Santa Rosa Island
Channel Islands National Park
Traveled: Ventura Harbor to Bechers Bay, Santa Rosa Island
“Spring again was a time of flowers, and water ran in the ravines and flowed down to the sea. Many birds came back to the island.”
– Scott O’Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins
At 9 years old my parents divorced and I moved with my mom and sister to Santa Barbara. A memory that will always be vivid was the first time we went to the beach after moving there. I looked out past the waves and saw islands and immediately ran up the beach to my mom and proclaimed, “Look Mom! We can see Hawaii from here!”
Not Hawaii, kid. But still quite magical and beautiful.
I grew up reading Island of the Blue Dolphins, and was entranced by the tale of survival. My best friends and I would play “Island of the Blue Dolphins” during every lunch – trying our best as 4th graders to disappear from the elementary school playground to live a life on invisible islands, gathering imaginary shellfish, and pretending to build shelters and canoes. It seemed so much more interesting than our suburban lives.
I think to anyone that grew up within sight of them, these islands have captured our hearts and imaginations. A distant, yet close, untouched world, where true and primitive California still resides.
I have visited Anacapa Island many times – both for field trips when growing up, and in 2012 and 2013 when volunteering with Channel Islands Restoration to help plant native species on the island, after an incredible amount of invasive ice plant had been removed from Anacapa Island.
As my last hurrah before leaving Santa Barbara to move to Colorado in 2014 I finally made it to Santa Cruz Island for a few days with my best friend from growing up with whom I shared so many hours as a kid imagining we were living on these islands. We had been to Anacapa Island together as kids, and visiting Santa Cruz Island together over 25 years later was incredibly special.
I now had my sights on visiting all of the islands. Santa Rosa Island was next.
It was on the spring trips to Anacapa when I discovered the fleeting magic of these islands in spring. They are lush with green grasses, teeming with migratory birds, and the bold yellow bloom of the Giant Coreopsis dresses up the landscape in a way that no other season can match. Early spring on these Southern California islands is truly the time of year in which they wear their best dress.
Early spring is also the perfect time to escape the dormant, brown, muddy landscape of Colorado.
Day 1 – Boat from Ventura Harbor to Santa Rosa Island
The boat crossed the Santa Barbara Channel and stopped first at Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island to drop off visitors, and I was in awe of how green and lush the island was. When I was there last it was in January and the scene of dormant yellow grasses was much less impressive.
The weather was perfect, and as the sea was so calm, the Captain treated us by taking us on the “scenic route” along the back side of Santa Cruz Island to get to Santa Rosa Island. It was such a novelty to see Santa Cruz from these other perspectives, and to travel along the coast of the backside of the island, which most never see.
The fields of wildflowers above the cliffs were stunning.
A small pod of Gray Whales made an appearance.
I wasn’t even at my island destination yet, and I was already feeling like this trip was completely worthwhile.
Santa Rosa Island came into view, and compared to the dramatic mountains and tall cliffs of Santa Cruz Island, it appeared flat and windswept. (Yet the tallest peak on Santa Rosa, Soledad Peak, still rises nearly 1600’ above sea level…far from flat).
At noon, we arrived at the pier at Bechers Bay (which is a super modern and sturdy pier – I was quite impressed). The water was a clear cyan, and the Giant Coreopsis draping from the cliffs were already showing off.
I had made it! Another island checked off my list.The hike to the campground is about 1.5 miles from the pier, passing old abandoned pastures, mostly following a dirt road.
The island was alive with spring. I took my time, admiring the green grasses and flowers, but mostly just stopping to listen to the chorus of birdsong. It was perhaps the most beautiful chorus of birds I had ever heard – loud and vibrant and varied. So many different songs, so full of life.
A short video of the bird chorus:
The trail into Water Canyon was lined with wildflowers, and the view out to the ocean and of Santa Cruz Island was stunning.
Arriving at the campground I was super impressed with the facilities and the view. There were clean bathrooms, flushing toilets, and sinks with running water which felt luxurious! I was prepared for maybe a single pit toilet, so this was a huge surprise.
I had reserved site 001 and went to set up there, but noticed as the visitors trickled in behind me from their hikes in, that no one was setting up at site 002 – which had, in my opinion, the best unimpeded view. I kept my eye on it, and decided not to set up camp quite yet – hoping I could move there if it wasn’t reserved. Sure enough, no one claimed it, so I moved my stuff there a couple hours later. It was a great turn of luck! It was such a beautiful site (to be fair, they are all beautiful sites with essentially the same view, but this was the one site that couldn’t see any other camps from it (other than the one I had just vacated), so it felt more private – though it technically wasn’t. Ha!).
