Santa Cruz Island
The Channel Islands have been on our radar for a while, but we never made any serious plans to visit them. Once, when some relatives were visiting from Europe, we took them whale watching on an Island Packers boat from Ventura, and that trip briefly visited Scorpion's Anchorage on Santa Cruz to drop off and pick up passengers. There's not much to see of the island from that landing, but even what we saw looked impressive and we kept talking more and more about spending some time there.
During our Backbone Trail hike in spring 2012, the islands were very much a topic of conversation and an organizer mentioned that supposedly fewer people have been to all the Channel Islands than to the summit of Mt. Everest. Some fellow hikers were even organizing a trip, but then nothing came of it.
Finally at the end of March, we decided to go. I consulted the maps, read up on basic information, and decided to start with Santa Cruz, as it looked the least forbidding and perhaps the most scenic of all the islands in the chain. It has a long history, Native Americans have lived there, smugglers used it later, then it had a huge ranching operation, which almost devastated its entire ecosystem, but lately it's been doing much better.
The vast majority of the island (76%) is owned by the Nature Conservancy and off limits to mere mortals. 24%, the eastern side, belongs to the National Park Service and is part of the Channel Islands National Park. The main capground is at Scorpion's Harbor, and it's a pretty accessible place with year-round water and such. We also wanted to do some backcountry hiking/camping, so we decided to land at Prisoner's Harbor, spend a night at the one and only backcountry campsite they have, Del Norte, then hike over to Scorpion's for another night. There's no water at Del Norte, so we had to carry enough for about 24 hours and a total of cca. 15 miles of hiking in relatively warm weather.
Day 1 - L.A. to Ventura - Prisoner's Harbor - Del Norte Campground
Ventura Harbor awaited us in the fog at 7am, and we loaded all the gear into the belly of the ship. We only kept a small bag with some water and snacks with us. The backpacks had a gallon jug of water each, plus their Platypus bags filled to the brim. The ship cleared the coastal fog quickly, and it was a gorgeous day.
First stop was at Scorpion's Anchorage to drop people off, then on to Prisoner's Harbor, where five or six of us disembarked for Del Norte, and a huge group of college students was dropped of, too — they were headed to the UCLA research station on the Conservancy side of the island. A few trucks with trailers hauled them off and we were left alone on the beach. The other guys headed for Del Norte left way ahead of us. True to our form, it took us a long time to get organized and going.
There are two ways to get to Del Norte from Prisoner's: there's a trail along the beach, rollercoastering up and down on the hills, then climbing up to the campground. It's almost a mile shorter than the other route, which is to take the dirt road up to Navy Road on the ridge, and then descend to Del Norte on a side road. We decided to take the latter, as the beach trail seemed way more strenous by looking at the map.
The climb up to Navy Road is steep, but not terribly, and of course our packs were pretty heavy from all the water, but we did good time. The area is disastrously covered with fennel — it got away from a kitched garden decades ago and spread all over the island, choking the native vegetation. Making things worse, there used to be a big population of feral pigs on the island, and they were "roto-tilling" the earth when looking for food, making it a perfect breeding ground for the fennel. The fennel forms a thick, 7-foot-tall, reed-like jungle in most places, and even if you like the smell of anise, it gets old quickly. It's not nearly enough to spoil the beauty of the place and ruin the trip, but it's good to hear that supposedly they're making some progress against it.
The hike to to Del Norte is 4 miles, and we got there about two hours later. To our surprise, nobody else was there. There are only four sites in the entire campground, and three are pretty exposed, so we selected the one that looked best to us, under a beautiful oak tree. Each site has a table with a food storage locker, and as the next pleasant surprise, there was almost half a gallon of water in there and a nice big tarp.
We went for a walk, visiting a nearby cluster of buildings which more than likely were part of a horse ranch earlier. The main house looked like it still saw some use now and then, there were obvious signs of people having stayed there recently and the field around it was mowed. It's in a perfect place — oh, how we'd love to spend a week there!
This is where we saw out first island fox, curiously observing us from the distance. They are small-bodies foxes, endemic to the Channel Islands (and each island has a unique subspecies). In the 1990's, their numbers dropped dramatically, and they almost went extinct. The NPS and other agencies launched a recovery program, capturing and breeding them in huge caged facilities in several spots around the islands. They recovered remarkably well, and supposedly now they're back to about 90% of their former population. We saw quite a few of them during the next two days, and couldn't get enough. Here's a good link with info about their plight.
The evening was balmy and calm, with clear skies and deafening silence. An island scrubjay paid us a visit before sundown. They are also endemic to Santa Cruz, and because the lack of predators, they're a big bigger and bluer than their mainland counterparts. However, their "song" is just as shrieky.
Our water was holding up nicely, we even dared to wash our hands carefully with a small part of that extra half gallon, and after a late dinner, we slept like babies.
