#TravelTuesday | Plan Your Vacation to California’s Channel Islands

by Judy McDonough on January 30, 2018 in Travels,
Pod of Gray Whales Island Packers Doug Mangum e1517260326610

In 2016, more than half of American workers left a total of 662 million vacation days unused.

I am one of those workers. So, in desperate need of some excitement in the middle of dreary January, a trip to the Golden State, California, seemed not only intriguing but positively necessary.

But where to go, and what to do? The Visit California website has a “California 101” series that features short videos of many of the state’s destinations. Amongst the amusement parks, luxurious resorts and classic shopping districts, it was the outdoor activities I kept circling back to – and particularly the video for the Channel Islands.

The Channel Islands National Park encompasses five relatively untouched islands—Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, and San Miguel— off the Southern California coast. Photo courtesy Visit Ventura

The Channel Islands National Park encompasses five islands—Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, and San Miguel— off the Southern California coast. The islands are relatively untouched, with plenty of scenic hikes and wildlife – and remote enough that visitors have to take a one to three hour boat trip just to get there. One of the activities offered was the sea cave kayak tour, where visitors could spend a half-day exploring the caves around Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island. Now, I’ve been in a canoe, and a few years ago, I did quite a bit of paddle boarding – but kayaking? Never. Yet, according to the Channel Island Adventure Company, the group that runs the kayaking trips at islands, beginners were welcome, so…. I took a deep breath, booked my flight, and made my reservation.

 | January 30 is National Plan for Vacation Day |


I followed the recommendation on the Island Packers website to dress in layers, but the bracing cold still made me huddle upstairs in the covered portion of the boat on our ride to the islands. Everyone kept their eyes peeled for whales – grey whale watching goes late December through April – but nary a waterspout was seen on our chilly trip that morning. As Santa Cruz Island came into view, I started getting nervous: kayaking? On the ocean??? Was this really how I had decided to use one of my vacation days?

Our kayak guide/expert, Aaron, was a calm, confident young man – so I tried to relax as I tugged on my wet suit. After all, Aaron had to oversee just me and two other kayakers on this trip, a friendly couple from Massachusetts who had kayaked in lakes, but never on the ocean. That revelation brought new nervousness as we trudged down to the beach, safety helmets and life vests already in place– my first time kayaking, and I was doing it on the ocean? Maybe not the smartest choice…

On a sea cave kayak tour, visitors spend a half-day exploring the caves around Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island. Photo courtesy Visit Ventura

After receiving thorough instructions from Aaron, we brought our kayaks down to the water, I climbed in, and with Aaron’s help, I launched my kayak. I then found myself paddling out to a large rock, our meeting place, as Aaron assisted the couple with their kayak. I concentrated on steady strokes, staying calm, and – then it hit me. I was actually ocean kayaking! Aaron lead us along the jagged coast, pointing out the nesting birds in the cliffs above us, and the active plant life growing in the waters beneath us, and prepping us for the caves we’d be entering. Once I felt comfortable in my little kayak, I relaxed and really took in the beauty of the island, the salty spray inside the caves, and the curiosity of the birds, as they gazed down from the cliffs.

They weren’t the only ones who were curious about our group – at one point Aaron smiled and said, “Look behind you.” There, about ten feet away, was a young sea lion, poking his head out of the water. He disappeared after a few seconds, but kept pace with us for at least ten minutes, surfacing every so often to take in the sight of these odd creatures in the bright yellow kayaks.

Whale watching season runs December through April off California’s Channel Islands. Photo courtesy Kevin Bailey and Island Packers

Two and a half hours later we were pulling our kayaks back up on the shore, and I was wearing a blissful grin… not only had I experienced the beauty of the Channel Islands up close, but I’d pushed myself to try something different, and I’d loved it. This time I didn’t huddle on the top deck as the boat took us back to Ventura – I stayed out in the wind, on the main deck, savoring every second of my time on the ocean. As if being rewarded for my decision to actually take a real vacation, I saw two whales on our return trip – as well as a massive pod of dolphins.

This January 30 – National Plan for Vacation Day – I’ll be plotting my next getaway… For my next vacation, the sky’s the limit – ooh – that’s a thought – skydiving….

Cover photo: Pod of gray whales courtesy Doug Mangum and Island Packers