Backpacking Santa Rosa Island

Backpacking Santa Rosa Island

Over a mile of solitude and white sand stretched in front of us as we settled on a place atop the sand dunes to eat lunch. My wife and I asked each other, “How is this California?” Our journey backpacking Santa Rosa Island was ending, but we couldn’t wait to return and experience all that the islands had to offer.

The Channel Islands National Park is a gem in the United States National Park Service. Home to dozens of indigenous plants and wildlife, the islands are isolated wonders inviting all types of explorers. Founded in 1980, the Channel Islands National Park is composed of five unique islands and the mile of water surrounding each. Santa Rosa island, the second largest of the group, is an adventurers’ getaway.

Backpacking Santa Rosa Island
Backpacking Santa Rosa Island. Photo: Parker Amstutz

Every journey to the island begins the same way: aboard an Island Packers vessel. Being the only boats permitted to commercially ferry passengers to the islands, your other options are limited to personal watercraft or an expensive plane charter through Channel Islands Aviation. The experience onboard Island Packers vessel was not only an enjoyable part of the journey, but one of our favorites. My wife and I climbed aboard on that foggy July morning expecting nothing more than to be ferried to our destination. Instead, our ride to and from the islands had us passing through pods of thousands of dolphins, venturing deep into massive sea caves, watching a shark’s dorsal fin approach our boat, and listening to interesting facts about the islands (including seeing filming locations from The Pirates of the Caribbean).

Backpacking Santa Rosa Island
A long journey from beach to beach. Photo: Parker Amstutz

Once you step foot on the island, you feel as though the land is a cross between the Mediterranean and the Wild West. Inhabited by the Native American Chumash, American Ranchers, and the U.S. Military throughout various periods of history has left this place dotted with relics. As you leave the dock, you have two options for journeying to your campsite: a coastal trail and the dirt road used by the few NPS vehicles on the island. We opted for the trail and were not disappointed. The trail parallels a cliff’s edge, eventually crossing over the airstrip to join the regular dirt road. The total journey to your campsite is roughly 1.5 to 2.0 miles, depending on how much you like to wander.

Access to fresh water was a major factor in choosing Santa Rosa. Several of the islands require you to bring all your own water. With limited boat schedules often requiring a three day minimum stay, the extra weight can add up. The campground at Water Canyon is well developed and close to the beach. The island offers several backcountry experiences for those looking for an additional adventure. The trip, although remote, is accessible to many. We witnessed families with large coolers, hoofing the mile and a half to the campsite. Although it’s primarily flat, we saw a few exhausted faces of regret as fathers and sons struggled together to carry overloaded ice chests over a small final hill the length of a football field to get to camp.

Long sandy beaches on Santa Rosa Island. Photo: Parker Amstutz

The campsite shelters, although minimal, offer a place to partially get out of the elements. We’d chosen a site towards the front of the campground and got to work setting up our tent. Within a few minutes our Tiger Wall UL3 mtnGLO® was ready to roll. With plenty of room for the two of us, my wife and I knew we’d made a good choice. Being 6’ 3”, I must make tent choices wisely. With the lack of electricity on most of the island, the mtnGLO® feature was a game changer. Being my wife’s first backpacking trip, the tent’s few pounds were hardly noticeable and an easy haul to our campsite.

Tiger wall mntGLO backpacking
Setting up camp in the Tiger Wall mntGLO. Photo: Parker Amstutz

During the day, we were free to roam the island, which boasts miles of trails and beautiful beaches. The beach is a half mile walk from the campground, making for a great spot to start or end the days. We rolled down the massive sand dunes and wished that snorkel gear had been on our packing list. We explored the old ranching ruins and watched boats periodically sailing past. As we boarded our boat headed home, we couldn’t help but dream about spending time on the other dots of land making up the Channel Islands National Park.