Before the afternoon got away from me I decided to head down to the beach to walk and explore a bit.
The beach was gorgeous and pristine. The water clear and calm.
The creek that ran through Water Canyon by the campground emptied out here at the beach. It was so refreshing to see fresh, flowing, water after the scary dry years southern California has seen recently.
The wind picked up a bit, and made lying on the beach a little too cold and uncomfortable with the blowing sand, so I picked up and hiked back to camp to make some dinner and relax.
I was out for a final walk at sunset, and only had my phone on me and was caught off guard by the incredible show the sky put on. I was so frustrated I only had my phone on me and that my camera was all the way back in camp, but I’m still glad I had some means to capture the magical moment.
As is typical of me when I camp, I went to bed with the sun.
Day 2 – Coastal Road Hike to East Point
I woke before sunrise because I had plans to do a 16 mile roundtrip hike along the Coastal Road to East Point, and wanted to be out of camp just as the sun was rising before the day got too hot, and while the rest of the people on the island were likely sleeping.
Just after sunrise I was off, and the day was perfect.
The birds were in loud happy song, and I hadn’t seen a soul. I felt like I had the entire island to myself. The young girl playing “Island of the Blue Dolphins” on the playground was proud in that moment.
I had read about a big rainstorm that come over the island and washed out some trails and roads, and it wasn’t long before I reached my first obstacle. The coastal road was completely washed out at Water Canyon and I had to spend a while walking back and forth along the creek looking for the best place to cross. Crossing the creek itself wasn’t horrible, more so was finding a spot to scramble up the small cliffs on the other side as they were pretty steep and overhung.
I eventually dropped down to the creek and found a spot to cross over reeds, and then scrambled up the loose cliff on the other side. It wasn’t too bad, but my feet were definitely wet.
After regaining the road, the view from the top looking down on the beach below was stunning.
Shortly thereafter I ran into the first intersection with the Torrey Pines trail (the trail can be done as a loop, with the other end of the trail further ahead).
This hike would have to be saved for another trip, but even from the Coastal Road the Torrey Pines could be seen and experienced. The small Torrey Pine is an unsuspecting and incredibly precious superhero conifer. From the National Park Service site:
“About 500 plant species can be found within nine plant communities, including six plant species found only on Santa Rosa and nowhere else in the world. One of these species, the Santa Rosa Island subspecies of Torrey pine, is considered one of the rarest pines in the world-the last enduring members of a once widespread Pleistocene forest“
The hiking after that was so beautiful, calm, and easy-going.
The road began to cut inland, and further from the beach.
There was no wind, it was perfectly warm, wildflowers, green grass, hummingbirds, and song birds everywhere.
The Coastal Road then crossed a drainage with flowing water, and shaded with Torrey Pines, where you could tell a recent storm had washed away much of the hill above. In the debris I noticed a deer leg bone – a small one. At one point deer and elk were brought to the island to be hunted for sport (ridiculous and infuriating that this is considered in any way a “sport” and not just plain murder), so this likely was from one of those deer.
On that note, the history of Santa Rosa Island is pretty fascinating – especially the fact that the oldest dated human remains in North America were discovered here, dating back to 13,000 years ago. Here. Found on this small island. Here. I think it solidifies the specialness of this place in an unmatched way. You can read a good history of the island here.
Eventually it met up with the Torrey Pines Trail again, continued higher, and the views opened up along the coast ahead.
The calm shoreline glittered in the sunlight.
Waves crashed on cliffs dropping into the sea, creating a beautiful mist glowing in the morning sun.
The road then entered into the old Rancho Viejo area.
The road began to get very muddy and slippery in places with water running down over the road in many places.
Finally, about 6 miles in I reached what would be the 2nd, and last, obstacle of hike. A creek had flooded the road about a mile after crossing into the Old Ranch Pasture. The mud was deep, thick, and incredibly sticky. Just getting down to the creek was a feat in its own. I tried crossing on a bed of reeds similar similar to the ones I crossed at the first creek crossing, but they ended up giving way to deep, deep, mud that almost sucked my shoes off, so I quickly retreated.
Frustrated I walked the banks looking for an alternate crossing, but the cliffs were steeper and the water was deeper both up and down stream. This was the only place I could cross. Damnit.
I decided then to skip the reeds and just try walking across in my trail runners, but on my first step into the water I lost a shoe in the mud and had to wobble around on one leg digging it out.
I desperately wanted to reach East Point, and in my determination I decided to take off my shoes and cross in bare feet.
There’s no need for details, just take my word that was an absolutely horrible idea.
And then in the wake of my brilliant plan I had to figure out a way to CLEAN my feet so I could put them back in my socks and shoes.
