Considered to be the “Galapagos of North America”, the Channel Islands is one of America’s most remote and least visited national parks. Located off the southern California coast, the park’s five islands offer sanctuary and solitude for those willing to forsake some basic creature comforts.
Known for its coastline cliffs, sea caves, and isolated beaches, Santa Cruz Island is a mecca for divers, snorkelers, kayakers, campers, hikers, and nature lovers. After being fortunate enough to obtain a three-day camping permit to the island, I booked my boat ride and headed for Ventura harbor.
With an 8am departure, I loaded my gear and boarded the Island Packers boat.
Embracing the reality that I would be spending the next hour managing my motion sickness, I headed for a bench seat towards the bow of the boat.
Over the years I have tried medication, acupressure wristbands, and ginger chews in attempts to alleviate my motion sickness symptoms. Nothing has successfully worked! These days my best case scenario is to take Dramamine, keep my food intake to a minimum, sit outside, face the horizon, and suffer through it.
After leaving the harbor, it wasn’t long before we entered the Santa Barbara Channel. Recognized as one of the most diverse and biologically sensitive ecosystems in the world, the Santa Barbara Channel is the seasonal home of blue, fin, and humpback whales.
Sharing their feeding areas with cargo shipping lanes, migrating whales are vulnerable to ship strikes in the channel. In 2007, four blue whales were killed by cargo ship collisions. Their deaths led to moving the shipping lane one nautical mile, increasing the distance between vessels and whales, and hopefully reducing the chances of future ship strikes.
With Santa Cruz Island in the distance, several migrating whales approached our vessel. In spite of my motion sickness, I reached for my camera and staggered over to the port side of the boat.
For the next several minutes, the Baryshnikov’s of the sea captivated passengers with their deep dives and tail flukes. Living in southern California, it’s easy to take whale-watching opportunities for granted. I still remember my first experience whale watching in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Arriving in Scorpion Harbor, the Island Packers crew prepared the passengers for a dingy landing.
Once all the passengers were on shore, an assembly line formed to unload everyone’s camping gear. In less than thirty minutes, the unloading process was complete.
Two national park rangers then conducted a brief orientation, covering basic rules and precautions that were specific to the island. As a non-smoker, I smiled when the ranger announced that only two locations on the island permitted smoking. The first spot was the landing beach and the second was four miles away at Smugglers Cove.
After registering with the ranger as a camper, I left the beach and headed inland to the campground.
Greeted by a welcoming party of island foxes, it was hard to imagine that less than a decade ago this species was on the brink of extinction.
With their numbers dropping below a hundred in 2004, a science-based restoration program was initiated. Today, their population has increased to twelve hundred.
Entering the campground, I felt like I was walking in Australia. Surrounded and shaded by massive blue gum eucalyptus trees, I wondered how Australian trees ended up on a remote island off the coast of California.
Who planted these non-native and non-invasive trees? I doubt it was the Chumash Indians; who considered this island home for over 11,000 years. My first guess was colonizers. I learned early in grade school that colonization is a combination of claiming, removing and introducing. Claiming a land that is not yours, removing its inhabitants, and introducing new inhabitants who identify themselves as landowners. Colonization often sees the introduction of non-native flora and fauna. In Santa Cruz island’s case, it appears it was the landowners and European ranchers who planted eucalyptus trees. I’m sure the eucalyptus trees provided shade, windbreaks, fuel, and construction material for the islands new inhabitants.
I set up my camp remembering I was a guest on sacred land. I considered the historical irony that a stolen island could have more federal and environmental protection than its original inhabitants.
After an early lunch, I hiked out to Smugglers Cove. Just under four miles each way, this hike follows old ranch roads that lead down to a secluded cobble and driftwood covered beach.
After three and half miles of walking across dry hillsides, the trail descended through some olive trees, before spilling out onto the beach.
Having been the only hiker on trail, I was the only human at Smugglers Cove. Seldom have I hiked within a national park and experienced such solitude.
As the only visitor exploring Smugglers Cove, I wondered about the life of pirates, smugglers, sea otter hunters, and bootleggers that utilized the area as a secret hideaway. Did they stay at the cove for extended periods of time or was the cove more of a secret storage facility? Is it possible that some hidden treasures remain in the area?
After being awakened by a curious four-pound island fox, I rolled out of my tent and prepared for a mid-morning island paddle.
Exploring giant sea caves and kelp beds was on the day’s agenda and I could barely contain my excitement. Santa Barbara Adventure Company had a last minute kayak spot become available. I didn’t waste any time securing a booking. https://www.sbadventureco.com/
I’m not usually one to partake in group tours; however, having no experience paddling into sea caves, I decided to take my maiden voyage with a guide.
After spending a few hours navigating my kayak through several sea caves, I have a new appreciation for the finesse, timing, and tide awareness needed for cave exploration.
To complete my final full day on Santa Cruz Island, I opted for a late afternoon and sunset hike to Potato Harbor.
Leaving my campsite, I hiked up the chalky ridge and followed the backbone of the cliffs to the potato-shaped cove.
With no trail down to the beach, Potato Cove had to be admired from above.
On my way back to camp, mother nature painted a crimson canvas that exploded across the pacific skyline. The dramatic color changes; from burning orange to bright pinks and purple. I couldn’t think of a better way to end my day.
With a mid-morning departure, I packed up camp and said goodbye to my island fox friends. Ten years ago, it would have been rare to see this handsome fellow hanging out in the campground.
As I waited for my return boat back to Ventura, I was already planning a return trip in my mind. While day trips are available, consider spending a few days exploring the island on foot and by kayak. Santa Cruz Island’s history is one of sadness, survival, and struggle. Honor it’s past, present and future; by paying it a visit.
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