I had no idea what to expect when booking with Island Packers for a cruise to the island of Santa Cruz in Channel Islands National Park off the coast of California. My idea of “islands” is based mostly on my experiences in Florida, Hawaii, and the Bahamas with wide sandy beaches and swaying palms, ocean breezes, and balmy temperatures. As a “first-timer” to this park I had an inkling it would not be a typical Florida coastal island. Having been advised that there were no concessions, I packed a lunch, hiking poles, sun hat, a hoodie sweatshirt, and wore hiking boots, Perfect! Tasia and I arrived at Island Packers with plenty of time to spend money on hoodies, patches, and get the NP Passport stamped. Upon checking in at Island Packers, the person handling our reservations confirmed that we were spending 7 nights camping on Santa Cruz. Well that certainly was a surprise to me as my intention was to spend six hours. Seems I mistakingly (or perhaps a computer error since I don’t make mistakes like this) booked the following Saturday for our return. I only choked a little when she commented that she hoped she could be able to get us a seat on one of the retuning vessels that day. It would have been a rather chilly night sleeping under the stars in the campground with whiffs of the invasive blue and red gum trees (eucalyptus) which shade the campground; with a variety of nocturnal visitors including those adorable Island Foxes and other wild creatures such as Townsend’s big-eared bats, an island deer mouse or two (which carry deadly diseases); a spotted skunk, or a variety of lizards, snakes slithering about… My imagination was running wild when she triumphantly said there were seats on the 4:00pm return! I breathed a sigh of relief (though I love camping in my zippered up nylon Tent) and we were off shortly thereafter
Though the Island was the destination and I imagined it would be the highlight, the Island Packers Cruise was the most thrilling. I noticed with interest several oil rigs in Santa Barbara Channel and from some brief research I found that drilling has ceased and the wells of platforms Grace, Gail and Habitat, which we could, see have been plugged.
We were headed to Scorpion Anchorage and enjoying the ocean breezes on the upper deck when the captain announces that there was a pod of dolphins swimming alongside. To my astonishment they could be seen in front of, behind, and just about in every direction that I feasted my eyes on. There were hundreds of dolphins in this superpod. The sight of these dolphins speeding through the water was mesmerizing. The traveling speed of the Islander Explorer is usually about 25 miles per hour and dolphins normal cruising speed is 3-6 miles per hour. But these marine mammals were swimming FAST in the wake of the vessel.. If they enjoy their wake surfing as much as I enjoyed wind surfing or water skiing they would be having a spectacular experience.
Swimming with dolphins is a very popular adventure seeking activity but I am quite sure I would have no desire to swim with this speeding herd of dolphin. It became evident that they were either taking performance enhancing drugs or have cleverly figured out that with the wake of the boat they can swim faster and use less energy to the cheers of the adoring crowd and perhaps feast on some hors d’oeuvres of churned up shrimp, herring, squid, or even a jelly-fish or two. Above us was the requisite scavenging of sea gulls. It definitely looked like these cousins of Flipper were having fun as they thrusted, jumped , dove and surfed the waves though that have yet to perfect the tricks of the famous TV star of the 60’s Flipper, i.e. her trick of tail walking or perhaps launching herself in the air, twisting and halting mid-air… which would have nicely created a better photo op for their fan base of the moment. They were having a whale of a time in the midst of the more allusive humpback whales in the Santa Barbara Channel. Though numerous, the dolphin entertainment team was not as massive on our return trip, there also was an opportunity to see a humpback whale spouting, breaching, slapping its fins and then deep diving.
Santa Cruz, the largest of the Channel Islands lies from 19-25 miles off the mainland coast between Ventura and Santa Barbara. Today the ferryboat ride was about an hour and a half dock to dock. Since the guesstimate was one hour the power need to pull all of those dolphins in its wake slowed it down!!!! Though it is much more likely that the captain slowed down so we could adore the dolphins. Once docked at Scorpion Ranch (which once was a sheep farm), we planned how we were to spend our limited time there. With only about six hours on the island there was barely time to experience the huge variety of activities available.
