Just off the Central Coast, there’s a remarkable, record-holding natural cavern that almost no one sees. This enormous sea cave—the longest in North America and one of the lengthiest in the world—plunges a quarter-mile into the side of Santa Cruz Island, within Channel Islands National Park. “When the tide is right, the cave opening is big enough to drive a 60-foot boat almost halfway into the tunnel, and kayaks can slip in even deeper,” says Grant Cunningham of Santa Barbara Adventure Company, which along with other outfitters leads regular guided kayak trips into Painted Cave. “During the rainy season there’s a waterfall at the mouth of the cave too—it’s really amazing.”
“It’s hard to describe because it’s such a surreal thing: to be in a pitch-black chamber, with barking sea lions, under an island.”
—kayak tour guide Grant Cunningham
Cunningham’s favorite feature to share with guests lies deep within the cave. “When you get about two-thirds of the way back, the cave narrows,” he explains. “You paddle through and enter a huge, pitch-black chamber.” Back there, he notes, you’ll often find a dozen or more barking, bawling sea lions holed up in the darkness, resting on an invisible rocky beach.
“Sometimes people are freaked out, but most of the time they’re just speechless,” says Cunningham. “It’s hard to describe because it’s such a surreal thing: to be in a pitch-black chamber, with barking sea lions, under an island. Some people want to stay for a long, long time.”
Guided full-day trips include transport (via Island Packers boat service from Ventura) to the island and all paddling gear. You should have some paddling experience, and know how to swim. Cunningham says it’s usually a two-mile downwind paddle to reach the caves (you get a boat ride back), and there are plenty of other, smaller caves to explore, plus snorkeling in the surrounding Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.