On a gorgeous summer morning last month, my friend Andrew and I took a ferry to one of the most unique national parks in the world, Channel Islands National Park. Our journey began in Ventura Harbor, a well-organized harbor that finds a way to fit in a little bit of everything on just a small strip of land. From there we took a ferry to Santa Cruz through Island Packers, the main company that transports visitors from the main land to the Channel Islands. The pricing for the ferry is a bit steep, but Island Packers does a good job of making sure that you not only get a gentle ride over to the islands but an educational one as well. Charts at the Island Packers headquarters reveal that they have encounters with wildlife on almost every ferry. For our ferry to the island we got to see a few seals and a good-sized pod of dolphins.
Eighty minutes into the ferry ride we finally pulled into the harbor for Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz actually has two harbors that the public can go to. Unfortunately, the last minute designs of this trip meant that we were only able to stay for the day so we ferried into the main harbor, Scorpion Harbor. Upon stepping onto the island we were greeted by a park volunteer who made sure we were aware of some of the basic rules of the island before we were left to do what every we choose to do. Santa Cruz and the rest of the islands are pack-in, pack-out locations meaning there are no amenities on the island other than a couple of rustic restrooms so you need to come prepared. As we turned the corner from the harbor we walked right into the remnants of an old village that showcased previous attempts at permanent settlement on the island. It is here that the National Park Service has some maps, diagrams, small exhibits, and the stamp for the park if you collect those like I do.
The avid hiker that I am, the thing I made sure that we did next was find the closest trail and take it to its endpoint. That happened to be the Potato Harbor trail, a five-mile loop trail that crosses the coastal cliffside before cutting into the center of the northern end of Santa Cruz Island. The first half of this hike as it overlooks the cliffs is stunning. It seems like there is an even better view every time you come around a corner. On our journey we were fortunate enough to see some pelicans and hear some seals (although we didn’t see any), but our more interesting wildlife encounters would happen later in the day. The midpoint of the hike found us at Potato Harbor, an inlet on the island where the water appears as a vibrant turquoise. It’s a nice view but if you want a closer view you are out of luck because any access routes to the beach are closed due to habitat rehabilitation.
From there we descended into a valley away from the cliffs. The valley was filled with white limestone formations and the occasional bits of shrubbery (trees are almost non-existent on the northern end of the island). Walking down the trail into the valley it was hard not to notice the many lizards scurrying around, but once we got into the valley proper it was another animal that left the biggest impression on me for the trip. On many of the islands that compose Channel Islands National Park can be found the island fox. The island fox is endemic to the Channel Islands, meaning the islands are the only place in the world where you can find them. When you are on Santa Cruz Island, though, they are everywhere so if you are trying to catch a glimpse of them you won’t have to look long. The foxes have become accustomed to humans, and have learned that they may be able to get an easy meal off of them (the foxes and the ravens on the island apparently know how to open zippers). So as we hung around the campground on the island and by the docks, we were able to catch numerous glimpses of the creatures.
After some time to eat and relax we checked out the shoreline by the dock area. It was a little too crowded with snorkelers and kayakers (you could rent kayaks with Island Packers or with another company that set up base next to the campground) to do anything but we were able to admire some of the clearest water we had ever seen. To avoid the crowds we went up a steep trail nearby that gave us some more views of the island. The trail led to Smuggler’s Cove, but the cove was an eight-mile hike there and back meaning we would have struggled to do the hike and make it back in time for our 4pm ferry back to the mainland. With nothing urgent to do we decided to spend the rest of our day on the island by taking a nap and admiring the view from our highpoint at the beginning of the trail.
When 4pm came around we boarded the ferry once more and said goodbye to a place filed with amazing views and interesting wildlife. While on the islands, Channel Islands National Park seems so remote. Yet as soon as the ferry takes off you begin to notice oilrigs, skyscrapers and other hints that humanity is lurking just beyond the shore.