4 Days in Santa Rosa, Channel Islands National Park

On my quest to visit every national park in my home state of California, I figured Spring 2021was finally the time to tackle one of the more remote parks: Channel Islands. Only accessible by Island Packers ferry, a trip to Channel Islands requires some forethought. For those looking for a quick trip, there is an option to arrive at an island in the morning, and return that same afternoon. But I, dreaming of nature getaway, opted for a four day trip. Before booking your campsite, it is important to check the ferry schedule first. Island Packers does not go to Santa Rosa everyday, and the ferries tend to fill up.

We boarded our ferry early Sunday morning at Ventura Harbor. A note of caution for those who get see sick (see: me) be sure to bring Dramamine. The seas can get rough. We sat at the top of the boat which was fun at first, but turned out to be a mistake as the waves and winds picked up. We met a German dude on the boat ride, and passed the time sharing stories of our travels, while I tried not to throw up. Once you arrive, the day trippers are immediately allowed to explore, but anyone spending the night must first listen to a safety spiel by the ranger.

This backcountry experience is so unlike any other backpacking trip I have taken. Despite its remote nature, the arrangement of the campsite allowed for some luxuries not typically possible in the backcountry. The short trail to Water Canyon Campground is relatively flat, and we saw some people lugging large storage totes and wheeling coolers. One guy even made multiple trips to bring his surfboard and other goods.

I chose Santa Rosa, among the five islands you can choose from in the park, solely based on a photo I found online of the campsite. The wooden shelters set in a canyon looked so picturesque, I couldn’t resist. In reality, these rustic structures are necessary to protect you from the incessant winds. The wind is the thing I remember the most from this trip. It is strong and lasts all day. I would say to prepare yourself, but honestly nothing can prepare you for how insane and ever present the wind is out there. It constantly assaults you with dirt until you yourself become dirt.

Beyond the shelters, there are a couple luxuries that set this backcountry experience apart: flushing toilets and running water. The bathrooms toward the entrance of the campground is the only fully enclosed building at the campsite and it feels practically 5 star after spending a couple nights in a tent. When the winds got particularly bad, I even hid in there for 30 minutes for a reprieve. Outside the bathrooms is a notice board where you will find important announcements from the rangers. There is a spigot the campsite, but we brought our own water just in case.

Since this campsite is pretty much the only place you can camp on the island you really get to know your neighbors. Especially because you are all stuck on the island together until the next ferry comes. It was fun in the evenings to hear what others had been up to during the day, and we made a lot of friends. Some groups we learned had been on the island many times before, and one couple was camping there for a whole week.

4 Day Itinerary

Day 1: Sunday

After setting up camp and eating the banh mi we packed for lunch, Crystal and I set out for our first adventure. Only a short path from the campsite is Water Canyon Beach. Far from the tropical getaway I had envisioned, the water was cold and a breeze kept us wrapped up in our jackets. The soft white sand and lack of people though, were definitely appealing. If you can imagine the beautiful beaches of La Jolla minus all the people, that is exactly what this beach looked like. In fact, that is how I would describe the whole island: Southern California pre colonizers. Someone before us had collected shells along the shore and it was peek through the treasures. After walking along the water, we came across sand dunes, where Crystal promptly took a nap.

We decided to settle in early that day, as we had a big day tomorrow. At the campsite, I set up my hammock and read until the sunset. Every once in a while I caught a little fox darting across the campsite looking for food.

Day 2: Monday

Our goal for the first day was to reach Lobo Canyon, and hit some other sights along the way. From the campsite, the roundtrip trek totaled at a strenuous 12 miles. Most of the hike has no shade as you traverse the interior of the island westward, so be sure to bring a hat that won’t get blown away in the wind. Follow the signs to Carrington Point along the way to see a great view of the island. A few miles into the hike we stumbled across a beautiful canyon, where we took a quick picture break and ate some dried mangoes.

Once you reach the service road, the terrain starts to change and the true adventure begins. Lobo Canyon itself is not a destination, but rather the journey itself. Upon descending into the canyon, make your way toward the coast. The dirt trail turns marshy and planks of wood have been placed for you to walk between the reeds. Towering on either side of the marshes are wind carved cliffs, almost guiding your way to the sea.

The trail leads to a small, secluded beach. Exhausted, we soaked our aching feet and ate our lunch of tuna packets and Ritz crackers. Having this little slice of paradise to ourselves was a treat. Unfortunately, this is also where I incorrectly loaded a new roll of film into my camera. From this point on, I don’t have any pictures, just the memories of some of the best part of this island.

