Em on the beach at Becher's Bay
After having visited Santa Cruz Island, we already started thinking about the next trip to the Channel Islands National Park. Santa Rosa seemed a logical choice, being the next in row, the second biggest island in the chain, and compared to the other ones, the most diverse and most "comfortable" (I'm using this term very, very loosely).
Like to the other islands, the boat service is run by Island Packers out of Ventura/Oxnard. There's also a way to get there by plane. Channel Island Aviation flies from Camarillo Airport to a dirt strip next to Water Canyon on Santa Rosa. It costs around $220 per person, not our budget range.
The ship is expensive, too, at $114 per person for campers, but there's no alternative. Island Packers is a cool bunch, though. Customer service is excellent and the crew of each boat is always very nice and knowledgeable. They're a great target for picking brains about anything that has to do with the islands.
We started planning the trip pretty late, at the beginning of April, but everything worked out fine. The NPS website tells you specifically to make sure you have transportation before
booking your camping spot. I made the mistake of not listening to them. There was plenty of camping spot left, so I reserved one and then I called Island Packers to take care of the boat. Turns out the day we wanted to return was fully booked. Oh, dam. The lady on the phone was really helpful, however, and put us on a waiting list. She told us we're first on that list, and there's a more than realistic chance of getting a confirmation. She was right, a few days later, the phone rang and they told us we're good to go.
Day 1 - L.A. to Ventura Harbor to Water Canyon on Santa Rosa Island
The boat left Ventura Harbor at 8am, so we had to be there at 7. Having packed everything the night before, we dragged ourselves out of bed around 5:30 and headed down the highway. I really like Ventura Harbor, especially early in the morning. People are gathering, checking in to get their tickets, adjusting the gear - the sense of excitement is in the air.
Having learned from the Santa Cruz trip and not needing that much water, we made sure there are no liquids in the backpacks we checked. We even tried to take them with us on board, but no luck - they told us the boat will be filled to capacity. So we stuck to the original plan, only a small daypack with snacks and water. The boat was full, indeed, with several big groups, mostly students, headed for Santa Cruz. Like always, we departed right on time
The sea was a little bit rough, I was struggling with a bit a sea sickness, but it wasn't bad at all. As soon as the boat entered the deep waters of the channel and the swell diminished, it got much better.
cormorants on a rock - Santa Cruz Island
We made a quick stop at Santa Cruz to drop off most of the passengers, then continued in the lee of the island, on the south side, passing by Smuggler's Cove (it was great to see it from the sea after having hiked there a year earlier) and all the other amazing "backcountry" beaches along the coast. Those who have their own boat and can visit these places are truly fortunate, this is as close as you can come to an ideal hideaway place.
Around this time, I saw a young couple on the boat who both looked seriously underdressed. The guy was wearing blue jeans, but at least long ones, the girl wore shorts, and they each had a flimsy hoodie, but no windbreaker. They huddled under a small blanket and were fast asleep. Oh, and the girl had a fancy Louis Vuitton-like purse. I remarked to Em I hoped they are not going camping like that, but then Em and I both agreed we saw them with big backpacks. Well, maybe they have better clothing packed away.
As we were crossing the open water between Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa, we hit the jackpot: a huge blue whale crossed our path. The captain slowed a boat down to a crawl (you're not allowed to approach them), and the whale swam right by us. As we didn't have to carry much weight on this trip, I took the 100-400mm lens (160-640mm on the crop sensor of the 20D), so it already paid off.
Blue whale spouting off Santa Cruz Island
Before landing at the pier, we made a brief stop off the shore of Becher's Bay, and some people from the Marina Mammal Rescue released a sea lion that needed to be relocated because he was getting used to humans too much. The poor thing floated on top for a while, looking sadly at us, before finally accepting his fate.
Becher's Bay with Water Canyon in the middle
The pier in Becher's Bay is new, I read that they restored it recently, and while that work was ongoing, people were ferried to shore by dinghy, and you had to jump out in waist-deep water and wade to shore. That's the true and adventurous way of landing on a remote island, and we would have not minded that, but not getting wet is always preferable.
