Have you ever kayaked into sea caves when a wave comes in? The water level rising rapidly bringing the ceiling of the cave closer and closer to your face? Well, I have. If you are looking for a special kind of ocean adventure in the greater Los Angeles/Ventura region, then look no further! Established as a National Park in 1980, this national park is one of the newest national parks in California, and one of the least visited. This incredible island national park is preserved for its wildlife and biodiversity. It is also an incredible place to whale watch! However, you absolutely cannot miss kayaking in Channel Islands as it gives you the amazing opportunity to kayak in and out of sea caves.
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What Is Channel Islands National Park
Channel Islands National Park consists of 5 separate islands that are located 12-70 miles off of the coast of Ventura, California. There are actually 8 islands in the Channel Islands, but only 5 are designated as part of the national park. The park was established to protect the wildlife both on and around the island.
Channel Islands National Park is incredibly special due to the fact that it is located in a “transition zone” in the ocean. This means that multiple currents meet and change in the area around the channel islands. Because of this, there are significantly more fish and wildlife in the area because there is more food to feed on. Whale watching is an extremely popular excursion in the Channel Islands due to the high probability of seeing whales. We didn’t do a whale watching tour, but were able to see hundreds (literally) of dolphins, a humpback whale, and a minke whale on our ferry ride to the islands.
What It’s Like Kayaking Through Sea Caves
I’ll admit that I was a little nervous going into our sea cave kayaking adventure. I’m not the strongest kayaker due to a fairly major shoulder surgery that I had about seven years ago and a back injury from sliding off the side of a mountain in Iceland last summer that is taking longer to heal than I’d like. However, Eric and I do kayak more than a few times a year at least (especially since our tiny house is on a lake in Florida) so we aren’t necessarily inexperienced, but this was still our first time “Sea Kayaking.”
When we booked the tour, we chose the 4 hours guided sea cave kayaking tour. We checked ahead of time to make sure that we would be able to tandem kayak (4 hours can feel like a long time on the kayak), but we honestly could have solo kayaked and been fine!
We kind of assumed that we would be in those really intense, long, thin kayaks that are designed to cut the ocean ways, but we were surprised to find that we were using bulkier, sit-on-top kayaks instead. Once we got on the water, it made more sense though as we weren’t fighting massive waves. Instead, we were sticking close to the cliffside to access the caves. The thicker kayaks also gave me more confidence in case we bumped into the cave walls or rocks.
Our guide was amazing. He would kayak into each cave to make sure it was safe as water levels are constantly changing, and determine whether or not it was safe to enter. He never put us in danger, but definitely opened up the door to awesome adventuring opportunities. For each cave, he would talk us through step-by-step how to navigate the cave, how to get out, what to do if a big wave comes, and when we may need to use our hands or lay completely flat on the kayak to get out.
Every cave was a little bit different. Some were massive openings that we could just kayak normally into and look for seals (which we did see!). Other caves were intense and required quick turning and ducking to avoid smashing your head into the wall.
The most intense cave they nick-named “The Doggy Door.” It was a TINY opening that led out of the cave which you could choose to take instead of the larger exit. Eric and I, of course, opted to do the more intense one. As the water comes in, your kayak gets pushed closer and closer to the roof of the slot.
While we were in the cave, a wave came in and out and left us stuck on a rock. When the next wave came in, we rode it towards the doggy door. As the water came into the cave, the water levels rose against the rocks and the ceiling of the cave became uncomfortably close to our heads. We ended up laying almost completely flat on the kayak and using our paddles to push against the cave walls to get out while avoiding smashing our heads into the sharp rock walls and ceilings. It was really cool, but not for the faint of heart!
The other really awesome “cave” was actually more of an S-shaped slot between two massive rock formations. For this one, you had to ride the wave through the slot and turn your boat incredibly quickly so that you wouldn’t crash into the rocks. The guide asked us if we wanted a more adventurous time or a gentler time for this one. We chose adventure so he timed it just right that he told us to go when a massive wave was there. It shot us through the slot and we had to turn insanely quick, but it was awesome. Our guide told us that someone flips their kayak almost every time a group does that.
