, we set up our tent at tranquil site surrounded by pine trees and took some time to rest up. I read my book while Choi napped in our tent. While I read, I spotted lots of wildlife like the bright blue island scrub jay and Santa Cruz’s cutest and most popular resident, the island fox!
Island foxes only exists on the Channel Islands and each island has its own unique subspecies. They nearly went extinct in the 1990s due to predation by Golden Eagles but have thankfully recovered their numbers. You would never guess that they were endangered just 20 years ago from the way that they lounge and patrol around the campgrounds at Santa Cruz island, even sneaking into tents to try to steal a snack from unsuspecting tourists.
After resting up, we went on a hike along the cliffside overlooking the ocean. We saw lots of beautiful wildflowers and loved the views of the ocean. That evening, we had ramen for dinner and watched the island foxes run around the campsites. When the campers of a neighboring tent got back to their site, they found four foxes wrestling inside of one of their tents!
The next morning, we’d booked a kayak tour to explore some sea caves around the island. It was an incredible experience to get to paddle into caves and out of caves and, unsurprisingly, we got to see more wildlife throughout the tour.
Some of the caves were so small that we had to duck, put down our paddles, and pull ourselves through with our hands on the drippy cave walls. Another cave was huge and colorful with minerals seeping through the walls and ceiling. We saw caves that were home to swallows making their nests along the walls. We passed by a cove within a cave where harbor seals wiggled onto the shore to rest. We even paddled into a cave that was so dark that you could barely see the kayak next to you and was loud with waves crashing all around us.
We saw lots of birds on our kayak tour, cormorants, oyster catchers, swallows, guillemots, gulls, pelicans, and even two bald eagles flying over the island in the distance. We also got to see seals and sea lions. A couple of the sea lions swam right near us and popped their heads up out of the water to get a better look at these strange, colorful creatures awkwardly splashing our way through their waters.
After three hours on the kayak, we laid down to rest on the island before hopping back on the ferry ride home. We thought nothing could come close to topping our wildlife-packed ferry ride to the island but shortly after departing from Santa Cruz island, we spotted some splashing in the distance. As we got closer we were able to identify a juvenile humpback whale breaching (jumping) completely out of the water with his mother right alongside him! The two whales didn’t seem to be swimming in any particular direction. They were just enjoying the sunny day, splashing and playing together, a good reminder to us travelers to enjoy the moment rather than worrying too much about our next destination.
Channel Islands, wow. We love your peaceful campsites, coastal cliffs, wildflowers, deep blue ocean, sea lions, dolphins, humpback whales, seals, pelicans, scrub jays, oyster catchers, eagles, and island foxes. Along We Go!