On the pier, we met the ranger, who gathered everybody around and gave us the basic info we needed to know. Watch for the wind, don’t take anything, no fires, NO fires
, don't go to the closed-of sand dunes on Skunk Point, etc. He also said he'll be running shuttles from the campground to the mouth of Lobo Canyon starting in the morning the next day.
Then we took off for the campground, which is a scenic 1.5 mile walk along the coast and then up Water Canyon for about 200 yards. Each campsite has a wind shelter, table and animal-proof box built into the side of the shelter. I kept joking that we can't get the microwave to work. There a building housing a sink on the outside and two restrooms plus a shower indoors. Considering where you are, it's luxurious. The restrooms have regular flush toilets and sinks. The shower is nice and big and has "hot" water. Umm... well... kind of. The solar panel on top heater the water (or powers the heater, I'm not sure), and I couldn't figure out exactly why, but the flow and temperature of water is not even. Below the showerhead, there's a button. You push it, and the shower gives you about 15 seconds of water. The problem is, there's no way to foretell what the temperature is going to be like. Seemingly without reason and unrelated to prior use, the temperature from one burst to ne next can vary between ice cold and almost hot. It's an experience.
Water Canyon campground
No campsites are very much better than the others, it looked like the ones all the way back are somewhat more shielded from the wind. We took one on the side and set up camp. The wind shelter is a great idea, but it starts failing after a certain wind speed. That weekend, the just kept exceeding that speed. The wind picks up the loose dirt from the ground, and swirls it into the shelter. In a few hours, everything was covered by a thick layer of dust. Even the items left in the food storage box had a thin film of fine powder on them. However, you live with it. The place is gorgeous.
Sure enough, the couple we saw on the boat was camping two spots away from us. They had a tent, all right, but hose poor guys didn't bring any other clothing. All weekend long, we saw them emerge from the tent, run to the restroom, and back and that was it. They spent their entire time there.
After lunch, we wanted to try to hike to Black Mountain. It's not the highest peak on the island (that's Soledad Peak at 1,574'), but it comes close at 1,297' and it's not that far away. We decided not to pitch the tent yet, so we stored everything scented in the box and hung the backpacks from the walls of the shelter. As soon as walked up the trail to the ridge above the campground, we had to turn around - the wind was too strong. It was no fun hiking four miles each way like this. We turned around, and went down to the ocean instead.
On the hill over Water Canyon. The grass gives you an idea how windy it was, but it's not that obvious.
Becher's Bay's beach stretches almost from the pier to beyond Water Canyon. It's relatively shielded from the wind and very nice, but we were in a hiking mood, so we went back up to the coastal road and continued east to Torrey Pines. These pines are one of the rarest pine trees in the world. There's one grove around San Diego, and this one on Santa Rosa. That's it. They are open crowned trees with long needles and pretty big cones. The Santa Rosa grove is on a hillside about a mile east from Water Canyon.
Torrey Pines overlooking the ocean
The coastal road takes you through the lower edge, but to truly explore them, there's a small loop trail that goes up the hill. We listened to the guide and did the trail east to west, so the descent was much steeper. I'll say honestly: when reading about this pine grove, I was not particularly excited about them. Pine trees. I love them, and sure these are rare, but what’s so special? Was I wrong... The trail is very, very scenic, and the area is like an enchanted forest.
The ground is covered by a thick carpet of dead needles and thousands of cones. In some small gullies, the cones are gathered together and they are "flowing" downhill like a creek. The trees themselves have been twisted by the brutal winds into all sorts of fantastic shapes - some descriptions compare them to giant bonsai trees, and they're right. The trail tops out on the ridge, and there's a great view of the interior of the island, too. It was windier here, but tolerable.