If that sounds nerve-wracking to you, that’s ok! Everything was “trial by choice.” The guide would describe the cave to you and you would have the option to go into it, or paddle outside and enjoy sitting on the water while others did it.
Sea Kayaking Basics
If you are new to sea kayaking, it is pretty much the same as regular kayaking! The main difference is that you really have to account for the waves. These quick tips will help you prepare for sea kayaking (your guide will absolutely go over them with you as well before the tour):
- Listen to your guide at all times.
- Keep your helmet on in caves.
- Don’t kayak too close to the cliffside, a strong wave can push you into the rocks at any time.
- If you tip over, don’t panic! Stay calm and assess the situation.
- Communicate with your partner if kayaking tandem. Tell them if you need more rowing on one side or if you need to turn.
- Stretch out your arms and back before getting on the kayak
- Before you get going, make sure your seat is set where you want it. It’s harder to adjust once you are out on the ocean.
Getting To Channel Islands National Park
It is important to note that you can only get to the Channel Islands by boat. Eric and I joked that Channel Islands was “the rich man’s national park” because getting there is NOT cheap. Aside from your National Parks pass, you need to take a Ferry to get to the islands. The ferry takes about 1.5 hours each way to get from the Ventura Marina to Scorpion Anchorage (the docking point) on Santa Cruz Island where most of the Channel Islands tours take place.
This Ferry costs $63 roundtrip for adults and $45 roundtrip for children. The Ferry is run by a company called Island Packers that has partnered with the National Park since its creation in 1980.
The actual ferry ride is an adventure all by itself! I would absolutely not recommend it if you are prone to seasickness as it can be an incredibly rough ride depending on the sea conditions that day. On the way to Channel Islands, we sat in the bottom area of the boat, and it was ROUGH. I don’t get seasick, but even my stomach was jumping up and down with the waves. On the way back, we rode on top of the ferry and it was significantly smoother.
On the ferry, there are some snacks and beverages available for purchase (including beer). The seating was relatively comfortable and there are tables below the deck.
The Island Packers ferry only runs a few times a day (It changes depending on the season) and you will have a specific time on your return ticket. Our morning ferry left at 8:30am and we arrived in Channel Islands around 10am. Our afternoon ferry back left the island at 4:30pm and we arrived back in Ventura around 5:45pm.
There are only a select few tour companies that are allowed to operate in the Channel Islands. We went with the biggest kayaking company: Channel Islands Adventure Company.
They had two main tour options: a “Discovery” kayak tour that was around 1.5 hours long, and the more adventurous “Adventure Sea Cave Kayak Tour” that is around 3 hours on the water (and is the one that I described above).
The tour company can schedule the ferry for you when you book the tour which I would highly recommend so that you don’t mess anything up with the timing. They also provide water shoes (although I’d advise bringing your own since they are old, nasty Crocs), wetsuits, jackets, and helmets.
How To Prepare For Kayaking in Channel Islands National Park
Channel Islands National Park is not your typical national park. There is no entrance gate, and there are no shops on the island. It is incredibly important to note that there is no food or drinks for sale anywhere on the island. Because of this, you will need to plan ahead and bring everything you need for the day with you.
When you sign up for your tour for kayaking in Channel Islands National Park, it will say a specific “Length” of the tour. This timing refers ONLY to the time on the water. It does not include the time it takes to wait for the ferry, take the ferry to the island, prepare your kayaking gear, hang out on the island waiting for the afternoon ferry, and take the ferry back to the mainland. All of that time adds up. So be sure to plan for a long day.
It is important to note that the ferry time is usually LONG before the start of your kayak tour. Make sure that you arrive 45 minutes before the ferry leaves to check in with your tour and get your ferry tickets for the day.
