Santa Rosa Island in One Day

Having been to Santa Cruz Island a few times, my husband and I have long hoped to visit Santa Rosa Island, but the ferry schedule works better for people willing to camp overnight. Nonetheless, when our friend Greg offered to escort us on a day trip, we couldn’t resist. He volunteers with Channel Islands Restoration, The Nature Conservancy, and the Santa Monica Mountains Trails Council, and he knows the islands well.

Island Packers doesn’t run that many trips to Santa Rosa, and they tend to sell out, but we scored roundtrip tickets ($89 per person) departing at 8 a.m. and returning at 3 p.m. The company’s website says traveling to Santa Rosa can take anywhere from two and a half to three and a half hours, depending on opportunities to spot marine life and/or stops at Santa Cruz Island en route.

The three of us arrived at Ventura Harbor not long after 7 a.m., got a spot in line, and checked in at the counter. Island Packers has a loyalty program—after five trips, the sixth is free—but you have to ask about it, and then they’ll give you a stamped card.

Greg has strong opinions about where to sit—not in front, and not up top—because the ride can be rough and cold. We were lucky in that the water was like glass, but even inside, we were a bit chilly, because the doors stay open. And we were also fortunate that the only animals worth pausing for were common dolphins. Still, because we stopped at Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island, the trip took the full three and a half hours. It helped that the scenery was neat: the boat went around the back side of Santa Cruz Island, and watching the coastline as we passed by was meditative and pleasant. (It reminded me of cruising the fjords in Norway.) And who doesn’t like a blowhole?

I felt like screaming “Land ahoy!” when we finally spotted Santa Rosa Island. Torrey pines only grow there and near San Diego.

As much as I wanted to hit the pier running, visitors to the islands must listen to an orientation from a volunteer naturalist about how to behave. So it was nearly noon when we set off. The Channel Islands National Park has a handy map with trail info—they really, really don’t want anyone to get lost and miss their boat.

Greg decided in advance that we’d be doing the Cherry Canyon trail—anything more ambitious in such a short amount of time would have required hauling ass. First, we walked by evocative buildings from the island’s ranching era.

While the weather was gray, at least it wasn’t windy—which can be an issue, as you can tell from this stunted eucalyptus.

For a short while, we were on a very pretty dirt road. The width was helpful, since all three of us were busy taking photos of the amazing wildflowers.

Even the dandelion puffs were gorgeous.

Adam and I were most taken with a prehistoric-looking plant called coreopsis, which grows in abundance on the island. It turns brown in summer, which is likely why you don’t see it in gardens. And we just missed the flowering season.

And then we were on the single-track Cherry Canyon Trail. The volunteer naturalist had announced that she’d be leading a tour of Cherry Canyon, too, so Greg had made sure we hightailed it away from the orientation so we wouldn’t be surrounded by other visitors.

It’s a truly lovely trail, and we may have seen it at its very best—after a rainy winter and during wildflower season. Check out these plants growing out of rocks…

…and this gnarly oak.

I was amused that we stopped to photograph a little green frog, seeing as how this has been the froggiest season ever at our house—at dusk, the croaking is deafening. (We also got into a discussion about whether tadpoles and pollywogs are the same thing; they are.)

The trail eventually climbs up the ridge, where there are two picnic tables. Food is not sold on the islands, so I packed us Oat Bakery bread, cheese and salami from the Cheese Shop, hard-boiled Lily’s eggs, farmers’ market fruit, and a Bettina chocolate chip cookie. I sensed jealousy when the tour group arrived and gathered around us for the naturalist’s spiel.

The clouds lifted as we walked along the top of the ridge. The group wasn’t far behind, following us like a posse.

The trail drops down toward the shoreline, and you get stunning views of the water and coastline. It makes you wonder what mainland California was like 400 years ago.

When Adam and I saw the campground, we mistook the black structures for cabins or glamping tents, but they’re just barriers to block the wind.

And then we took the Coastal Road back toward the pier. The birdsong was a delight.

We made it to the pier with maybe 10 minutes to spare, after a quick stop to see the historical exhibit inside the old schoolhouse building. If we had had more time, I would’ve braved the ladder down to the beach to get a better look at the cliffside.

A gray whale was hanging out near the pier, which meant the boat spent a long time looking for it, and then we encountered a pod of bottlenose dolphins. They were jumping higher than I’ve ever seen, and a treat to watch, but that slowed us down even further. One delay that was definitely worth it: the ferry went so far inside Painted Cave on Santa Cruz Island that we were convinced the antennas were going to hit the top.

But because we did all that and made two stops at Santa Cruz Island to pick up passengers, the ride home also took the full three and a half hours—which meant we traveled for a total of seven hours in order to spend three on the island. I adore the Channel Islands, and I encourage anyone and everyone to go! They’re wonderful, and I want to see them all! But despite loving our hike and being on the island in general, you’re much better off camping or visiting Santa Cruz, which is more like 90 minutes away. Actually, now that I’ve seen Fry’s Harbor on Santa Cruz, I’m convinced that chartering a yacht is the way to go….


Previous travel coverage:
••• Soaking Up History at Castle Hot Springs
••• Driving Through the Heart of Hokkaido
↓↓↓ Tokyo Is a World Unto Itself
••• Paso Robles, Pinnacles National Park, and Beyond
••• A Review of the Inn at Mattei’s Tavern
••• Another Quickie in L.A.
••• Sitting Pretty at the One & Only Mandarina
••• The Mysteries of Istanbul
••• Palm Springs: Midweek at the Oasis
••• Exploring the Sea Caves of Santa Cruz Island
••• A Summer Swing Through the Northeast
••• Why Is Everyone Going to Portugal?
••• Patagonia Made Easy
••• A Quickie in L.A.
••• From Penthouse to Pavement in Mexico City
••• Do Greek Islands Live Up to the Fantasy?
••• Splendid Isolation at Utah’s Lodge at Blue Sky
••• Three Reasons to Visit Paso Robles Now
••• The Rebirth of the Cuyama Buckhorn


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Sands Cunningham

Thank you for an amazing article on Santa Rosa, a must do for us now!


Myself and my friends have been “charter curious” for quite some time, with an eye on going to the channel islands. So……please let us know what you figure out!


The best part about the Channel Islands is how difficult it is to get out there, hope it always remains a iffy, burdensome issue!


Fry’s is a wonderful spot and has some cool history – the rocks from the carved-out cliff on the left now form the Santa Barbara breakwater, and you can still see the remains of the cables and rail tracks used to transport rocks onto the barges. Some good fishing out there too, highly recommended!