It’s no secret that we LOVE National Parks. From Acadia to Zion, North Dakota to New Mexico, it seems there are National Parks waiting to be explored everywhere we go. While it was never our goal to visit them all, at some point we realized that without even trying we’ve already been to 30 of the 60 National Parks (plus at least twice as many national monuments, preserves, recreation areas, seashores, etc.). I still don’t know if we’ll ever see them all (that one in Samoa might be a stretch to visit with the Airstream) but that doesn’t mean we can’t try!
Here in California, there are nine National Parks, and so far we’ve only a single visited one. Until last weekend that is. With our home at the Airstream “Spa” for a few weeks, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to make Channel Islands National Park number 31 on our list.
Located only 20 miles off the Southern California coast, this group of five islands feels worlds away from the hustle and bustle of a Los Angeles.
All five islands are open to visitors, but some are easier to get to than others. For us, the early season combined with some last minute scrambling for reservations made Santa Cruz Island the sole choice for an overnight adventure. Which was not a bad thing. The largest of all the islands inside the park, Santa Cruz also has the most camping options. I was only able to snag a one-night reservation (If we had the freedom to visit in the middle of the week we could have stayed longer) but it turned out to be more than an adequate amount of time.
There are two ways to get to Santa Cruz Island. By private boat or on a ferry run by Island Packers Cruises. Since we haven’t yet figured out how to turn the Airstream into a floating home, I booked us a ride on the ferry leaving early on Friday morning and returning late on Saturday afternoon. The ride from Ventura Harbor to the island was only an hour and it was fantastic!
We found a spot near the railing on the upper deck and had a blast watching the waves crash against the boat. Fortunately, neither of us are prone to motion sickness because it was a rough ride!
Before we left the harbor the captain told us we might see whales and dolphins on the way. Sure enough, as we entered the marine reserve area near the island someone spotted whales off in the distance. Suddenly dolphins and sea lions began appearing all around us. The captain slowed the boat down and moved us in a better position to watch the show. Everyone crowded to one side of the boat in an effort to get a good view and I wasn’t in the right spot to take any photos of the whales but according to the captain we were watching a pod of feeding Humpbacks!
After 10-15 minutes, we reluctantly left our marine friends behind and continued on to the island. I really appreciated that the ferry ride was more than simply a method of transportation. Several times the captain came over the speaker to tell us interesting facts about the Channel Islands, the Santa Baraba Channel and, of course, the marine life that we stopped to watch. It was a nice surprise and made the $80/per person price that we paid for round trip tickets a little more justified. Soon we were pulling up to the dock at the Scorpion Anchorage.
Unloading all the passengers and gear off the boat was a long process. Eventually, we were released from the boat area and made our way past Scorpion Ranch to the campground.
This island has a long and fascinating history that includes the Chumash tribe, Spanish missionaries, successions of various ranching operations, and even a short period of military use. In 1980, the island was designated as part of the Channel Islands national park but the family who owned the land wasn’t eager to sell to the government and it took another 16 years before they were able to open to the island as a park. Well…only part of the island since the family had already given 75% of it to the Nature Conservancy. While ranching was only a tiny blip in the island’s long history it seems to have left the most lasting mark with fences, corrals, buildings, and lots of old rusty equipment remaining.
There are two campgrounds on Santa Cruz Island. The first is near the Scorpion Ranch and features an upper and lower loop of sites tucked below a grove of towering eucalyptus trees. This is the easiest campground to reach. Not only is the ferry ride short, but the hike to the campground is only a half-mile. With picnic tables, bear boxes, potable water, and several pit toilets, this is about as luxurious as it gets out here.
The second is located on the far side of the island at Prisoners Harbor. This campground is more remote, offers no water or toilets, and requires a 3-mile uphill hike from the shore. Since our goal is to do some actual backpacking this summer I kind of wanted to stay at this campground to get in some practice. Our last minute planning didn’t allow it though and I couldn’t get a site.
We were set up and ready for hiking by 11 am. Santa Cruz island is big. Measuring in at over 96 square miles, it’s not only the largest island in the national park but also the largest in California. With rugged and varied terrain featuring deep canyons, sandy beaches, craggy cliffs, and two peaks rising around 2,000 feet above the ocean, this island has tons offer. Even with 75% of the island designated as a nature conservancy that is off-limits to the general public, there is still a lot to see and explore.