It is a long day and your kayaking tour starts immediately after arriving on the island and receiving your briefing on the national park regulations. Because of this, you won’t have time to snack after you leave the ferry and before your tour. I would recommend eating a hearty breakfast and definitely taking some motion sickness medicine if you are prone to seasickness!
What To Pack For The Channel Islands
During your kayaking tour, you will be able to leave your stuff behind at the kayaking headquarters. Foxes and ravens stealing food and other items are a HUGE problem in the area so they provide storage benches to help protect your belongings. Our guide even told us that the ravens had learned how to unzip AND rezip backpacks to get food out. The guides will mention it to you a hundred times but definitely plan to store your extra items in the lockers provided.
When planning your trip to the Channel Islands, it’s important to bring two sets of things with you: what goes with you on the kayak and what makes your time on the AFTER kayaking more enjoyable. Below I’ve listed some helpful items for both parts.
Items To Bring On The Kayak with You
- Dry bag– If you plan on bringing anything on board with you, a dry bag is essential to keep it from getting soaked! Just make sure to tie it to your body in case you flip!
- Waterproof sleeve for your phone– Make sure that it has a lanyard so that you can tie it around your neck when kayaking in Channel Islands!
- Water Shoes- I never fell out of the kayak, so I don’t know from experience, but our guide told us that the rocks are incredibly sharp. You want to make sure that you wear proper water shoes (Not flip flops) so that you can get your footing if you fall out in shallower water.
- Bathing Suit for under your wetsuit
- Snacks for on the kayak– We brought a beef jerky stick and a cheese stick (plan to pack out your trash PLEASE) and that was enough to tide us over from 10:00am-2pm.
Items To Bring For After Kayaking
- Towel– I recommend a microfiber/quick-dry towel like this one because you don’t want to take a sopping wet towel on the ferry with you for an hour and a half.
- Picnic blanket– Picnic areas are extremely limited on the island. Most are part of pre-reserved campsites. I ended up sitting on my towel to eat lunch, but it would have been really nice to have a picnic blanket to sit on while enjoying the island.
- Cooler bag– To keep your lunch cool while on your adventure
- Lunch– We were starving after our adventure. We had packed some sandwiches, grapes, and chips in our cooler bag and that was plenty of food for us. We enjoyed a nice lunch on the island while soaking up the sun. If we had not brought lunch, we would have been ravenous by the time we got back to Ventura.
- Beer– On our ferry to the island, there were a LOT of overnight campers who were hauling in a ton of gear– and beer! I thought it was a great idea. If you drink, a nice beer or two would hit the spot after a day of adventuring.
- Sunscreen– You will be mostly covered (aside from your face) on the kayak by your wetsuits and gear, however, the sun when you return to the island can be pretty brutal! Bring sunscreen to avoid getting burnt like I did.
- Change of clothes
- Flip flops– Simply nice for relaxing on the beach
- Hiking shoes and socks– If you go on a shorter kayaking tour or are a fast hiker, there are a few hikes on the island that you may have time to do!
Other Things To Do in Channel Islands National Park
Channel Islands National Park is also a great place to go camping with the family. Just be sure to reserve your camping spot well in advance because it gets booked quickly! Also, be prepared to pack in all of your food for the entire time you are there. Once you are on the island, there is nothing available for purchase.
There are multiple hiking options on the island. The most famous hike is a quick, 2-mile hike to the edge of the cliff-face right at the Scorpion Anchorage Dock. This is probably the only hike that you will have time for if you are kayaking as well. If you are interested in backpacking, there are multiple 30+ mile backpacking routes on Santa Cruz island that are worth looking into.
The most popular thing to do for day-trippers to the Channel Islands is to go whale watching. There are whale watching tours available through the ferry company Island Packers. You can find out more about them here.
Channel Islands National Park is also a great place for snorkeling if you have a wetsuit and snorkel gear!
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