Channel Islands National Park

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Anacapa Island--An 11 Mile Boat Ride to Another World

Sep 10, 2000 (Updated Aug 21, 2001)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Beautiful scenery, marine wildlife, solitude

Cons:Limited activities, foghorn, no water, aggressive mice

The Bottom Line: A world away so close to the Los Angeles urban sprawl

Anacapa Island is one of the 8 Channel Islands running along the Southern California coast from San Diego to Santa Barbara. It’s composed of 3 sub-islands: east, middle and west. The island in total is pretty small (700 acres total), and with limited exceptions, visitors are only allowed on the east island, which is maybe 250 acres. The dramatic peaks visible from the mainland are on the west island and top out over 900 feet high.

The east island is a dry, mostly flat, treeless, windblown, grassy plateau about 150 feet above the ocean. You need to climb 250 stairs to get from the landing cove to the plateau. You can access the ocean only at the landing cove—the rest of the island is “walled off” from the shoreline by the steep cliffs. Don’t be fooled into thinking you’ll miraculously find some way to get to the shoreline to the plateau; it’s not possible, and death awaits those who are convinced otherwise.

There are no services on the island—no restaurants or stores, no running water, no flushing toilets, no phones. There are also no trees on the island, and there are only 2 land vertebrates on the island (deer mouse and lizard).

Getting to Anacapa is easy. Island Packers has the exclusive concession out of Ventura and Channel Islands harbors. or (805) 642-7688. Truth Aquatics has the exclusive concession out of Santa Barbara Harbor, but they run substantially fewer trips and the boat ride is somewhat longer. or (805) 963-3564. From the Channel Islands harbor, the boat ride is 11 miles and takes about 75 minutes. The boat ride cost $48 per person round trip.

We saw a bunch of harbor seals in the Channel Islands harbor on the way out; we saw a shark and a massive pod of several hundred dolphins on the way back. Whale sightings are always possible, especially in Winter and Spring. On the way, you also get great views of the Ventura coast and the island, including the famous Arch Rock which is not visible from the island top. Remember that the seas usually get choppy in the afternoon, although we were fortunate to have smooth sailing both ways.

Island Packers runs half-day trips to East Anacapa, which involves the boat ride back and forth and about 2 hours of time on the island. The park ranger runs a free tour that lasts about 1.5 hours, but you’re also free to explore on your own.

Being so small and isolated, the island offers a limited number of activities:

* hiking. From the ranger station to Inspiration Point is about ¾ mile one way. It’s ¼ mile one way from the ranger station to the lighthouse. All told, there’s about 2 miles of round trip hiking available. A good hiker will complete all of the trails in 45 minutes.
* visit Inspiration Point at the west end of the island. This is one of the most amazing views anywhere in the world. The plateau drops off in a razor-thin ridge 150 feet down to the crashing/swirling ocean, which leads to the middle Anacapa plateau (with its 150 foot high cliffs), which leads to the towering razor-thin ridges of West Anacapa. All of this is backdropped by the east end of Santa Cruz Island. It’s impossible to describe, but it’s a view I’ll never forget. We watched the sun set over Santa Cruz island and kissed. Definitely 4 smooch territory.
* birdwatching. Anacapa is dominated by the birds, mostly Western Gulls. They are loud, smelly and territorial. Most of the gulls left during the day, but at sunset, the island was filled with birds everywhere. There are also lots of brown pelicans, which nest on West Anacapa, and many other seabirds.
* watch the sea lions. The sea lions have rookeries at Pinnepid Point and in Cathedral Cove. When we were there, sea lions weren’t visible at Cathedral Cove, but we enjoyed watching the sea lions play in the water and bellow at each other from Pinnepid Point.
* inspect the buildings. The lighthouse was built in the early 1930’s and is pretty, but you can’t visit the building itself (potential hearing damage). There’s the historical water tanks encased in a church-like building. Finally, there’s a small visitor’s center with some island-specific information. All told, building inspection takes about 15 minutes.
* water sports. You can swim and snorkel at the landing cove—the water temperature was 65 degrees in early September. There’s good kayaking and snorkeling at Cathedral Cove, and scuba is available throughout. You must bring all of your gear with you.

With a comparatively limited number of activities, one would think that the half-day tour would be a perfect length of time to visit. However, if we had just taken the half-day tour, I would have come away disappointed with Anacapa, dismissing it as a nice but boring island. Instead, because we camped overnight, I came away enthralled with Anacapa. Why the difference?

I found that the island experience changed with the clouds and the sun position. Inspiration Point was phenomenal at sunset, but it was stunning in a completely different way at sunrise. So I found myself constantly running from vista point to vista point throughout the course of the day to see how the experience was changing. Plus, by camping, we were able to see the island at sunrise and sunset, which would not have been possible on the day trips. Finally, we got incredible stars and amazing views of the Ventura coastline at night.

Some camping tips:

* we made our reservations online (see URL below). Camping cost $2.60 a night. There are only 7 campsites with no privacy, but on the Friday night of the Labor Day weekend, only 3 sites were taken and it was a very peaceful scene.
* The foghorn at the lighthouse is always in earshot and runs 24x7. This is a major downside of the campground. We were so exhausted that we were able to sleep through some of the night, but the foghorn definitely kept us up some. You might try bringing earplugs, but I doubt these help much.
* You need to carry everything you need—including water—about ½ mile. Pack as if you’re going on a backpacking trip, not a car camping trip.
* Watch out for the mice! While hantavirus has not been found on island mice (unlike the other islands), the mice are very aggressive about raiding food. The ranger said there’s a prize for running a clean camp with no food bits—the mice will raid the other campsites. We ran a clean campsite and did not get any mice visits, but the other 2 groups both got visits. It was hilarious watching one of the groups with their flashlights circling in the dark, yelling “there he is!” and throwing stones at phantom shadows.
* Be prepared for high winds and adverse weather conditions. East Anacapa gets only 7 inches of rain, but the campground is exposed to the elements—no trees or windbreaks. The boats won’t run in inclement weather, but if you’re caught on the island during a storm, I suspect it’s pretty rough.

Although we could always hear the foghorn and the Ventura/Oxnard metropolitan area was always in sight, I felt very isolated and “away,” more than I usually feel even on remote wilderness hikes. I especially felt the solitude after the last boat left at night, knowing there were only 12 people on the island, and no one else was coming. The feeling of isolation was incredible and empowering.

We had a great trip to Anacapa. It’s whetted my appetite for visiting the other islands!

For more information about the Channel Islands National Park, see You can also make camping reservations through the site.

Recommend this product? Yes

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