A Daylong Adventure On Santa Cruz Island is Ideal For Families

Santa Cruz Island seen in the distance across the Pacific Ocean from the decks of an Island Packers boat going to Channel Islands National Park with pelicans overhead

By George Christopher Thomas

My wife and I sometimes like to make our two kids do things together that do not encompass screens or video games. When this year’s summer vacation was about to end, we wanted to finish strong with a memorable day trip. So, I went on the internet, that handy dandy device Al Gore invented, and booked the family four tickets to Santa Cruz Island.

If you are unfamiliar with the national park, Santa Cruz is one of the Channel Islands just off the coast of Southern California. It is easily accessible from Ventura or Channel Islands Harbor through Island Packers, the concessionaire for Channel Islands National Park. The company have had the contract to go out to the islands for decades and they do a fine job transporting campers and adventure seekers out and back across the channel.

We decided that a random Tuesday was as good as any other day, and likely to be a bit less busy than a weekend. We packed up our day bags the night before and popped out of bed like Olympic gymnasts. Our boat was scheduled to leave Ventura Harbor and they advised us to be there by 7:15 am to check in and sort everything out. As an abstract concept, this is easy to envision. However, with a 5-year-old who’s definitely not a morning person (and a 7-year-old who is), executing the vision could have hit a speed bump or two. I emphasized the excitement of the day and ultimately gave the kids no choice but to get up and go. 

Boats and empty docks at Ventura Harbor at sunrise, the departure point for Island Packers cruises to Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park
Ventura Harbor at sunrise

We made it to the boat on time, with even 10 minutes to spare. This allowed time to walk around the gift store looking for things to put on the Christmas list for Santa months in the future. The Island Packers office in Ventura has a great gift store, and who doesn’t like browsing in those postcard and stuffed animal filled spaces?

My wife is like a wise old owl, and she was smart enough to save us a spot in line for the boat. As we played with stuffed octopuses and sea otters, she was at peace enjoying her coffee and being left alone. Slowly but surely, we shuffled on the boat and got situated. It was foggy that morning and we could hear the sea lions barking at each other, although we could not eyeball them.

The channel crossing takes just over an hour. On our boat ride out to Santa Cruz we were thrilled to see hundreds and thousands of dolphins. We went through a super pod, and the boat announcer lady told us for every dolphin you see on the surface, there are five more below. I have no idea how she knows that, but it sounds good and makes you think about math. The kids loved going up to the front of the boat and feeling the salty air in their faces. We must have gone inside the cabin, sat for five minutes, then gone back outside a dozen times at least. 

I was looking for the blue whale, the largest animal on planet Earth. As a self-appointed expert whale watcher, I was careening the horizon for that plume of whale snot that comes out of their blowhole. If you are ever blessed enough to get up close to that delicious spray, you’ll notice it smells and tastes like fish. Trust me on this, I had a close encounter with a humpback whale in Maui years ago, and got slimed while standing at the back of a boat. This is something I will never forget. But there were no whale encounters on this random Tuesday going out to Santa Cruz Island. (They do see whales often, though – you might get lucky!)

Once we got to the pier, the line began to form to get off the boat. At this point I was in no big rush and kind of knew what to expect. The Channel Islands are federally protected land, and as we were arriving at an official national park, there would be a ranger briefing and introduction. Our party of four, me and my wife and our two rad little monsters, slowly zigzagged our way off the boat and to the end of the pier for the safety talk. 

Kayaks pulled up on a rocky beach on Santa Cruz Island, part of Channel Islands National Park
A rocky beach on Santa Cruz Island, part of Channel Islands National Park

Certainly this was mostly a legal formality to reduce liability for Uncle Sam, but there were some useful tips as well: Do not get too close to the edge and then fall off the cliffs.(That makes sense, I am planning to live to be 100 years old at least.) Don’t walk through the brush and shrubbery, because it is a protected habitat and there are blood sucking ticks. Roger that, I do not need any parasites living on me and sucking my blood. Plus this was an easy way to keep the kids on the path – just remind them about the blood sucking monsters that live in the weeds and willows. 

After checking all the boxes in the hold-harmless agreement and signing our life away, it was time for an adventure. We needed to fill up our water bottles before climbing that mountain, and that may have been an unexpected highlight of our trip. During the briefing we were warned about a hornet’s nest around the island’s only water source.The ranger promised that the hornets posed little danger, and said to just ignore them and fill up. When we got to the local watering hole (a spigot at the campground), we were – as forewarned – welcomed by the resident insects. The place was a buzz, literally and figuratively. 

I was first in to fill up my travel mug. Based on nothing, I decided that flying stinging insects can smell fear, so I was not going to have any for their little noses. I have jumped off bridges into pools of water, I have scuba dived with great white sharks, I have even run for public office. So I was not scared. I had a job to do, and it was time to execute the plan. No stings. Full water bottle. Mission complete.

The rest of the campers and day trippers were not so self assured, which made for an amusing little show. We could have sat at the picnic table and watched that all day. Man, did I giggle like a happy little boy on his birthday. There was one quasi-adult who shrieked like a banshee stubbing its toe for the first time. Fortunately, not one person got stung, and living things in the world seemed to co-exist peacefully on Santa Cruz Island.

We were definitely going to stop back at this comedy routine after the hike and before lunch, but there were mountains to climb and complaints to be received from the kids. The 5-year-old was my number one pick to start the nagging. When are we done? When can we stop hiking? When can we turn around? But that rock solid little dude got himself a hiking stick and was all business for our 3-mile round trip adventure. Santa Cruz Island is just that cool a place; it even stops small children from whining. 

A man with a backpack and two young boys seen from behind hiking up an oceanfront trail on Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park
Heading up a hiking trail on Santa Cruz Island

Our older boy, on the other hand, was interested in wrapping this part of the day up. I used that to my advantage when we voted to turn around after climbing to the top of the island. My wife must have eaten her Wheaties, because she could have hiked to the other side of the island and back. However, family vacations incorporate negotiations on what and when we do stuff as a group, and 3 miles of a much longer trail turned out to be an ideal hike. The views from the trail and the top of the island were breathtaking. I say that as an overused cliche, and also because when you are scaling a mountain, it can take the wind out of you. We could see all the way back to the mainland along with the distant, rugged edges of this remote island. Flocks of pelicans soared overhead in V-shaped lineups. The activity was perfect for working up an appetite and all of us were ready for lunch by the time we got back to the national park HQ and picnic area.. 

We ate some delicious peanut butter and honey sandwiches and some stale graham crackers ,and then it was back to the hornet’s nest for some water and afternoon giggles. Again not a soul got stung, and the entertainment was well worth the price of admission. We spent the afternoon in and around the pier, exploring the beach and getting our feet wet in the surf. It is amazing how great the ocean feels after a 3-mile hike. It was like toe and arch therapy, with the Pacific’s own ocean wave soundtrack as a bonus.

All in all the day trip to Santa Cruz was delightful. It offered the perfect amount of excitement and adventure for our little tikes. On the boat ride back to the mainland, we again saw hundreds of dolphins. The sea lions were fighting over the buoys as we came into Ventura Harbor. And it certainly was not a day filled with sitting around and playing video games. We made some memories before school started up again, and they’d be faced with new math and word problems, social studies and projects. They are going to wish they were on an Island Packer’s boat cruising out to the Channel Islands. It definitely beats a normal day at work, and I can’t wait to do it again. 

For more information, visit www.islandpackers.com.

You might also like to read: “End a Perfect Day in Sausalito with a Sunset Sail

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