Adventure Tales

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Backpacking In Channel Islands National Park

Backpacking on Santa Cruz Island

The Channel Islands have always been a bit of a mystery to me. I’m aware it’s a popular destination for kayakers going on sea cave adventures, but that’s really all I knew about this remote National Park. When I had been invited by a coworker to go on an overnight backpacking trip to Santa Cruz Island, I jumped at the chance. Not only would I be able to practice backpacking, something I haven’t done nearly enough of, but I would finally get to explore the islands off the coast of California that have for so long filled me with curiosity and wonder.

Island Packers Ferry
Island Packers ferry on route to Santa Cruz Island

Our plan was to take the one-hour ferry ride operated through Island Packers to the island of Santa Cruz, the largest in the chain of eight islands that sit 20 miles across from the Ventura Harbor. Santa Cruz Island is 96 square miles of wild backcountry surrounded by rugged coastal cliffs. Three quarters of the island is an official conservancy and is off-limits to foot traffic to help protect the “60 species of plants and animals that exist nowhere else in the world.”

We met at the Ventura Harbor at around 8am on a bright Saturday. Already there were lots of people waiting by the harbor. I was relieved to find out most of these people were day hikers and would be dispersed to several of the islands. Whew…I really didn’t want to be somewhere where there were large crowds of people. After we checked in with Island Packers and received our tickets to board, we weighed our backpacking gear and boarded the vessel. Holy cow my backpack was heavy! That was mostly because the campsite we reserved had no water sources, so we had to carry our own water. We had been advised to bring at least 3 liters of water per day. I only brought about 4-1/2 liters which was definitely pushing it, but it still added a lot of extra weight to my pack.

Ventura Harbor Seals
Sun seeking seals just off the Ventura harbor

As soon as we crossed the harbor, the excitement began to set in. The boat zipped past a red buoy crowded with seals that seemed to be enjoying the warmth of the sun. The sea was relatively mild yet there was the occasional swell that lifted the boat and sent sprays of ocean water onto guests sitting along the sides and very back of the boat. The SPLASH ZONE! I was hoping for a glimpse of a whale which is not uncommon on these boat rides. Actually Island Packers has a marine mammal sitings chart of what they have seen on each day of the month. I crossed my fingers that we would be so lucky!

We arrived at Scorpion Anchorage to drop off most of the day hikers. They crossed a long pier onto the island where colorful kayaks were already being set up for them to rent. If you want to do sea kayaking, this is the place to do it. I’ve heard that the caves are awesome to explore. Unfortunately, there would be no kayaking on our trip so I vowed to return to experience that adventure someday.

Kayaks on Santa Cruz Island
Scorpion Anchorage is a popular spot for kayaking

The boat was mostly empty except for us campers who would be going to a different part of the island named Prisoner’s Harbor. From there we would hike about 3.5 miles of rugged trails with about 1,000 feet of elevation gain to the Del Norte Campground. Ordinarily, 3.5 miles wouldn’t bother me but now under the unfamiliar weight of my backpack the trail was an incredible challenge. It was warm and there was not a whole lot of shade from trees, but occasionally a cool ocean breeze would blow through us. After mentally chastising my overall laziness and vowing that I’d start doing more cardio workouts when I returned home, I began to notice how uniquely beautiful this island was. The hills were often wide-open and grassy with gorgeous coastal views. Also there were almost no other people out here. The isolation felt great and made the adventure that much more pleasurable.

Del Norte Trail, Santa Cruz Island
Hiking along the Del Norte Trail

After a tough hike, we found our campsite on top of a hill that overlooked an incredible view of the northwest side of the island. We picked out our spots, set up our tents, then gathered to determine our next move. One camper in our group had been to this island before and said there was a trail that would lead us to incredible views of the south side of the island. Already my legs were really sore from the first hike, but I didn’t want to miss out on any experiences so I joined the group. We began hiking on a fire road that wound upwards around more dry grassy hills. Suddenly a large bald eagle flew right over our heads! It happened to quick to be able to take a picture, but it was a majestic sight nonetheless. Along the trail I could smell something very fragrant…almost like licorice and realized tall green fennel plants were growing all around us. I later learned these invasive plants are not at all indigenous to the island and researchers are working hard to remove them. Too bad we couldn’t just take some home…I love fennel!

Bushwacking Santa Cruz Island
Bushwacking trails on Santa Cruz Island

There was a trail that had not been maintained and seemed to lead in the right direction so we followed it. Whenever your bushwhacking I recommend wearing long pants. The guys who wore shorts got a little scratched up from all the bristled branches and bushes we had to pass through. At times the trail was clearly defined but then suddenly, it just ended and left us wondering how to continue. Weaving through low-lying tree branches helped us to find the trail again, but then again the trail would end. The brush became so dense we eventually gave up and just enjoyed the views from where we stood.

