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Kayaking Potato Harbor: The Ultimate Channel Islands Adventure

Kayakers at Potato Harbor. Photo by Chuck Graham.

Nearly finished with another circumnavigation of Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands, my friend Craig Fernandez and I made a pit stop inside Potato Harbor. While stretching stiff legs along the cobbled shoreline within a pocket cove inside the harbor, one of the islands’ many natural wonders arrived in the shallow waters. A giant bait ball of fish eased into Potato Harbor, swaying with the gentle ebb and flow of an outgoing tide.

I suggested to Craig to get back into his kayak and gradually paddle over the bait-ball, and rest easy atop the dense, black mass of tiny baitfish. Once he did, the baitfish never budged as they swarmed around Craig’s sleek, green kayak, continuing their balletic sway within scenic Potato Harbor. 

It is easily one of the most idyllic and breathtaking natural harbors found throughout the Channel Islands National Park. I sometimes refer to it as “Studio P” for its photographic appeal, beauty, and diversity found in virtually every corner of the anchorage.

View of Potato Harbor. Photo by Chuck Graham.

Located near the southeast fringe of Santa Cruz Island, Potato Harbor is wave-battered yet gorgeous, and it possesses a Mediterranean allure shrouded in chalky diatomaceous earth, gritty sandstone, and lush island flora. It is no wonder Santa Barbara Adventure Company calls their guided tour to Potato Harbor the “Ultimate.”

Their 5-hour, 6-mile out-and-back guided kayak trip to the massive cove begins at tranquil Scorpion Anchorage, the main hub of the national park. Guides will lead guests, paddling along towering cliffs honeycombed with toothy sea caves in the utmost island grandeur. This is a 6-mile, out-and-back trip that sees way more spotted harbor seals and California sea lions than it does kayakers.

Kayakers on Santa Barbara Adventure Company’s ‘Ultimate Sea Cave Kayak Tour’. Photo by Chuck Graham.

The Ultimate provides the epitome of what kayaking is like throughout the entire Northern Chain. The whole route is exposed to wind and swell from the west/northwest, and its rugged beauty cannot be denied. Depending on the swell and tides, the most remarkable sea cave of the trip is known as “Surging T.” It has three access points, with one long corridor carved through a burly, 200-foot-tall sheer cliff.

Santa Cruz Island is a vital nesting ground for many sea birds including brown pelicans. Photo by Chuck Graham.

Seabirds also abound during the entire trip. Expect to see squawking western gulls, soaring California brown pelicans, comical Brandt’s cormorants, and perky black oystercatchers foraging in the intertidal zone. There are strong possibilities of spotting predatory peregrine falcons that soar overhead and feast on a smorgasbord of unwary sea birds. The fastest flying bird on the planet can reach at least 200 miles per hour on their impressive dives. They are the feathery blur of the Channel Islands, and there are approximately 17 nesting pairs of peregrine falcons on the most biodiverse island off the coast.

Potato Harbor is the halfway point of the trip, and it is an ideal lunch spot after landing kayaks at the backend of the harbor. A sliver of a beach awaits, and it’s out of the way of perpetual northwesterly winds. The beach is an ideal place to stretch your legs, swim and cool off in the crystal-clear waters, and absorb one of the most beautiful locations throughout the windswept isles.

This harbor seal found a comfortable place to rest. Photo by Chuck Graham.

While relaxing on that sandy shoreline, the cacophony of nearby barks and bellows may become too much to ignore. A small rookery of California sea lions also awaits on the western finger of Potato Harbor. Fortified with long rocky ledges ideal for hauling out and thermoregulating, sea lions in various stages of maturity bask in the afternoon sun. The curiosity of those pinnipeds may also lure them around the kayaks. They’ll porpoise off your bow and strain their elongated necks for a better look at a handful of wetsuit-cladded paddlers.

As much effort as it might take to reach Potato Harbor, the return paddle to Scorpion Anchorage is that much easier. Downcoast swell, current and northwest winds propel participants back to the protected anchorage where another island adventure reluctantly ends, and the Island Packers ferry waits for your return trip to Ventura Harbor.

Blog contributed by:
Chuck Graham

Author, photographer, and kayak guide Chuck Graham

One Comment

Nancy B Jones

Fantastic blog post — I’m on the water paddling and stretching and admiring right along with you !! Love kayaking Santa Cruz Island with SB Adventure!! Is this my next outing??


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