Just 11 Miles Off Coast, California’s Galápagos

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“Look at that,” came the voice of our boat’s captain over a crackly intercom. “A wildlife sighting and we haven’t even left the harbor!” Toward the bow of the ship on the starboard side, a sleek, dark gray figure was cresting out of the water about 25 yards in front of us. It was a bottlenose dolphin, the playful and charismatic mammal found in oceans all over the world. I pulled out my rented binoculars to get a closer look, and a couple of fellow passengers clapped their hands in delight. We got another glimpse of the dolphin’s dorsal side and blowhole before it vanished with a quick flick of the tail. Nearby, a group of sea lions lazed on a buoy.

I had been looking for an easy, casual day trip from Los Angeles, where I live, and I found it. Channel Islands National Park comprises five islands: an archipelago of four islands that hug the Santa Barbara Channel off the coast of Southern California, and the more remote Santa Barbara Island, further off toward Catalina to the southeast. The islands are remarkably close to the mainland — the closest is just 11 miles from shore — but seem like they’re a world away. During my visit to Santa Cruz Island, I felt connected to both land and sea. The breathtaking vistas, great hiking and dozens of flora and fauna unique to the islands made it clear why some refer to the Channel Islands as “the Galápagos Islands of North America.” And unlike a pricey trip to the Galápagos Islands, I was able to explore Santa Cruz on a modest budget.

Our 65-foot-long, 149-passenger boat was chartered by Island Packers Cruises, the official concessionaire of the Channel Islands. The price, $29.50 each way (I bought my ticket online), is reasonable considering there is no official entrance fee to the park. Tickets can be bought to all five islands in the park, depending on the season. Currently, tickets are only available to Anacapa and Santa Cruz, the largest of the islands. Buying ahead is recommended, and make sure to call the morning of to verify your boat is sailing; sometimes there are cancellations because of the weather.

You will need to bring supplies, as there is nothing available to buy on the island. (There is also no publicly usable electricity or transportation, and the cellphone service is spotty to nonexistent.) As I was only planning to be there for the day (camping overnight is also an option), I just needed food and water for a seven-hour trip. I would then follow the old scouting mantra of “pack it in, pack it out” — taking all my waste with me back to the mainland. After exiting the freeway in Ventura, I headed to the Royal Bakery and Cafe and bought a couple of items: a so-so scone ($2) and a much better croissant with turkey and cheese ($3.95). Things like water ($1.75 for one liter) and granola bars ($2.50) are available at the office where the boat departs, and there is a variety of snacks on the boat, including popcorn ($3) and domestic beer ($4).

You may also want to invest in some Dramamine (I didn’t see it for sale in the boat’s concession stand). Depending on the day, and how the winds are behaving, you could be in for a choppy ride. Ours was bad. “Sometimes it’s a mirror,” said Larry Driscoll, a volunteer with the Channel Islands Naturalist Corps, “and sometimes it’s even rougher than this.” A couple of passengers had begun to turn a shade of green and quickly made their way to back of the boat. After 30 minutes of joyfully surfing the big swells at front of our craft, I joined them. Advice for the seasick: Go outside, on as low a deck as possible, and toward the rear of ship. It won’t make the nausea go away, but it will minimize your movement and the fresh air will help.

Fortunately, rough seas aside, there was a lot to enjoy on the ride, which is very much a part of the entire experience, lasting over an hour each way. The highlight was when a pod of common dolphins began swimming next to our boat. Dozens of silvery fins, shimmering in the sun against a backdrop of deep blue water, cantered and crested as our captain slowed the boat. “Oh, they’re just playing now,” a woman next to me said as two of the creatures popped out of the water no more than 15 feet from us. Whales are also a common sight during voyages out to the islands — there are specific whale-watching tours — but unfortunately none appeared during our trip.

After something of a rough arrival — thanks to the choppy waters, we had to dock at Prisoners Harbor, near the middle of the island, rather than our planned berth on its eastern side — we made it to Santa Cruz Island. (The island was named in the early 17th century; it had been home to the Chumash tribe, before diseases from European settlers ravaged the population.) A few passengers set out on the 3.5-mile hike to the campground and a couple others went off to hike on their own. The rest of us were given a choice of taking an “easy” hike up the Del Norte trail or a more difficult one toward Pelican Bay. I opted for the latter, joining a group with two of the Island Packers guides. The moderately difficult hike, which consists of some steep, rocky sections, is doable even for beginners. You will get your hands dirty, though, as some of the more arduous parts are closer to climbing than hiking, and require three points of contact.

Leanne Kleinsmith, one of our guides and a native of Ventura County, was amazed by the effect the recent rain had had on the island. “It is so green right now,” she said. “It’s never this green.” She was right. As we hiked along the coastal bluffs, the pine, oak and ironwood trees were remarkably lush, nothing like the yellows, browns and ochres that typically characterize Southern California. The hike to Pelican Bay goes into territory owned by the Nature Conservancy, which is based in Arlington, Va. The environmental organization owns most of the Santa Cruz Island, which was once the largest privately-owned island in the country, and the National Park Service manages the rest.

Ms. Kleinsmith told me that what makes Santa Cruz Island so special, in her opinion, is its biodiversity. There are nearly a 1,000 plant and animal species packed into less than a 100 square miles; many animals are found exclusively, or nearly exclusively, on the Channel Islands, including the island spotted skunk, the island fence lizard, and the Townsend’s big-eared bat.

While lounging near the beach waiting for our return ferry back to the mainland, some of us saw an island fox, which is the only carnivore unique to California and is found only on the Channel Islands. The island fox, once at risk of extinction, now happily sidles up alongside tourists, as it has no natural predators on the island. I also got to see a couple of bald eagles soaring high above (using those rented binoculars, available for $6 at the harbor) as well as an island scrub-jay, a small bird with deep cobalt blue plumage that is found nowhere else in the world but Santa Cruz Island.

Because of our late arrival at Prisoners Harbor, we weren’t able to complete the entire hike to Pelican Bay. What we managed, though, was well worth it: a challenging but doable path that offered beautiful views of the coastline and Pacific as well as opportunities to see wildlife. After we made it back to our starting point, there was still quite a bit of time before our ferry was to arrive. So I started the “easy” hike up the Del Norte trail: It looked alarmingly steep. After a quarter-mile of walking directly uphill, I was getting winded. After another half-mile, I decided to turn back. The so-called easy hike was twice as difficult as the one to Pelican Bay.

After an uneventful (and much less nauseating) ride back to shore, I was still feeling up for another quick adventure before heading home. Ojai, about 30 minutes from Ventura, was once a dusty ranch town but has become something of a New Age Shangri-La for Los Angeles’s well-to-do. A drive down the main arcade on Ojai Avenue is worth it, but I ended up in a more modest section of town on El Roblar Drive looking for dinner. I found it at La Fuente Mexican restaurant, where I ordered an enormous pambazo sandwich: a white roll slathered in red pepper sauce and stuffed with chorizo and potatoes ($6).

On the drive back to Los Angeles, I thought of the gorgeous sunset I’d just seen over Surfer’s Knoll, a small beach near the ferry dock in Ventura; the spicy, filling sandwich I’d just had; and, of course, the great day of hiking in one of the country’s most singular national parks. Even the traffic to Los Angeles was almost nonexistent. I couldn’t have wished for a better ending.