A Doors-Off Helicopter Ride Over Santa Barbara’s Channel Islands

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This post is brought to you by CJ Affiliate’s VIP Content Service. Thanks to the Hotel Indigo Santa Barbara for hosting me during my stay! Though this is an editorial collaboration with IHG, all content and opinions remain my own.

“Are you taking the ferry or a helicopter?”

I glared at Conor with a disdained smirk. “What do you think?” I prodded back slyly. The answer should have been so obvious!

He returned my glare with an all-knowing glance, grinned, and announced, “I got you, bro. Let’s get you booked in for tomorrow.”

Conor worked the night shift on the front desk at the Hotel Indigo in Santa Barbara, a downtown hotel that blends right in with the rest of the city. The Indigo is built just like the rest of Santa Barbara—with Spanish influences in mind, fashioned after red-roofed adobe huts.

As someone who’s stayed in almost every type of hotel imaginable, I know there’s nothing worse than a cookie cutter hotel room; if I’m traveling, I want a taste of the local flavor!

With a trendy, open-air Mexican restaurant on the first floor, the Indigo provided exactly that (tacos, anyone?).

“What’s this insane picture!?” I asked my front desk confidant one late night as I scrolled through the Indigo’s destination guide on the iPad in the lobby. I had stumbled across an aerial photo of Anacapa Island, one of the most remote islands in the archipelago.

“That is most definitely the Channel Islands,” he answered, before briefing me on all the incredible hiking, the cave kayaking, and the jungle wildlife.

I was left with only one question for him: How do I get there?

“Well…” He paused for a moment. “There are a couple of ways…”

Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara, California
Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara, California.

Taking a Helicopter Over Santa Barbara’s Channel Islands

The Channel Islands are a small archipelago off the coast of Central California. Often described as the “Galapagos of the North,” the islands are home to a range of endemic species. Beauty and biodiversity go hand in hand on these islands and they’re accessible in just a couple of different ways: by boat or by helicopter.

Those that choose to visit by boat can take part in kayaking tours, which allow them to explore the numerous sea grottoes. You can also follow the hiking trails for a glimpse of untainted nature at its finest. On a clear day, you will be treated to some spectacular views of the islands looming out of the sparkling water that surrounds them.

Visiting by boat, however, was not exactly what I had in mind.

Helicopter over Santa Barbara's Channel Islands
Looking out into the nothingness before reaching the Channel Islands.

I was in Santa Barbara for the week attending an affiliate marketing conference called CJU. I was in town with IHG—the umbrella organization for the Hotel Indigo—and we were learning and talking about affiliate, advertiser, and publisher trends in the travel industry.

With a few days to myself after the conference, I took some time to see Santa Barbara, enjoy the beach, stroll the wharf, and of course, take a doors-off helicopter ride for aerial views over this little-photographed set of islands.

Because if you’ve been following my Instagram recently, you’d know that I’ve developed something of an affinity for helicopters.

First, it was Asheville. Then it was San Francisco. And now, Santa Barbara.

I know. I’m spoiled.

I took an Uber to the SBA airport (which is strangely in the neighboring town of Goleta) and met my pilot, Taylor, from Nanco Helicopters. I wanted to catch that golden hour sun, and since we still had a bit of time to kill, we jumped in his truck and hit a local smoothie place for acai bowls.

With a gorgeous glow beginning to cast itself across the flat landscape of the airport, we headed straight for the chopper, unhinged the door, strapped ourselves in, and lifted off the ground.

It took 15 minutes of open water before we got to the first island: Santa Cruz Island. And just as we arrived, billowing clouds engulfed the helicopter and stretched themselves out across the horizon.

Santa Cruz Island from the Air

The largest of the Channel Islands, Santa Cruz, is a staggering place to visit. Across the island are a range of different landscapes, from the rugged mountains that rise up over 2,000 feet to the plunging canyons, cut through by streams.

Around the island’s coastline are mysterious sea caves, the walls of which shimmer with rainbow colors.

The light was just about perfect by the time we got to Santa Cruz. The unspoiled, jagged coastline scintillated in the light of the golden sun, and as we rounded the western tip of Santa Cruz, the true brilliance of the islands became apparent.

Santa Cruz Island, the largest of Santa Barbara's Channel Islands
Santa Cruz Island, the largest of Santa Barbara’s Channel Islands.

Flying Over Santa Rosa Island

We then headed east along the northern coast of the island to Santa Rosa, the second largest of California’s Channel Islands.

Fringed with sandy beaches and boasting some impressive mountains in its center, Santa Rosa is all about nature. It’s home to the Torrey Pine—the rarest species of pine tree in the world—and a number of other endemic plants. The island also has a huge number of important archaeological sites, featuring remnants of the native Chumash people who lived there once upon a time.

Flying over Santa Rosa, the sun was going down, and the air began to get cooler. We were cruising at a cool 120 mph—the same speed as a free falling object (like a skydiver, or travel blogger who might jump out of a helicopter lacking doors)—when we reached the western tip of the Island.

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Don’t put limbs outside the aircraft if you’re flying at 120mph.

Not realizing how fast we were going, I stuck my hand out of the vessel only to have my arm promptly whipped backward and nearly out of my shoulder socket.

“Don’t do that,” Taylor grinned. “Yeah, thanks for the warning,” I scoffed.

Looking down, I could see untouched beaches, with waves forcefully thrashing against the coastline in a fitful rhythm.

“OK, now!” my pilot shouted. I swiveled in my seat, strapped in by nothing but a seatbelt no different than the one in your car, and draped my legs outside of the aircraft. We were hovering above Santa Cruz Island, which meant it was the perfect time to capture that classic “hanging out of a helicopter” shot.

A Doors-Off Helicopter Ride Over Santa Barbara’s Channel Islands
Hanging out of a helicopter over Santa Barbara’s Channel Islands.

As the sun made its way towards the horizon, Taylor punched the controls and we veered sharply left, and headed north back towards the mainland.

The sky turned a deep, radiant blue and we fluttered back towards the California coast in silence—reflecting on the beauty we had just seen—and watched the tranquil sun set over a lone fishing ship in the distance.

READ NEXT: Road Tripping California’s Pacific Coast Highw

About the Author

Jeremy Scott Foster

Jeremy Scott Foster is an adventure-junkie, gear expert and travel photographer based in Southern California. Previously nomadic, he’s been to ~50 countries and loves spending time outdoors. You can usually find him on the trail, on the road, jumping from bridges or hustling on his laptop working to produce the best travel and outdoors content today.
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