It was all quick ridiculous and defeating. I tried though. I tried.
I then began my retreat back to camp. I took my time, as it was still so early and I had the entire day to kill at this point.
After leaving the Old Ranch Pasture area, I ventured off trail toward the cliffs edge, to explore a bit and find a nice place in the grass for a little siesta and a snack.
I stumbled upon a beautiful cove.
I then wandered out onto some volcanic cliffs and found the top entrance to deep sea cave below. The sound of the waves coming into the cave was so eerie.
I took a break for a little longer and then continued on my way back to Water Canyon. Reaching the washed out road area, I realized that getting down from the cliffed-out side was going to prove very tough, so being that it was verging on uncomfortably hot out by this point, I decided to just jump into the deep creek and wade through the outlet following it out to the beach. Unlike the creek going through the ranch, the bottom was sturdy sand, not shoe-sucking mud, so the whole experience was quite refreshing.
Reaching the beach, I walked along until I found a nice spot to rest on the warm sand and hung out for a few hours in the sun and relaxed, and read.
A group of 3 people that I recognized from the campground were fishing on the beach, and I talked to them for a bit. They invited me to stop by their campsites later to hang out.
The evening was easy and uneventful, by the time I headed back from the beach the day was winding down. I made dinner at camp, and then the group I had met on the beach earlier invited me over to their campsite to have some wine. They were great. I’ve mentioned this probably a hundred times on this blog so far, but seriously, my favorite things about backpacking alone is the fact that I always end up meeting the best people. It never fails! Somehow, when I go into the wilderness or onto a remote island I meet more people than I do in civilization in a year.
The full moon rose as we sat around talking. It was HUGE and beautiful.
I then mentioned to them that I was going to bed early so I could get up before dawn to do a full moon hike to the summit of Black Mountain to catch sunrise the next morning. I invited them along, thinking no sane person would join me, and I was surprised that they were eager to come along and were super excited!
We all had to catch the boat back to the mainland at 1:00pm, and doing this early summit would allow us to squeeze in one more big hike and still have time to pack up and get to the dock to board the boat in time.
We set alarms for 4:00am. I went back to my campsite and was in bed by 7:30. I was lulled to sleep by the chirps and croaks of frogs in the creek running below, and despite the flashlight in the sky (it can be very trying to sleep with a bright full moon overhead) I slept deep and well.
Day 3 – Black Mountain Full Moon and Sunrise Hike and the boat home
When my alarm went off about 6.5 hours after I went to bed, I awoke more excited than tired. Two of my favorite experiences in life that hold immeasurable magic:
- Hiking by the light of a full moon
- Summiting mountains for sunrise
Combining the two? The holy grail.
Honestly, I was skeptical that my new friends would actually follow through and wake once their alarms went off. But I was left surprised when I saw headlamps bobbing around their campsite when I emerged from my tent.
At 4:30 am the four of us were on the trail. The wind was nearly non-existent, and the night was surprisingly warm. It was so great to be hiking under such perfect conditions.
When planning this out the night before, I knew that the summit had to be about 3-3.5 miles from our camp in Water Canyon. But I wasn’t exactly sure. The problem I ran into is that I didn’t have any cell service out there to check the exact time of sunrise, and with the time change coming from Colorado, I wasn’t exactly sure what time the sun would rise. So I was working with an educated guess.
I didn’t know what pace everyone would be hiking at, so I guessed a conservative 2 mph with the elevation gain. By my calculations we would get to the summit just in time for sunrise at 6:20am.
Wouldn’t it have been great if I had known sunrise was actually at 7:15? An hour later?
As we hiked under a blanket of stars, we had no idea we would be arriving at our destination so far ahead of the sun.
The hike left the campground following the Cherry Canyon Trail, and then turned on Telephone Road, a 4wd road, which made for easy and quick hiking in the dark. We took our time, stopping to gawk at the moonlit landscape unfolding around us. The moonlight was truly bright, and as often happens when hiking by the light of a full moon, we were able to turn off our headlamps at a point and hike by moonlight alone.
We arrived at the summit with an hour to spare (unknowingly). As we waited and waited for that first light change on the horizon just before dawn…and it not coming…I realized my err in guessing the time of the sunrise.
Fortunately, my new friends were not bothered by losing an hour of sleep for no good reason, and instead we all just wandered around the summit and ridges in the moonlight gazing across the ocean at the blanket of moonlit fog that moved in shrouding the ocean in all directions, at San Miguel Island and Santa Cruz Island, at the coast of the North American mainland and California, and the silhouettes of the familiar mountains of the Santa Barbara Coastal Range.
