Falling In Love With Santa Rosa Island

view from the coastal trail

Last week, I had a wonderful—and not to mention, rare—opportunity to visit Santa Rosa Island; one of the famous California channel islands. Admittedly, it is immensely difficult to put words to the incredible experience. It easily made the #1 spot on my list of favorite travel destinations. Notably, this was also my first time camping. My therapist suggested I journal throughout the experience. However, my days were so action-packed that I never found the time nor the energy to consistently journal. Instead, I’ll use this post to share a few observations. 

At the end of last year, I was forced to confront the rapidly expanding dumpster fire that had become my mental health. It turns out there really are some nasty consequences of putting your self-care on hold for 3+ years. With law school, the bar exam, and my career search out of the way, I finally embarked on what will be a long journey to recovery, at the beginning of this year. 

Among many issues, I’ve been working with my therapist on managing my struggles around needing to control every aspect of my life. We discussed seeking out opportunities that would force me out of my comfort zone and allow me to practice navigating situations that are completely outside of my control. So, when my favorite mentor suggested a week-long camping trip on a completely remote island, I knew I had found said perfect opportunity. 

We had actually talked at length about doing a channel islands trip back when I was still in law school. I always expressed excitement and interest in the idea, yet I never expected it to actually pan out given my nervousness around that kind of travel — hell, it’s actually one of the main reasons why I’ve never even traveled outside the country in my 26 years. 

Just the idea of camping is enough to trigger a slew of anxieties for me: I would have no means of communicating with anyone outside the island, I didn’t have any camping gear aside from the 10 essentials I carry with me on long hikes, I had no idea how to put up a tent, or how to manage my personal hygiene without access to showers, and because I wasn’t interested in bringing a stove, I also needed to figure out how to ration 5 days worth of proper nutrition (especially as we were planning to hike 80+ miles on top of it all). To ease my concerns, at least a little, I invited my husband—who is also an experienced camper—to join us. 

I discovered there are actually many things you can control with camping. For example, the three of us developed a solid hiking itinerary for each day. We meticulously planned out how many calories each of us would need, which helped with meal prepping. My husband and I were also lucky to work with an avid hiking / backpacking / and camping veteran at REI who helped us pick out all of our essential camping gear (including fast, easy, and compact hygiene products!). Once we secured our gear, we did a test run in our backyard, so we knew exactly how to properly set-up and tear-down our shelter. We even studied, memorized, and cached maps of the island. Fortunately, Santa Rosa Island also happens to have clean running water and actual restrooms with flushable toilets (that’s not the case for all of the channel islands though, like San Miguel Island). So, for the most part, everything seemed manageable. 

However, there is one huge element of a trip like this that no one can control: the weather. While we had planned for a 5 day camping trip, incoming storms forced us to make a last minute switch to 3 days — avoiding what could have been an extremely miserable three hour boat ride and an even more miserable (and muddy) set-up time. While I was feeling cautiously optimistic and somewhat confident about the trip, the last minute switch completely threw me off, forcing us to adjust and adapt to a new schedule. But looking back now, everything was okay and we made the right decision as we quickly discovered five days would have actually been too much, at least for me as a first-timer. 

The trip began the moment we arrived at the harbor in Ventura. As we boarded the boat, my mentor insisted I put my phone on airplane mode until we returned, calling me out whenever I tried to sneak a quick check at my notifications (not that it mattered — I lost service as soon as the boat departed anyway). After all, this trip was just as much a digital detox as it was physical and mental. This would be the first time I would vacation without occasionally checking work emails, my social media, or group chats. In other words, this would be the first time I would enjoy an interruption-free vacation. 

I usually hate taking vacation time because I know I’ll never truly relax, fretting over the state of my inbox when I return and all the things I didn’t finish before I left. Throw in the inability to check-in with the outside world and you have a recipe for utter distress and disaster – or so I thought. In reality, disconnecting from my every-day distractions created a new opportunity to connect with myself, my fellow travelers, and my surroundings. In doing so, I learned how to truly let go, and trust that the world will still be there when I return. And as I stared into the horizon, waves crashing against the boat, among the whales and dolphins, I unlocked a new state of mindfulness; one that peacefully occupies the space between constant worry and utterly befogged. For the first time in a very long time, I was content. 

When we finally landed on the island, I could feel any lingering stress quickly melt away. We had successfully completed the first major hurdle of the trip: getting to the island. We were rewarded with breathtaking views, gorgeous scenery, and near perfect weather (despite some clouds and fog). After a quick orientation with the NPS ranger, we began our 1.8 mile trek (with all of our gear) along the scenic coastal trail to our designated campsites. 

We set-up our shelter, just as we practiced, and then we split up, capitalizing on the remaining daylight to hike and explore. My husband and I spent the afternoon hiking Cherry Canyon out to the decommissioned ranch, did a little urbexing on the ranch, ending with a beach hike all the way back to our campsite for the evening. My mentor—an incredibly advanced and ambitious hiker—managed to hike all the way out to East Point, making it back just as the sky began to transition to a pink hue. Indeed, island sunsets are truly remarkable. 

Another interesting discovery I made on this trip was my newfound appreciation for things I didn’t necessarily think I cared about when exploring the great outdoors. Particularly, I could never understand what made Californians so wild about wildflowers — I mean they’re just flowers, right? But Cherry Canyon proved me dead wrong. Words cannot accurately describe the moment my husband and I set foot into the canyon where we were met with a truly exquisite display of the vibrant plant life unique to Santa Rosa Island. Of all the different flowers we encountered, the Indian Paintbrushes were my favorite. We also saw a variety of succulents and cacti — which I didn’t expect! 

