Within sight of the heavily-populated southern California coast is a collection of islands sometimes called “North America’s Galapagos.” Arising from nutrient-rich waters and isolated from mainland development, these islands preserve unique organisms, environments, and landscapes that exist nowhere else. Initially protected in 1938 as Channel Islands National Monument, since 1980 this area has been known as Channel Islands National Park.
Although located only 50 miles from the 16 million inhabitants of the Los Angeles area, Channel Islands is one of our least-visited national parks. Approximately 300,000 people see the mainland visitor center in Ventura annually, but only about 30,000 make the trek to the islands themselves.
The ferry rides to the islands vary from one to four hours depending on destination, and each island has virtually no development. Most don’t even offer fresh water. While the distance and the primitive nature seems to keep most people away, these features were precisely what appealed to me.
Although the park encompasses five of the eight islands in the Santa Barbara Channel, each is as remote from one another as they are from the mainland. Each has its own unique character, landscapes, and life forms.
Within the constraints of our schedule, my friend Jim and I opted for a day trip to Santa Cruz Island. This is both the largest island in the park and the largest island in California. The Nature Conservancy protects much of the island and keeps it mostly off-limits to casual visitors, but a large eastern portion is part of the national park and open to anyone.
The fun of this adventure began as soon as we left Ventura Harbor. The folks at Island Packers run an excellent ferry service. They had no problem moving us up from a 9am departure to 8am, giving us an extra hour of time on Santa Cruz. The ferry crew was entertaining, informative, and went out of their way to provide close encounters with the marine animals that appeared during the journey.
As soon as we left the harbor the captain stopped to observe some California sea lions (Carnivora: Otariidae: Zalophus californianus) that were resting on a buoy:
We also passed through a pod of over 100 bottlenose dolphins (Cetacea: Delphinidae: Tursiops truncatus). In spite of their speed I managed to get this shot of a cow and her calf side-by-side:
After an hour on the ferry we deboarded at Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz. A park volunteer gave us a briefing of the usual stuff (take out what you take in, leave no trace, take only pictures/leave only footprints, etc.) and we were off.
The two main activities here are probably hiking and kayaking. Exploring the rugged shores and sea caves in a kayak seemed appealing:
Lacking kayaks we instead ventured up the miles of scenic trails on foot. The first point of interest was Scorpion Ranch, containing the time-weathered relics of human habitation on the island nearly a century ago.
Although many of the buildings and machines were rotting away, other evidence of human interference on the island was still flourishing. A number of blue gums (Eucalyptus globulus, Myrtaceae) shaded much of the ranch. These eucalyptus trees were introduced from Australia in the late nineteenth century and have since become invasive:
Some of the more noticeable native plants around the ranch included toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia, Rosaceae)…
…as well as island false bindweed (Calystegia macrostegia, Convolvulaceae):
From Scorpion Ranch we hiked out a few miles toward Potato Harbor. The misty western highlands provided a scenic backdrop to the hilly terrain:
The views at Potato Harbor made the trek worthwhile:
The sights as we returned along Cavern Point were impressive as well:
After our first hike we stopped to eat back at Scorpion Anchorage. As we sat near the water a harbor seal (Carnovora: Phocidae: Phoca vitulina) made an appearance:
This seal was hunting fish in the kelp forest that filled the harbor:
These plants grow hollow air sacs that help keep them upright in the shifting waters:
Full of peanuts, jerky, and photos of seals and kelp we then headed out for another hike, this time to Scorpion Canyon.
The massive boulders here made for some fun hiking and rock-hopping:
This canyon provides a home for the Island Scrub-Jay (Passeriformes: Corvidae: Aphelocoma insularis), a unique bird found nowhere else in the world. Although we got a glimpse of a couple of these birds, I wasn’t able to get a clear shot of one. Instead I had to settle for photos of the abundant side-blotched lizards (Squamata: Phrynosomatidae: Uta stansburiana):
Back at Scorpion Anchorage we took in our last views of Santa Cruz as we waited for the ferry to drag us back to civilization:
Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park was an amazing place to visit. From the blue expanse of the Pacific to the rugged interior highlands, this location had a lot to offer. Scenic marine and mountain vistas, abundant life on land and sea, and miles of remote hiking and kayaking made it worth the trip. With four more islands and many more miles to explore, one could spend quite a bit of time here. If I ever make it back I would love to backpack for several days and see what more these islands have to offer.