Em with a view of Santa Rosa's interior behind her
After returning to camp, there was no reason to go anywhere before dinner. We set up the tent, chatted with the neighbors, and took a shower. By this time, we were antsy to learn how they L.A. Kings did against the Chicago Blackhawks. We have season tickets to the Kings, and this was the playoffs, the Western Conference finals, and against all odds, the Kings were leading the series 3:2. We booked this trip before the Kings got this far, so we sold our tickets. We didn't want to wait for two days to learn about the outcome, so I asked a friend to send us a message via the inReach after the game.
Our camping spot in Water Canyon
The weather kept alternating between windy and windier, but we didn't really mind. We went to bed early, and I kept glancing at the inReach, but no message. The wind diminished somewhat and having been up since very early, we slept like babies.
Day 2 - Lobo Canyon
The message was there in the morning: the Kings lost. The series was now 3:3 and they were going back to Chicago. No chance. But that's not important now, we're here on this impossibly cool island, and we got a fantastic day ahead of us.
Of course, by the time we got ready, it was past 9am. We missed the first trip of the ranger's shuttle, but he picked us up a few minutes later while we were hiking towards the pier. We drove past the pier and the remnants of the former ranch, then up the hill all the way to a point where the road drops steeply towards Lobo Canyon. In the car, we chatted about the ecosystem and he gave us tips regarding the hike. I read somewhere that it's a great idea to hike down Lobo to the ocean, then follow the beach west to Cow Canyon, hike up Cow to the road and go back that way. The ranger discouraged us from doing so, pointing out that while the canyon interiors are somewhat shielded from the wind, the way back from the upper and of Cow Canyon would mean much more hiking exposed to the wind. Also, he strongly recommended taking another look at Lobo Canyon in the afternoon, as it would seem like a different place when the light hits it the other way. He recommended the hike to the bottom of Cow Canyon, though, and mentioned to take a look at the slot canyon that goes off to the east not much before we get to the end of Lobo.
He let everybody out on the hill above Lobo Canyon, a few hundred yards from the actual trailhead, and we walked down and into the canyon. The wind- and water carved sandstone features are unbelievable. There's not too much to say here, take a look at the pictures. The slot canyon on the side was just where the ranger said it would be, with an obvious trail branching off. It's only around a third of a mile deep and it's very much worth exploring. It reminded us a bit of Antelope Canyon is Utah. The bottom looks like some nature-made sanctuary with high walls and coreopsis decorating the sides. I can only imagine how gorgeous (and dangerous) it can be when water flows there.
Em sitting at the bottom of Lobo Canyon's unnamed (¿) side canyon
Lobo Canyon's beach is tiny, and we already found a few fellow hikers lounging there. After a quick break and a quick chat with our camp neighbors, we took up the trail again, going westward parallel to the beach among sand dunes and on rock cliffs. Pure, pure bliss. Again, there's little I can blab about here, the pictures say it all.
On the beach between Lobo and Cow Canyon
The beach trail ends about a mile or so west of Lobo Canyon, at the mouth of Cow Canyon. There's a big cliff blocking the way, with cormorants nesting in the rocks. We walked up into Cow Canyon for a little bit, but then turned around the headed back towards Lobo.
Near the mouth of Cow Canyon
There was no reason to hurry, so we settled in a wind-sheltered ravine close to the beach with pelicans and cormorants flying by. We ate lunch, relaxed, and just watched the birds for more than an hour. By the time we started walking up Lobo Canyon, it was past 2pm. The ranger was right, the canyon did look different in the changed light, so we took our time again and snapped quite a few pictures.
Em and sandstone in Lobo Canyon
The walk on dirt road back towards camp was very windy, but at least we had the wind in our backs and this made it tolerable. We just had to watch for our hats so they don't get blown away. It's a hypnotic walk through the almost featureless grassland, but then you get to the point where the vista opens up and there's a great view of Becher's Bay.
Overlooking Becher's Bay. The ranch and landing pier are off the picture to the left. Skunk Point is in the distance. Torrey Pines in the middle. Water Canyon off to the right.
Around 3:30, we were back down, walking past the ranch. There we met the horses of Santa Cruz island. Earlier, the ranger told us their story. They were left here by the ranch owners, and they roamed most of the island freely, not bother by anything or anybody. They had access to plenty of food and water, and no work to do, standing with their butts to the wind, enjoying the view.