After lunch, we returned to the trail and continued left to check out some tide pools. The breeze was strong, but provided relief from the hot sun beating down on us. The waves crashed below us and we joked about pushing each other off the cliff. While there was an option to continue westward along the beach, we decided it was time for us to turn around. A fellow camper that we bumped into at the beach told us about cave just off the path we had come from, so we decided to hit that. As we retraced our steps, we came to the point where the path diverged like the camper had mentioned and fought our way through the overgrown reeds. When the reeds gave way, we were treated to an expansive wind cave. Ironically, it was the least windy part of the whole island (and a great place to smoke a doobie, if you are so inclined). I wish I had the pictures I thought I was snapping away in that cave. it was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

The rest of the journey home was uneventful and largely the same as the journey there. We stopped by the Historic Ranch to pee, and finally headed home to our shelter. By the time we made it back, my legs were trembling and my pinkie toe was one giant blister.

To make matters worse, an announcement on the bulletin board left me shell shocked. According to the note left by the ranger, the sea conditions were so extreme there was a chance we would be stuck on the island for another 4 days. It read: Warning, ration food. To say that the energy at the campsite was tense, would be a understatement.

Day 3: Tuesday

The next morning there were still no updates on the ferry, and this trip was beginning to feel a little like Lord of the Flies. I was coated in a layer of dirt trying to figure out how to stretch two dehydrated meals over four days. Morale was low. But with no other options to pass our day, we soldiered on with our explorations.

Having tackled the west side of the the island the day before, we were ready to attempt the east side. From March 1 – September 15, Skunk Point is closed, so our goal was to reach as far east as possible.

We set out that morning on the Coastal Road eastward bound. Once again, there was no shade and the wind was especially strong. We encountered other campers along the way, a mother and daughter duo. The daughter was having an allergic reaction on her painfully swollen face and looked ready to get off the island. They warned us about the harsh conditions further along the trail, but we continued anyway.

The views along the Coastal Road were nice if not monotonous. To our left was the coastline and to our right lay fields of wheat (or maybe just weeds), which gave the island a Little House on the Prairie vibe. When we finally descended onto the beach, we realized our mistake. While beautiful, the barren landscape had a haunting feel. To which, the few bird carcasses we passed along the beach only added to. Most upsettingly, the wind really began to pick up. While 40 mph winds at the campsite were annoying at best, on the beach with lots of fine grain sand, it was painful. Like thousands of little bee stings littering your body, the sand pelted every inch of exposed skin. We took shelter behind some rocks and watched the high tides crash over the tide pools.

At moments like these, I am thankful for Crystal. Despite how physically awful we felt, we couldn’t help but laugh at how ridiculous our situation was. We were dirty, tired, and trapped by an invisible nemesis. After having a good laugh and more ritz crackers, we steeled our minds for the journey back to camp.

Now facing west, we were fighting the winds. The gusts were so strong, I was forced to a standstill, unable to move against the force of the wind. The sand flew into my eyes and pecked at my sunburnt face. Without sunglasses, Crystal rolled her neck gaiter over her whole face, looking like a strange bank robber. At least it gave us a good laugh.

Once returning to camp, we hid in our tent for the rest of the day, listening to the hilariously tropical themed playlist I curated for this trip. Once darkness fell and the winds died down a little I ventured outside the tent. So far away from civilization, the night skies of Santa Rosa are spectacular. The moon is so bright you don’t need a flashlight to navigate, and the stars glitter in the sky. Crystal and pretended we could identify constellations beyond the Big Dipper for a little while and then went to sleep.

Day 4: Wednesday

The day had finally arrived, we were leaving the island. The ranger drove into the campsite that morning to tell us the ferry was coming as planned. Suddenly, everyone’s mood at the campsite drastically improved. We packed up our things and said goodbye to our home for the past couple days. The feeling was bittersweet.

As we boarded the ferry home, we felt like survivors. Crystal and I planted ourselves at a table inside and watched the people outside on the bow. I once again refused to take the Dramamine, hoping the return trip home would be smoother. Plot twist: it wasn’t. After picking up more passengers on Santa Cruz island, the journey back to mainland turned into the Deadliest Catch. 12 foot waves crashed over the bow wiping out the crowds outside. Frantic and soaking wet, everyone outside quickly dragged themselves indoors. It was funny at first, but then motion sickness got the best of me and I tried to fall asleep. When we finally made it back to Ventura Harbor, I couldn’t have been happier.

Overall this trip was unforgettable, but maybe not in the best of ways. Was it beautiful? Yes. Would I do it again? Probably not. Writing this post has caused many moments I tried to forget to resurface. While I met many interesting people on the island, I’m not sure why so many return time and time again. With many places left to explore, Santa Rosa Island will probably not see a return. Looking back, this trip makes me laugh, and is a funny story to tell. So for that, I’m eternally thankful.


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