Forty miles off the coast of the bustling metropolis of Southern California lies the small uninhabited Santa Barbara Island. It appears like something out of a pirate tale and remains a mysterious, difficult yet unique place to travel.
Sunrise over Santa Barbara Island, California
Its funny to think that my first job was on an island off the coast of Los Angeles. I started working at Emerald Bay on Catalina Island in 2004 and had an adventurous summer. One opportunity that I had was to visit the remote Santa Barbara Island which is directly West of Catalina. Since then, I traveled back to that island two other times for kayaking, diving and hiking. Its is the smallest of the California Channel Islands but it remains a unique place for sea-faring and outdoor adventure. 

Adventure Map of Santa Barbara Island

View Santa Barbara Island Adventures in a larger map

Getting to Santa Barbara Island

The trip to the island is just part of the adventure. Even if you have your own boat, the waters off the coast of Southern California are deep, wide and prone to intense currents and fog. Santa Barbara Island is so small that it could be conceivably missed without even knowing it on a foggy day. Yet, on a clear day you could see it from the mainland and surrounding islands. 

Most of us do not have a boat and there is only one commercial ferry (although there are many privately operated boats that could take you out). Island Packers is the main group connecting the mainland with all the islands of Channel Island National Park. Its an expensive trip but worth it to explore one of the last uninhabited parts of California.
Santa Barbara Island Hiking
Hiking and Land-Based Outings on Santa Barbara Island

This island is very cliffy and rugged; there are no beaches or docks. There's one option for getting on the island- an old outpost perched on the eastern side with a ladder down to the ocean. Did I mention its rustic? This is the place you can tie a dingy or kayak to and climb the ladder to the trail. This little trail will take you up to the Ranger Station which is quite contemporary compared to the landing. 

Its sometimes not staffed, but there are maps available and even a campsite! The campsite is also rustic but then again it has a beautiful view. Reservations must be made well in advance! Other than the campsite fee and the ferry ticket, there is no fee to hike or visit the island. 
High Point of Santa Barbara Island
There are about 5 miles worth of trails on Santa Barbara Island and the views are great from every direction. If you hike to the North, there are views of the cliffy coast and the mainland. If you hike across to the western part of the island, you can see the many arches and reefs that make the far side a more dangerous place to sail. The Southern side of the island has the highest cliffs and views of Sutil Island. Its perhaps the best place to look over the sea lion rookery and see many of the migratory birds that use this place as an aviary truck-stop. 

Hiking through the middle of the island may seem barren and uninteresting but the island has a recovering native landscape with endemic flora. Be aware that there are many old trails that are closed for vegetation recovery.
Sunset on the West end of Santa Barbara Island
Kayak Circumnavigation of Santa Barbara Island

If you fortunate enough to somehow get a kayak out to the island, a circumnavigation is possible. While its not a long route (6.0 miles), there are many submerged rocks and currents which can make it hazardous. Especially when rounding the western side of the island, it is important to be well off shore to avoid the submerged rocks. 

Kayaking around the island allows you to see the rugged cliffs and the two other islands that make this place so picturesque. On the North side there is a 60ft arch which is difficult to see from any of the hiking trails. There are other arches which can be kayaked! 
Massive Sea Arch, Santa Barbara Island, CA
Kayaking through a sea arch
One thing that can't be missed and is only a short distance from the anchorage the Sea Lion Rookery. I've found this place to be magical for kayaking and diving. Hundreds if not thousands of sea lions congregate here for some kind of marine mammal social club and visiting humans are a rare sight. I've kayaked out here twice and the sea lions have been so fascinated by us that they followed our kayaks for a full mile before getting bored. We literally had two dozen sea lions that were tailing us like loyal dogs. I've seen a lot of sea lions in my life but none that were as interested in me like those on Santa Barbara Island.
Our lovely troupe of Sea Lions
They just did not know what to do with us. To them we were probably some really strange looking sea lions.
Sea arches, sea lions, sea cliffs... everything you could ask for in sea kayaking!

One final thing that I found to be unique to Santa Barbara Island; we were able to watch the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean. It didn't hit me at the time, but its a rather rare sight in California to see the sun come up over the waves of the Pacific Ocean... think about it. I doubt there are any other places where you could see that on the West Coast.
Kayak Sunrise, one of my all-time favorite photos!
Santa Barbara Island is a small spit of rock and a strange place. Not many people will venture out this far off the coast of California and even fewer will making this place a destination. I'm always looking for stretches of wilderness that remain wild and unexplored. Channel Islands National Park is a place that will remain forever wild. While its difficult (and expensive) to make it out to any of the islands, your travels will be rewarded with splendid wilderness and adventure. I hope to someday explore all the Channel Islands!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!