The happy horses of Santa Rosa Island, with Santa Cruz Island in the background
The Sea Otter from CIA (not the agency, but Channel Islands Aviation) was on the dirt strip, waiting for the day trip people. We heard it take off not much later.
This day was much windier than the first. The dust kept being swept into the shelter area and it really shook the tent. We were very happy the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 is of such sturdy construction. In the early evening, we took a short walk, going up a bit Water Canyon and climbing down in the actual canyon to there the water flows (there was a tiny bit left). There's a cool place by the creek, sheltered from the wind. Some fellow hikers took up positions there and were having themselves a bit of a party.
Up top, wind went on and on, all night, sometimes blowing big clouds of dust under the rainfly, right into our faces. It wasn't very pleasant, but I'm not saying we were suffering. It died down somewhat around dawn and finally we got a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Day 3 - Skunk Point and back to the mainland with Painted Cave in between
The boat was due at 3pm, so there was plenty of time to go on another hike. We packed up the tent, but most of the gear at the campsite, then took off on the coastal road again, past Torrey Pines, towards Skunk Point. Not much past the pine grove, the main road turns inland towards East Point, and there's a trail cutting across the grassland, leading past Southeast Anchorage to Skunk Point.
On the way to Skunk Point. Some Torrey Pines can be seen in the back on top of the hill
What can I say again? It's absolutely stunning. It goes down to the beach about a mile from the point, and from there, you're prohibited to leave the "wet sand" in order to protect the nesting birds in the dunes. I kept glancing at the watch, wanting to make sure we're not missing the boat, but we were OK. After a short rest and snack at Skunk, we hiked back towards the camp at a brisk clip.
Skunk Point and a view of the mainland
Not much before we got back to the main road, all of a sudden I hear a gasp and a thud from behind me. I turn, and there's Em, flat on her face in the sand. By the time jump to help her up, she's shaking with laughter. The vines of the sand plants were criss-crossing the tail at every few feet, and when she didn't look for a second, she tripped and fell so suddenly she didn't even have time to brace herself with the hiking poles. Nothing happened, though, the soft sand cushioned her fall. That made it even easier for me to keep teasing her about it.
Em on the beach next to Southeast Anchorage
At the campground, we gathered our stuff and went back to the pier. The boat arrived 15 minutes later, and as everybody on the manifest showed up, it departed earlier than scheduled. We could even take our backpacks on board, they said the boat won't be completely full.
The last highlight of the trip was still ahead of us: Painted Cave, the largest (or one of the largest) sea caves in the world. It's located on the north side of the island, and Island Packers visits it on each trip coming back from Santa Rosa. The cave is a quarter mile deep and 100' wide, 160' tall at the entrance. Conditions permitting, they drive the boat into
the cave as much as possible. We got lucky, and our skipper slowly inched this not-so-small catamaran up to the point where there were only a few feet of clearance on each side. Unbelievably professional seamanship
Painted Cave - much of the "paint" is guano, of course
The cave is gorgeous of course, but the big boat can "only" go about 100' into it, whetting your appetite to explore it by kayak. There are a few companies offering trips as far as I know.
After the cave, the boat stopped at Prisoners Harbor to pick up a few passengers, and we chatted with a nice couple and their 9 year-old son who spent a weekend of backcountry camping at Del Norte. It evoked nice memories from our Santa Cruz trip year before.
Pelican swallowing a fish in Prisoner's Harbor
Then another stop at Scorpion for a big load of people and back to the mainland. By the time we got back, the L.A. Kings, again overcoming the odds, beat the Chicago Blackhawks and advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals (and ended up winning - we were there).
This trip is definitely not for everyone, but the island is unbelievably beautiful and diverse. It's well worth the trip. True backcountry camping is allowed from September until December only (to protect young seals and birds on the beaches), that's what we'd like to try next.
NPS website for the island
Island Packer - Santa Rosa page
Check out the full gallery
Leaving Santa Cruz Island