Santa Cruz Island Fox
The Santa Cruz Island Fox

Back at our camp, we saw a tiny fox sniffing around the campsite’s food storage boxes. This guy was the size of a cat or small dog. Actually the island foxes are the smallest of the North American canids. They are tame and friendly, only looking for food. No matter how cute he is, don’t feed them! It’s a law on the island and can disturb their natural diets. I should mention that throughout our hiking we saw little poops that originated from these island foxes. Another important rule of thumb is ignore your curiosity and don’t touch the poop! Particles in them have been known to cause the hantavirus strain. Don’t let this spook you into not coming to the Channel Islands though. The chance of getting a disease from visiting the islands is almost negligible. If you don’t believe me you can read more about it here.

For the remainder of the night, we enjoyed our freeze-dried dinners and watched as the sun cast it’s last rays of golden light across the island. Unlike traditional campsites, this one does not allow campfires, so as soon as the sun set, we called it a night. The temperature had dropped significantly so it was time to retreat to the warmth of our sleeping bags. It can get pretty windy on the island. For us the wind was present early in the evening but seemed to die down later on. I did get up once to go to the bathroom and was excited to see how clear the night sky was. The stars were everywhere…a rare sight for a city girl from Los Angeles.

View From Del Norte Campground
Our view from the Del Norte Campground

And yet another view from this gorgeously rugged island:

Views from Santa Cruz Island

In the morning, we ate our breakfasts, enjoyed the last views from our campsite then packed it all up. With our gear on our backs again, we descended the trail back to Scorpion Anchorage. The uphills were tough for me, but fortunately there were a lot more downhills on the way back. After the 3.5 mile hike, we arrived at the pier. The Island Packers boat had not arrived yet so we spent the time resting and exploring the dock area. It was peacefully quiet. I thought about taking a nap to pass the time, but decided to just walk around and see what I could discover.

On the western end of the pier, the land kind of wraps around in a cove shape. I walked to the end to see dozens of white seagulls perched on land and swimming in the calm ocean. They were really pretty and did not seemed bothered by my presence at all. As I inspected the rocky beach I saw small red crab looking creatures lodged in between the stones. Then I saw more of them swimming at the edge of the ocean and the beach. These little guys reminded me of Sebastian, the crab from The Little Mermaid. However they are not crabs at all but instead are called spiny lobsters! On the other side of the pier was a bench with seashells, purple sea urchins, parts of giant crab legs and other odds and ends of the sea. Someone must have collected all these things and placed them on the table for people to see. Two of my friends said they spotted several large circular black objects swimming in the water around the pier. Those were definitely sting rays as they are very common to this area.

Kelp Beds of Channel Islands
Kelp beds along the Santa Cruz Island pier

The boat finally arrived and proceeded to unload a new group of hikers and campers. We were waiting for one of the nature conservancy guides wearing the blue uniform shirts. Soon our guide Paul introduced himself, and led us on a moderately tough 2 mile hike to Pelican Bay. We did stop several times along the way so he could point out points of interest and share some history of the island. For instance, the Channel Islands are home to the oldest dated human remains in North America: Arlington Springs Man (13,000 BP). Along the way he also pointed out the diverse plants, grasslands, chaparral and pine forests.

Scenes from Channel Islands
Scenes from different areas of Santa Cruz Island

Low and behold, we reached our destination of Pelican Bay. The view of the emerald & turquoise waters with white boats peacefully anchored offshore was just beautiful. It looked as if this could be a tropical island of some sort. I climbed down a short path to ocean level and saw an abundance of life in the rocky reef’s small tidepools. It was just so colorful! Even the terrain surrounding it had interesting color. The tall grasses were yellow from lack of water, some bushes were full of bright red berries (probably what the island foxes were eating), and cactus plants bloomed their bright yellow lotus flowers. After enjoying location, we returned via the same 2 mile trail back to the pier. The boat was there and it was time to leave the island.

Pelican Bay, Santa Cruz Island
Yachts anchored off of tranquil Pelican Bay

Although it was only an overnight backpack trip, I felt like I learned a lot about this island. And it was so close to me all these years. My initial mystery was gone, and now only the exciting idea that there is still more to explore remained. The adventure wasn’t over though. On the boat ride back to Ventura, we saw common bottle dolphins swimming on both sides of our boat. There seemed to be thousands of them surfing the wakes and swells. The only thing that could make this better was to see a whale. WELL…no sooner did I say that then someone screamed out WHALE! The boat stopped to allow us to safely view. At first I only saw the a spout of water from a blowhole, but then there it was…a whale! And then right behind the boat…another whale. OMG…definitely the first time I had seen whales so close. It was very exciting and we were very lucky to have seen mother nature putting on such a spectacular ocean show. I realized that this world is truly active and alive with nature all the time. Sometimes it’s just nice to step away from our digital world to observe just how active and beautiful it is.

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