With the whole day ahead of us, we set out on the 8-mile round trip hike to the top of Montañon Ridge. At 1,800 feet above sea level, this is the second highest point on the island and was rumored to have some pretty spectacular views. It was a challenging hike for sure with lots of steep uphill, and one rocky section that required some careful foot placement, but those views…
We hiked the long way back and lopped around to the cliffs overlooking the cove where we had landed that morning.
Back at camp, we used our mini folding camp stove and new GSI Camp Cooking Set for the first time to cook up a surprisingly tasty freeze-dried meal. I’m not sure if the long hike contributed to our satisfaction, but we both agreed that the chili mac with beef and a side of homemade sourdough really hit the spot.
After dinner, we took a walk down the deserted beach.
With no fires allowed on the island and the cold setting in quickly, we called it an early night and spent the rest of the evening reading and munching on some tasty chocolate.
It was a loooong night. Sleeping on the ground in a tent is not my idea of a good time. I woke up approximately 250 times with aches and pains around various parts of my body. The final straw was around 3 am when I woke up freezing (despite my many layers of clothing and winter hat). After attempting to shove my down coat inside my sleeping bag and wrap it around my entire body I fell into a fitful sleep for a few hours. The low that night was only 47 degrees and my sleeping bag is rated for 25 which means either I’m a complete wimp or that tag is lying. I really, really want to do some backpacking this summer but I need to figure this out because not sleeping well at night doesn’t make for a very fun multi-day adventure.
Breakfast was some dry granola with a banana eaten while standing in the sun. Next time we’re bringing oatmeal because something hot in the morning would have been much appreciated.
Originally, we planned to spend our second-day kayaking. There’s an outfitter on the island that offers guided kayak tours around the island and through the kelp beds. It sounded fun, but we waited to book and at the last minute decided the weather was just too cold. If we’re going to pay $150 each for a few hours of guided sea kayaking it better be perfect conditions. I am really glad we decided against it because while the sun was warm the wind was really, really strong which is never fun when kayaking.
Instead, we packed up our tent, stowed our gear near the beach, and set off on some more hiking. This time we hiked the trails high up on the cliffs near Scorpion Ranch. Unlike the previous day when we only saw one other couple on the trail, this was a far more popular route. I suspect most people who visit for the day hike these trails because they are shorter and start right near where the boat drops you off. We did a loop up to Cavern Point and then over to Potato Harbor. After the initial climb up to the cliffs, it was a fairly level hike and one that I would highly recommend to anyone.
The hike didn’t take us nearly as long as we thought it would and we were back at the ranch before noon. After a trip to the small but informative visitor center followed by lunch at a nearby picnic table, we still had four hours until our scheduled ride back on the ferry. Neither of us felt like hiking anymore so we spent the time lounging on the grass, reading, napping, and watching the island foxes.
Yup, Santa Cruz Island has it’s very own population of very small, very cute, very curious foxes. These little guys have lived here since the days when it was inhabited by the Chumash and show no fear around humans. Nearly extinct in 1997, today there are around 300 Island Fox on Santa Cruz and if you visit the island you are guaranteed to see them. They hang around the campground and picnic area hoping for handouts and posing for photos. While they are cute they are also prone to stealing food which is why the campsites and picnic table have bear boxes (or better yet…fox boxes) and the rangers warn you not to leave any food unattended.
Eventually, it was time to load up on the ferry back to the mainland. By the time 4:30 came around we were more than ready and wishing that we had booked an earlier ferry. Live and learn I guess.
The ferry ride back was not nearly as fun as the ride out. The wind was really whipping and the waves very, very high. It appears that I am a fair weather boat kind of person. I don’t mind some waves for fun but when the whole boat tips from one side to another I get a little freaked. No whale spottings on the way back, but we did come across a large pod of dolphins. The captain slowed the boat so we could watch them for a few minutes while the boat rolled up and down those huge waves. He estimated that this was a group of over 200 dolphins!
There was no way I was going outside near the railing to take photos. All I got was this one of the waves trying their best to capsize us. I kid, I kid…they tell you ahead of time to prepare for extra nights on the island because the ferry doesn’t run in bad weather. The fact that we were even on the boat told me that it was safe, but I was still happy to reach land.
Overall, our experience on Santa Cruz island was awesome. Yes, the sleeping was a bit rough, but the hiking was fantastic and there’s something undeniably exciting about spending the night on an island. With that said, Santa Cruz Island is a good candidate for a day trip. You can see and experience a lot in a single day without the additional hassle of lugging all your gear and sleeping on the ground. Because there are still four more islands to explore I can see us going back to visit one of the more remote islands. For now, though we’re off to the mountains! Any guess as to which national park we plan to visit next?