Backcountry Beach Camping at Channel Islands National Park

There’s something magical about falling asleep with the dark and without the need to see a number on a clock. There’s something even more magical about randomly waking up and peeking at stars you haven’t seen so clearly in years – spotting the Big and Little Dipper and trying to think back to the constellations page of your 10th grade science book in order to identify more.

Shortly after waking, I saw a blood orange moon come over the horizon of the Pacific Ocean. It’s easy to feel insignificant under a gazillion stars and a blazing moon some 238,900 miles away. But it’s also easy to feel accomplished. 

My hiking partner and I trekked around 10 miles to get here – to this place of relative solitude and absolute wonder. 

We set off for an adventure that not a whole lot of people do: backcountry beach camping on Santa Rosa Island. Part of Channel Islands National Park, it’s a roughly two-and-a-half-hour boat journey from Ventura, California. This obstacle alone is a big reason why Channel Islands (which includes Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara islands) is among the least-visited national parks in the country. 

As our Island Packers boat crew said on the ride over… You can’t drive your car or RV to Channel Islands. 

But you can take the shared boat ride over. Or if you’ve got a small stack of cash burning a hole in your pockets, you can even fly to some of the islands with their small dirt airstrips. The islands are also open to sailboats and other private vessels and unlike many other national parks, there is no entrance fee and permits are only needed for camping on the islands.

Prior to my trip to Santa Rosa, I’d been to Santa Cruz and Anacapa. My five days on Santa Cruz in the summer of 2019 were tiring but I mostly enjoyed hiking time without a heavy pack, taking in the vistas and seeing some island foxes along the way.

My spring trip to Anacapa earlier this year was short but daunting. Like my first time to the Channel Islands, I got a pretty bad sunburn after dumbly forgetting sunscreen. (Good luck finding shade on these islands!) 

It was also seagull nesting season, where some 10,000 very protective seagull moms are with their eggs and hatchlings. The peace and solitude of the other Channel Islands is nowhere to be found during that time of year on Anacapa. It’s much more like Alfred Hitchcock’s film, The Birds. Despite the nearly intolerable squawking, it was an amazing experience.

The quiet trip I was after was certainly on Santa Rosa. After you get onto the dock and get a camping briefing from a park ranger, it’s about a mile or so walk to the campground, where nearly everybody was headed.

The others – three pairs of us – continued onward. We all stumbled upon one another early in the hiking, as we trekked uphill and breaks were common. Everyone was heading toward Ford Point, the “easiest” and closest legal camping area to the dock.

There’s a fairly short window for beach camping on Santa Rosa. It’s unavailable from Jan. 1-Aug. 14 in order to protect pupping seals, sea lions and nesting seabirds, according to the National Park Service. From Aug. 15-Sept. 15, only East Point to South Point beaches are open to backcountry camping. The rest of the year, all beaches are open except those around Sandy Point, at Lobo Canyon and those between Carrington Point and East Point. 

So… Ford Point it was! We went up South (Wreck) Road and went the way of Clapp Spring, the nearest year-round water source on the island for backcountry campers.

From there, it’s all downhill via the San Augustine Route, which runs alongside San Augustine Canyon. Toward the very end, it gets a little tricky, so take this national park statement into consideration before you get a backcountry permit:

WARNING: While backcountry camping is an incredible experience, it is not for the inexperienced backpacker or kayaker. Due to difficult weather, rugged terrain and off-trail hiking, backcountry camping is an arduous endeavor and should be undertaken only by experienced, well-conditioned backpackers and kayakers. Less experienced visitors to the island should consider frontcountry camping at Santa Rosa Island Campground in Water Canyon, which also offers advance reservations with some amenities.

That said, as long as you make it there in the daytime, finding the route should be no problem. The real difficulty is the physical challenge of carrying a heavy pack down some steep, rocky terrain. It would have been an even greater challenge heading up, but we took a different route on the way back that proved exhausting but “easier.” “Easier,” once again, meaning nothing is easy when you’re hiking 10 miles with your food, water and other supplies on your back. Especially uphill. And especially with the sun blazing.

We were there in late August and it was warm during the day and chilly at night. Located about 40 nautical miles from the Ventura Harbor, Santa Rosa (and all of the Channel Islands) also have their fair share of wind and ocean weather. Fog is not uncommon out there, though we didn’t experience any.

We set up camp on the first possible spot we came across, right near where the San Augustine Route meets the ocean. There are three secluded beaches between there and Ford Point, and we visited all three – camping at two. We also saw a few sea lions in the water, but none had ventured on land.

With 10 miles behind us yesterday and 10 miles ahead of us tomorrow, we mostly just relaxed. By 11 a.m., I was lathered up with sunscreen and walking up and down the beach. I took some photos and spent a good amount of time in the water – at least long enough for the sunscreen to wash away and my feet to burn (that makes me 3-for-3 on Channel Island burns). 

From our Night #2 campsite, I saw all those stars and that blood orange moon on the horizon. I knew a long day was ahead tomorrow, but away from the world of social media and a barrage of screens, I was truly in the moment. 

It’s hard not to be in the moment when you’re back on the trail, huffing and puffing along with a 1,200-ft. elevation gain. 

We took South Road the whole way back, with one last look at Clapp Spring from the intersection we were at two days prior. Each step and each crunch of the dirt below our feet felt as it always does after some 20 miles with a heavy pack.

But as tough as it is – you feel accomplished. You feel like you’re really living – step by step and moment by moment. On the trail, in your “I’m never doing this again” stupor, you already know that you’re lying to yourself. 

Whether at Channel Islands National Park or another beautiful wide-open space, I’ll always want to go back.

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