Looking at the mainland, thinking of all my friends and family sound asleep just over there, I couldn’t help but think of how odd is was that I felt a planet away from them standing on that mountaintop waiting for the sun. Yet I could see where they all were. And though the same sun would rise for all of us, I was seeing a sun that was surely more precious. How is that?
Finally, the light on the horizon began to change, and we knew the show would be starting.
For anyone that has closely watched the sunrise (or set) you know this – but it’s shocking how quickly the sun moves across our sky. It seems glacial and imperceptible throughout the day, but when you watch it rise closely above the horizon, it feels like it’s a bubble floating up through a sea of sky. Like it’s fighting the pull of gravity and winning. And it seems in some ways that if it were to continue at that incredible speed, the sun would fly across the sky and set again in a matter of a few hours.
The light changed every second revealing more and more.
With the fog covering the sea below, the sky burning orange, and the light streaming over the mountains of Santa Cruz Island. It was one of the most beautiful beginnings to a day I had ever experienced.
I highly recommend if you haven’t, seeking out sunrise from new vantages. Everyone needs to feel at least once in their life like the sun they are seeing is rising only for them. There’s something powerful and mystical about summoning sun and feeling like it’s shining only for you. Be selfish in these thoughts. Be selfish with moments like this. They are yours alone.
Besides the rising sun, another incredible landscape was unfolding in front of us.
The inner mountains of Santa Rosa Island were glowing the most incredible green, I simply couldn’t get over them. They reminded me in their contrasting red rock and brilliant green of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains in the height of summer.
They say that the Channel Islands are the last glimpse of what the Southern California coast looked like before we showed up and gummed the whole thing up. Here, in this spot, I could see that.
After the sun had established itself in the sky and we had all taken enough photos we headed back down. We still had a 4 mile hike back and had to pack up camp and hike the 1.5 miles back to the pier in time to catch the boat.
We chose to make the hike into a loop and took Soledad Road down and connected back to the Cherry Canyon Trail to get back to camp.
Getting back to camp, I packed up my my stuff, and hiked back to the pier to get back on the boat.
Before leaving I wandered the beach around the pier a bit.
Back on the boat, we took the short route to Santa Cruz Island to first pick up passengers there before heading back to the Ventura Harbor. Remember the fog we saw from Black Mountain? Well, it had burned off around Santa Rosa Island, but we hit it thick when reaching Santa Cruz.
Before making our first stop at Prisoners Harbor, we would be taking a detour I was more excited about than I can even put words to. Despite the fog, the tide and swell conditions were perfect enough that the Captain was going to take us into Painted Cave – the longest sea cave in North America – and one of the largest in the whole world.
We cruised along the coastal cliffs, breaking in and out of the fog, visibility was very limited, and the Captain announced that we were heading into the cave he turned the boat turned the land and we all looked out a little nervous and confused, because there was nothing I could see around us that looked like a cave.
Then the entrance became barely visible, and the first thing I thought (and I’m sure everyone on the boat thought) was, “No freaking way is this huge 60 foot boat fitting in there. No. Freaking. Way”
It’s extremely deceptive because even as we were 20 feet from the entrance, it still looked like there was no way in hell the boat would fit. I ran to the very front of the boat for the best view.
With the fog, it was eerie and magical. Straight out of your best pirate fantasy.
And the Captain slid the huge boat in and not only did we fit, we fit with room to spare. It was absolutely incredible.
It’s called Painted Cave because the walls are an awesome array of color, different algaes and stones, creating a palette of green, purple, orange, blue and red.
I was so impressed with the Captains skill navigating the boat into the cavern, and even as we backed out of Painted Cave and looked back at the entrance, the illusion of it’s size had not changed, and it still seemed impossible that our giant boat had fit in there.
Leaving the cave behind we continued onward, passing Profile Point and landing in Prisoners Harbor. I watched a huge flock of seagulls surrounding the boat catching baby lobsters.
On the way back to Ventura Harbor, we were lucky enough to see the largest mega pod of dolphins I had ever seen. Dolphins in numbers I couldn’t even fathom in all directions could be seen.
The swam in our wake, alongside, out in front – it was a completely magical and awesome experience.
What an incredible day to start it watching the sun rise seemingly for me alone, and then winding the day down in the company of a thousand dolphins.
I leave you with this: these moments are happening right now somewhere on the planet – both as I write this, and as you read this. The sun is rising somewhere and someone is watching it, and pods of thousands of dolphins are dancing through the sea, perhaps unseen by any human eye.
Reflecting on this trip, I am left with one thought: get out there. Somewhere. Anywhere. Go seek different perspectives. Go find the islands you dreamed escaping to as a kid. Go seek magic.