Anyway, remember that thing I said about the weather and not being able to control it? So about that — the first night on the island quickly turned into my first rude awakening regarding the harsh realities of camping. As night time fell upon us, the winds picked up, reaching just under 50 mph for the remainder of the evening. Suffice to say, none of us got a proper night’s rest, which was especially problematic considering we had an early start for the 16 mile Ford Point hike we had planned for the following day. Usually when I can’t sleep, I reach for my phone and find something to read (like The Atlantic) until I fall asleep. That or I turn on the TV and let the noise lull me back. Obviously, neither of those options are available when you’re stranded on a pitch black island in the middle of a raging windstorm. This was not something I had planned for. It was then I realized my coping methods for insomnia have become rather habitual, perhaps to my detriment. 

This time, instead of reaching for the phone, I let my mind wander; something I usually avoid as wander often turns to worry. Not this time though. I focused on the wind, counting the seconds between the silence and unrelenting gusts. I tuned into the buzz and hum of the crickets, attempting to separate each individual chirp. How do crickets know when to start and stop chirping? Do they revolve around the cues of a single cricket conductor? And how do they stay so perfectly in sync with each other? These are all questions I would usually just Google. But on the island, you find peace in bemusement. 

On that note, the experience also reminded me just how much I rely on the Internet for my daily routine. When we ran into little snags with our tent or the fox box, I instinctively turned to YouTube. When we weren’t sure if we could access certain parts of the trails we were hiking, my first thought was to check the trail reviews on Alltrails. When I became so badly blistered from all the hiking, and burned from the sun, all I wanted was to search for my symptoms in hopes of finding some quick at-home remedies for relief. I caught myself trying to look up my caloric burn on Strava to figure out my next meal. And when I saw an island fox head into my mentor’s campsite, I immediately began drafting a warning text. 

Each time I reached for my phone, I noticed how dependent on technology I have become as a digital native. And while that’s not necessarily a bad thing—indeed, we enjoy a much more efficient and productive world with access to information at our fingertips—it did give me pause as I realized I may not be as self-reliant  as I would like to be. So, I switched off my phone. And the more I went without it, the less I missed it. 

The hike out to Ford Point was my favorite (and most challenging) hike of all time. We enjoyed 16 miles of breathtaking lush ridgeline views, fascinating microclimates and terrain, flowery meadows, and insanely cute island foxes. Plus, unlike many of the weekend hiking hot spots here in the Bay, at no point did we ever encounter another hiker. It was pure tranquility

But I also picked up some valuable observations on the way to Ford Point. For example, when we finally reached the sign for the point—in the middle of an unpaved field with a tiny sliver of ocean view wedged between the cliffs—I was disappointed to find that reaching the actual point meant 2 more miles (and 600 more ft of elevation) hiking through unpaved fields. I was exhausted, in a great deal of pain (thanks to a poor and stubborn decision to forgo buying a new pair of hiking boots I desperately needed), and concerned about my ability to make it back home. So, we decided not to continue on. I was visibly frustrated.

But my mentor said something that stuck with me even after the trip. This hike was about the journey, not the end result, and we should take our wins where we can. He was right. While the point itself was underwhelming, the journey to Ford Point was incredible. And we successfully reached a destination that very few people will ever get to visit (you really do have to be in top shape to brave this one). It got me thinking on the 8 mile hike back to the Water Canyon campground about how I evaluate my personal and professional progress. It comes as no surprise that I’ve always been hard on myself. I’ve always felt like I could be better and progress faster than my current trajectory. I often fixate on where I want to be, and in doing so, I fail to appreciate how far I’ve come, the people I’ve built amazing relationships with, and the many successes (or wins) I’ve achieved along the way. By obsessing on the end result, I’m missing the beauty of my own journey. 

So, the next time I find myself in mid-existential panic, I’ll take a couple deep breaths and think about what I learned at Ford Point. 

When we returned to the campsite, the wind had finally died down. Instead of our usual Netflix before bed routine, my husband and I opened up the windscreen of our tent and watched the sunset, while giggling over the silly stories we made up for each person that walked by. We weren’t just together, but we were noticeably present, enjoying each other’s company — something we often miss out on given our increasingly hectic lives. 

On the last day, my mentor asked me if I was excited to get back home. While I missed many of the conveniences of the mainland like my bed, hot showers, and not having to brace for the cold and wind every time we needed to retrieve food from the fox box, I was actually quite sad to leave. For the first time, my head was clear, my phone was silent, and I was happy. Plus, there were so many other hikes I didn’t get to, partially because of the shortened trip and also my physical limits. But that’s okay—because as we departed from Santa Rosa Island, I was already planning my return; yet another sign that the trip was a success. 

The last thing I appreciated about this trip was the bond I enjoyed with my fellow co-travelers. I’ve been on many group vacations before. But what I didn’t realize until this trip was what a difference it makes traveling with people who you are completely in sync with. This was particularly crucial given the many potential failure points that come with this kind of experience — you’re quite literally relying on each other for your own survival. This takes an immense amount of trust, and thankfully, my co-travelers happen to be the two people I’ve grown to trust the most in my life. With that, I owe an extra bit of gratitude to my mentor who recommended this experience in the first place. My husband and I would have never considered the destination, otherwise. 

So, it turns out I fell in love with Santa Rosa Island. The destination was worth every single investment to get there. Now the only question that remains: which of the channel islands will we visit next?

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