First off we chose not to wait in the very long lines for the pit privies and perused the museum and learned of the history of ranching as the economic mainstay by the late 1800”s…and how the introduction of non-native flora and fauna had a devastating effect on the ecological dynamics. Fortunately the natural biodiversity is being restored with the stewardship of the NPS and Nature Conservancy. Only the eastern 24 percent is owned and managed by the National Park Service with the other 76% owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy.. Since this is a nature reserve it is not a tourist trap with a plethora of gift shops or restaurants. You bring in your own food and pack out all of your trash. The most elegant of services is the outdoor latrine (though less elegant after the 149 people from the boat used them) and potable water available in the Scorpion Canyon campground. This definitely contributes to keeping the crowds down as well as the fact that there are no trash cans and you have to transport your own garbage.
To my pleasant surprise Santa Cruz Island contained mountain; a large central valley/fault system; deep canyons with springs and streams; and many miles of craggy coastline cliffs, with sea caves, tidepools, and beaches (though not those wide sandy ones fringed by palms and perfect for building sand castle). It is rugged California at its finest. Though I would have loved to have several days to camp, snorkel in the kelp beds, swim, kayak the coast with its caves and tide-pools, the best choice for our visit was a hike on the craggy cliffs on the north side of the island overlooking the Santa Barbara Channel. We chose the moderate hike to Potato Harbor. Planning to hike westerly, we first headed up the somewhat steep sandy trail to Cavern Point and encountered the first of many magnificent vistas. Once saturated with this raw beauty we turned onto the North Bluff Trail which took us all the way to Potato Harbor.
Since it was only 5 miles round trip, we took our time to enjoy the absolutely breathtaking scenery the whole way, snapping photos and eating our packed in lunch overlooking Potato Harbor. I did not read anything about farming potatoes or wholesale potato importing on this island so after a bit of research I found it gets its name from its oval shape! Since there is no beach access at Potato Harbor, I contented myself with the surrounding beauty, a gentle ocean breeze, listening to the loud barks, growls, and grunts of the sea lions (which I could hear but not see on the rocky outcrops in the distance) and watching for and then spotting a whale blowing, jumping out of the water and slapping the surface with its pectoral fins. I certainly could not discern what species of whale this was as gray, blue, humpback, sperm, and pilot whales all live in these waters. This rocky coast line was gorgeous. We also saw ravens and dolphins. We opted to stay high on the cliffs for our return hike to take in a second round of this gorgeous coast. We hiked clockwise around Cavern Point, glad to be heading down on this steeper decent rather than up, and enjoying a good vista of Scorpion Anchorage below.
Once down to the Scorpion Harbor we had time to prowl around the rocky shore and relax in the picnic grove were we were payed a visit by this unique and adorable “island fox.” We had been forewarned not to feed them but I get the feeling that they know people sitting at picnic tables consume food and often shed crumbs and it was not long before they showed their foxy faces and bushy tails. I thought at first I could be seeing a large cat with a bushy tail, or perhaps a strange species of squirrel… but what a delight to see this fox species that is found only on Channel Islands and nowhere else on earth. Guess they aren’t very good swimmers and able to make it to the mainland to proliferate. With a bit of time left before boarding for our return trip to Ventura, we sat on the beach watching the swimmer and snorkelers calling it a day and shivering their way up the rocky gravely beach to return their gear and change out of there wet paraphernalia.
This was basically the end of our National Parks Journey. After witnessing more dolphin dives on the return ride to Ventura, it was time plan the return route back to Oregon, a brief stop for brunch the following day at my nephew Eric’s place in Santa Barbara, a night at a motel north of Sacramento CA, and some dicey traveling through the pass on I-5 around Mt. Shasta