Outdoor Observer

Outdoor Observer

Santa Barbara Island is the smallest of the eight Channel Islands, but exciting watersports and natural beauty make it well worth the effort and planning required to travel and camp there. My wife, Dawn, and I experienced spectacular ocean views and rich diversity of plants and wildlife during four days and three nights there. We enjoyed kayaking, hiking and snorkeling through kelp forests teeming with colorful fish, sea urchins and playful sea lions.

The remote island is much farther from the mainland than the other four in Channel Islands National Park. Island Packers Cruises makes a few trips there each year, and since there are only 10 campsites, reserving one as soon as they become available is important.

Santa Barbara Island is surrounded by dramatic cliffs, with only a few small, inaccessible pocket beaches. Access to the island from landing vessels and getting into the ocean requires climbing a ladder from a pier.

After lowering kayaks with ropes, we paddled to view sea lion rookeries lining the shore, where cute pups were tended by their parents. We also encountered two enormous elephant seal bulls hauled out on a beach, and maneuvered through a dark cave. Rocks along the shore were covered with brightly colored starfish and sea anemones. The water was so clear we could see the ocean floor and swaying kelp forests by peering over the side of our kayak.

Transporting a kayak to the island was easy because a sales and rental company called Channel Islands Kayak Center has offices near the docks where Island Packers Cruises departs from both Ventura and Channel Islands Harbors. Helpful staff set us up with everything we needed and even helped load the kayak onto Island Packers’ speedy and smooth sailing catamaran.

During our second full day on Santa Barbara Island we snorkeled from the Landing Cove and experienced the rich underwater world below the ocean surface. Some highly curious sea lions swam within inches of us, and seemed to be showing off what elegant swimmers they are. While the animals sometimes look a bit clumsy while crawling over rocks on their flippers, they displayed fantastic grace underwater, sometimes doing a quick loop followed by a spin. We also saw bright orange garibaldi, which are California’s state marine fish, as well as transparent jellyfish.

Some people swam without wetsuits, but we’d recommend wearing them since the water is chilly. I had one I bought from Ventura Dive and Sport when I learned to SCUBA dive there a few years back, and it was a convenient place to rent equipment for my wife since it is also located in Ventura Harbor where our boat departed from.

Hiking on Santa Barbara revealed an abundance of stunning views. A park volunteer taught us about the island’s long cultural history as a resting place for Native American mariners, and the brief ranching history spanning from 1914 to 1922.

We easily covered the five miles of trails and spotted rare island night lizards and Santa Barbara Island buckwheat. We saw interesting birds, including orange-billed oystercatchers, and beautiful barn owls that hunted into the daylight hours, unlike their mostly nocturnal mainland cousins. Western sea gulls we frequently encounter on the mainland seemed wilder than usual as they vocally defended their chicks and battled one another for territory.

Camping on Santa Barbara Island is a welcome respite from busy mainland life, and gazing at the vast surrounding ocean slowed us down to a more meditative state that we called being on island time.

Outdoor Observer

Outdoor Observer

Riding Amtrak trains is a relaxing yet exciting way to view seldom-seen parts of beautiful California coastline, cities and farms, as my wife, Dawn, and I learned during a weekend getaway to celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary.

We rode the Pacific Surfliner to San Luis Obispo, and learned that several bed and breakfasts are within walking distance from the station for the historic Spanish mission town ringed by rugged mountains.

The Pacific Surfliner is the pretty blue train connecting San Diego and San Luis Obispo, and conductors encourage passengers to bring bikes and surfboards along. Its silver cousin, Coast Starlight, travels all the way to Seattle.

Since we live in downtown Ventura, we loaded a backpack with everything we needed, including snacks, and strolled to the Seaside Park station. We brought reading materials, but were so mesmerized by the beautiful views that we spent most of the time gazing out the large windows and sharing romantic moments. We saw dolphins, and pelicans flying in formation beside the train.

The train provides a new perspective on views familiar from driving. People at beaches and campgrounds along the Rincon waved and smiled. We felt compelled to wave back to the anonymous people whose names we’ll probably never know, and had an instant connection with them because of our majestic form of travel.

We viewed seldom-noticed areas of Santa Barbara, even though we’ve spent ample time there, including the day I proposed to my Bunny. The most interesting section of the journey was when the tracks veered away from the commonly traveled 101 freeway, which makes a 90-degree turn north at Gaviota. The train keeps chugging west past the private, gated Hollister Ranch coastline, Point Conception and Vandenberg Air Force Base, which is normally closed to public access.

The beaches and canyons of Hollister Ranch are rugged and more deserted than most other parts of Southern California, but we did see locals riding horses on the beaches and driving their trucks right on the sand to surf scenic point breaks.

Vandenberg is interesting on many levels, both scenically and historically. We saw numerous launch pads for rockets, including a huge one that was built but never used for Space Shuttles, with a giant U.S. flag painted on it.

The train then traveled inland though oak-studded hillsides, cattle ranches and strawberry fields before we reached our destination. When we stopped in the small farming town of Guadalupe, the conductor half-jokingly announced, “Prepare to see beautiful and historic downtown Guadalupe.”

We stayed at a lovely and historic bed and breakfast called Heritage Inn that’s about eight blocks from downtown San Luis Obispo. The century-old building has an interesting history and the innkeeper, Linda, kept us entertained with its stories over complimentary wine in the evening and a delicious breakfast, including steaming frittata, homemade muffins and fresh fruit, in the morning.

San Luis Obispo also has a natural feel to it, with a creek running next to the old Spanish mission and right behind restaurants and taverns lining downtown’s Higuera Street. We strolled the creek during the day and saw ducks and little fish swimming in the water while shaded by a canopy of trees. That night we dined at an elegant restaurant called Novo, where we were seated directly next to the creek and were serenaded by frogs, which helped us celebrate our anniversary over crème brûlée.

The train voyage makes us excited to ride the often overlooked mode of travel again, perhaps heading south to visit San Juan Capistrano or San Diego.

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