Day 2 - Del Norte to Scorpion's Campground
The morning came with rolling fog sweeping the campground back and forth, sometimes reducing the visibility to a few feet, then showing us the ocean down below. As soon as we packed up, we headed down the Del Norte Trail, going west. Everything was green and the wildflowers were blooming, we were happy not to listen to some people's advice who said to come in the fall when the weather is more stable.
The trail connects to Navy Road after about two-three miles, following the ridgeline. The view all around is amazing. The fog kept low, we were mostly above it, and it looked like we're walking on clouds. On the mainland, only the top of the mountains could be seen. We met a guy in a pickup truck, he looked like he was driving to the military radar installation on top of the hill. He stopped and asked whether we had enough water. Other than him, we only met one single hiker coming our way, headed to Del Norte.
Around 1pm, we sat in the shade of some small pine trees to have lunch, then kept going for a while, and stopped again for a snack above Chinese Harbor.
Before reaching Montañon Ridge, Navy Roads ends and becomes a trail. There's a very steep, but short climb up to the ridge with spectacular rock formations and huge diversity of wildflowers. The ridge itself offers fantastic views all around, including the olive grove at Smuggler's Cove, which we indented to visit the next day. We caught our breath and kept moving. From the ridge, all we needed to do is descend to Scorpion's, about 3.5 miles.
The terrain was very rocky, there was a part we dubbed "Mars" as it was very barren and everything was reddish from iron oxide. Em's feet started hurting badly, it turned out the EVA in the soles of her shoes partially collapsed and wasn't offering much cushioning anymore. She was suffering a bit, and we kept taking short breaks to give her aching feet a respite.
We examined the remnants of an old drilling operation, even the drill head was still there, then continued our descent, and by mid-afternoon, with about two liters of water left, we arrived at the huge eucalyptus grove that was home to Scorpion Campground. It's a pretty big camp with tables, food storage boxes, pit toilets and water taps. The main buildings of the former ranch are a bit further down, closer to the beach.
As soon as we settled down and pitched the tent, Em got some rest and her feet were doing much better. It was early, so we went for a long walk, going up to Cavern Point, which offers impossibly cool views of the island, this time made even more dramatic by the rolling fog. We also spent some time down by the beach at the landing, to take in the sunshine and relax a bit.
Several foxes showed themselves to us on this walk, one of them even gave us a show, playing and jumping around, having fun with some victim (a mouse or a lizard) for almost ten minutes.
Later that night, after dinner, we were sitting at our table with the headlamps turned off, enjoying the night air. Two idiots, who were camped a few spots over, came our way on the trail, and they started harrassing one of the foxes. The poor thing didn't even go near their gear or do anything, but these jerks started throwing rocks and chasin it — stupidly enough — towards their own campsite. They did this right under our nose, but didn't see us in the dark. It was funny to see how startled they were and how quickly they scurried away when all of a sudden Em shouted at them to leave the poor fox alone.
Day 3 - Scorpion to Smuggler's Cove and back to L.A.
Our ship was schedule to leave at 2pm, and Em's feet were not hurting anymore, so we stuck to the original plan and took off in the foggy morning towards Smuggler's Cove. The fog made things even more interesting, but I was hoping it would lift soon.
The hike to Smuggler's is about 7-8 miles round-trip and well worth the effort. It's a dirt road all the way, which first climbs steeply out of Scorpion's Anchorage to the top of the rock, then undulates on the hills for a while before meandering down to the cove. This used to be another part of the ranch, with one big building still standing (featuring a neat sundial on the facade) and a very nice olive grove; thriving, despite of having gotten no care for decades. Olives are very hardy plants, and this is their original climate zone anyway.
The beach at the cove was just as foggy, making for a pretty dramatic sight. There's another grove of eucalyptus just above the tide line, and the NPS put out some picnic tables, so we ate our lunch there.
It was still early, but we headed back soon. As we were climbing up the hill again, the fog started breaking, and 10 minutes later, the sun was balzing down on us. Finally, we got some good views of the surroudings, including the ocean and the mainland.
Back at Scorpion's, we packed up camp, then strolled down to the beach, taking up positions at one of the picnic tables around the old ranch buildings. One of these buildings is a museum, which we visisted (it's really informative if your're interested in the history of the island), and marveled at another building, which was apparently stillll in use as a residence for the rangers or the caretakers with a very nicely groomed and maintained garden full of flowers. To live in a place like this and even get paid for it... Side note: the actual ranger station is on the hill behind the campground, on the trail going to Potato Harbor and Cavern Point.
Time flew by, and the ship soon arrived, ready to take us back. As we left, the fog rolled in again, obscuring the island. Both of us were in an elated mood, joking about getting a sea lion and a fox as pets, and already talking about what's next.
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