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Day Trip to Santa Rosa Island in the Channel Islands

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I have always had a love for history. After bringing my kids to visit Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands last summer, I realized that the National Parks Service now owns the once privately owned Island, Santa Rosa.

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While Santa Rosa has been open to the public since 2011, it is still rarely visited, keeping it pristine, untouched, and a true island paradise off our local coastline. It is a true gem that was once a cowboy ranch, frequented by celebrities, and a legacy to a family who fought hard to keep the island and the ranch that their father had built. Before the island was owned by the Vail family, it was home to many Chumash tribes, leaving the island rich in history.

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When planning our first visit to Santa Rosa, there was not a lot of information online about what to expect. At first, I wanted to take my children camping on the island, but with such limited information I was reluctant to camp during our first visit and planned a day trip instead.

With there being such limited online information on what to expect when visiting Santa Rosa, I created this guide on what to expect when planning a day trip to this local island paradise. I know it is long…but make sure and read everything in detail before going…

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Transportation
The Channel Islands National Park is only accessible by boat. Island Packers is the most well-known establish company to offer boat transportation out of the Ventura Harbor. The Ventura Harbor is only a two-hour drive out of Orange County, but the boat can take much longer depending on weather conditions.

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My son and I left the morning of the day trip at 5:30 am, and almost missed the boat due to traffic. The boat leaves Ventura on select days at 8 am, and then leaves Santa Rosa at 3:30 pm. I recommend staying in a hotel in the Ventura/Oxnard area the evening before so that your children don’t have to wake up too early. Also, you don’t risk missing your boat due to unpredictable LA traffic. There are many hotels in the area for less than $100 a night.

Food
There is no food on the island. If you want to camp – you cannot cook food (Basically trail mix, bagels and nutrition bars during your stay). I recommend bringing (non-perishable) sandwiches, snacks and water for the day. There is running water and bathrooms available near the dock, but it is a long hike back from everywhere on the island. There are snacks/drinks and some icky microwaveable burgers available on the boat (cash only). We packed sun butter sandwiches, plenty of water and snacks. My son had what felt like a hundred snacks on the boat, and it ended up being plenty of food for the day.

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Getting to the Island
This part was not what I expected. The boat first makes a stop at the popular Santa Cruz Island to drop-off campers and day visitors. It takes about 1 1/2 hours to get to Santa Cruz, and then another 2 hours to get to Santa Rosa.

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The best part – you get to see the entire island of Santa Cruz. The boat goes right along the shoreline showing guests the beautiful cliffs, landscape and beaches surrounding the island. While going around Santa Cruz, the captain of the boat educates everyone on board about the island. They talk about the rock formations, fault lines, history and more. My son learned so much on the boat ride that could never be learned the same way in a classroom.

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Our boat had a little engine trouble in the channel between Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa, so it took a little longer for us to make it to the island.

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Once on the island
Your time is limited. If you’re only doing a day trip, then you won’t have time to do many of the hikes that are available. I was expecting to hike to Lobo Canyon based on what I read online only to find out it is a 9-mile hike round-trip!! Not exactly a kid-friendly hike.

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We arrived close to 1 pm, and the boat was scheduled to send a zodiac down to the beach to pick us up and take us to the boat at 2:30 pm. Then the boat went down to the dock at 3:30 pm to pick-up remaining passengers. (super limited time on the island).

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One of the amazing ladies on the boat who taught my son so much about the island offered a free hike to the cherry canyon to give visitors a hike with enough time to return to the boat.

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With both me and my son being beach lovers, we opted to explore the island on our own and then spend most of our time on the soft sandy white beach and splashing in the turquoise waters.

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After getting our orientation, we walked off of the bridge to explore the abandoned ranch. We were warned not to go into the buildings because of rat poop that could cause us to get sick, but we were welcome to explore around the ranch. It was one of our favorite parts of the visit. We got to see the beautiful farm that was once an active cattle ranch, and it was one of the most immersive history lessons my son ever experienced.

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Next, we started our walk to Bleachers Beach. Be careful not to make a wrong turn or you’ll end up on an airstrip. Yes, there is an active airstrip (that looks just like a trail). If it weren’t for the signs, we would have continued walking along the active airstrip!!

You’ll be given a map upon arrival that will roughly show the way to Bleachers Beach (about 1 1/2 mile walk) but just know that it is directly across from the campground. You’ll go down a dirt path where you’ll find paradise!!

Right away my son started running up and down the giant sand dunes. It was his favorite part of the visit. We walked down the long beach to the black rock where we stopped to have lunch, climb the rocks and swim. The water was colder than we expected but crystal clear.

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We had the ENTIRE BEACH TO OURSELVES!! There were only about five groups visiting the island for the day, and we were the only visitors to stay at the beach. Where else can you have a beautiful beach to yourself for a day?

The only downside was that our time was limited to only about an hour at the beach before the zodiac came to pick us up at 2:30 pm to take us back to the boat. Now that I am a little familiar with the island, we will try a two-day camping trip, so we can do some hiking, and spend more time at the beach.

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The Unforgettable Trip Home
Just when you think the amazing trip is over, you’re in for the biggest treat of all – Painted Cave! I had no idea this was going to happen, and my son was sleeping on my lap as the boat went along the shoreline of the other side of Santa Cruz Island. This side of the island is rich in sea caves, including the world’s largest sea cave, Painted Cave.

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As we approached Painted Cave, the boat got close to the cave so we could all take pictures, but then the best part happened – the boat actually went INSIDE the cave!! Not just a little bit inside the cave, but extremely far into the cave. We could see sea lions, bats, and all the beautiful colors of the rocks. It was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had. Thank goodness I was able to wake-up my son to experience it with me too. Make sure and keep your kids awake until after your visit to Painted Cave.

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Whales and Sea Life
While in the Santa Barbara Channel on our way back to Ventura the waters are rich with sea life. The climate changes have created warmer waters bringing unique sea life to the region. The waters around the Channel Islands are full of whales, and I have never seen so many humpback whales together in one spot as I did on this trip. The captain took his time to let us photograph and admire the humpback whales, sharks, and dolphins that we saw on our way back.

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Going Home
Once we got to the harbor, we used the bathrooms and purchased a souvenir. We arrived around 6:30 pm, and got back home in Orange County by 9 pm.

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I highly recommend planning a day trip this summer to Santa Rosa Island. The island is open to visitors from April through mid-November. Boats do not go daily to the island so check the online schedule for available dates.

Island Packers Rates:
Day Fare: Adults $82, Senior $74, Child $65
Campers: Adults $114, Senior $104, Child $90

Camping
Reservations are available through the National Park Service for $15 a night. There are limited spots available, and all provide wind shelters (the winds can get rough on the island). The hike to the campground is about 1 1/2 – 2 miles. There is running water (showers closed due to drought) picnic tables, and there’s no cooking allowed.

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