A Coastal Finale: Channel Islands National Park

Off the coast of California, between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, lie the Channel Islands. There are eight islands in the 160 mile archipelago, and five of those comprise Channel Islands National Park. Our visit to the 27th and final park on our Trekking the Planet NPS journey was an overnight adventure. After a ferry ride from the mainland, we camped on the largest island, Santa Cruz, and hiked to island ridges, along sheer cliffs, and to breathtaking beaches and coves.

We began our time at the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center in Ventura, California. There, we learned that the four northern Channel Islands (from east to west Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel) were once a single island called Santarosae. The Chumash people lived in the islands as long as 13,500 years ago. In 1542, Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed into the nearby waters and wintered in the islands. He died in early 1543 on San Miguel Island.

Later, the U.S. military created lookout posts on some of the islands and even held practice bombing raids on San Miguel. The Navy still controls the southern San Nicholas and San Clemente Islands. Ranching was popular in the Channel Islands, and artifacts of that era can be seen today.

In 1938, Anacapa Island and the southern Santa Barbara Island were designated as a national monument. Three more islands (Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel) were added when the group was elevated to national park status in 1980. Of the park’s 249,354 acres, half of them are under water. The park protection extends one nautical mile from each island. Additionally, the water extending six nautical miles is a National Marine Sanctuary. In 2016, 364,807 people toured the visitor center, ranking the park 43rd in attendance. However, only 20% of visitors cruise around the islands and about 10% actually step ashore.

After looking through the exhibits, we walked a short distance to the ferry office to double check our departure time for the next morning. When we departed at 9:00 am the next day, most people on board with us were taking day trips to the island to snorkel or kayak.

Boarding the ferry to Santa Cruz Island

The ferry crossing took about an hour and 20 minutes. Along the way we passed the north shore of Anacapa Island. About 12 miles off the California coast, Anacapa is actually comprised of three inlets, totaling about 737 acres or less than a square mile. Soon we could see the eastern end of Santa Cruz Island, located five miles from the edge of Anacapa and about 20 miles off the mainland.

Passing Anacapa Island on the ferry

Santa Cruz is the largest of the Channel Islands. With a total area of 61,972 acres, it is 22 miles long and two to six miles wide. The National Park Service manages about a quarter of the island and the Nature Conservancy overseas the remainder. We chose to stay at Santa Cruz Island because it had the most varied hiking opportunities available to us.

The ferry arrived at Scorpion Anchorage, and we disembarked. The campers lined up to unload everyone’s gear from the boat in a bucket brigade line. As we helped with the unloading, we could see a kelp forest below the surface of the ocean. The mingling of cold northern currents with warm tropical currents create an abundant biodiversity of sea life, including kelp forests that surround the islands. Santa Cruz Island in particular is home to sea caves, including Painted Cave, one of the largest and deepest in the world.

Approaching Santa Cruz Island
Coming into the dock at Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island
Unloading the ferry at Scorpion Anchorage
Kelp forest near the dock

Once we got our backpacks, we walked about a half mile to the campground. All islands have at least one campground, and the former Scorpion Ranch, located within a eucalyptus grove, is the largest of the park’s campgrounds. It is also one of the few that has water available.

Tent set up at our Scorpion Ranch campsite

Sometimes called the “American Galapagos,” the islands are home to over 2,000 species of plants and animals, including 145 found nowhere else in the world. One of the endemic animals is the Channel Islands fox. As we were pitching our tent we saw our first fox. It reminded us of a small cat. They are cute animals, but very mischievous.

We had been warned to leave our belongings in our tent and all of our food in the “fox box” to keep items protected. While I went to the bathroom, Darren turned his head for a moment. In that split second, the fox jumped on the picnic bench and began sniffing my empty day pack, probably attracted to it by food smells. Needless to say, we were more careful with our things the rest of the time we were there.

Channel Island fox investigating our campsite
Fox caught sniffing my daypack

After eating lunch, we set off on one of the eastern island’s longest hikes, to Montanon Ridge. We left the campground and climbed up a steep grade out of the canyon to a series of rolling hills. The trail continued to ascend more gradually to the west. As we climbed, we could see the Pacific Ocean and glimpsed Anacapa Island behind us.

Beginning our hike to Montanon Ridge from the campground
Hiking out of the canyon to Montanon Ridge
Looking at the ocean and back towards the campground (green trees in the middle) after the climb
View of the ocean and Anacapa Island from the trail

The path became rugged and rockier as it followed the ridge. We went up and over a couple of small saddles, staying along the ridge, until we reached a flat area that signaled Montanon Ridge. From there the trail went abruptly down to points west, and we went no further. From our vantage point, we had great views of the cloud-shrouded northwest coast of the island. Our return trip took us back along the ridge to Smugglers Road. We walked along the wide dirt road and came down to the Scorpion Anchorage landing. It was 7 miles round trip back to our campsite.

Montanon Ridge
Looking northwest across Santa Cruz Island from Montanon Ridge
Darren hiking back towards the campground

The weather had been cool (in the mid-70s F) but with no shade. We relaxed at the campsite and decided to take another short hike just prior to sunset. By then, a breeze had come up and it was much cooler and more comfortable for hiking. We took another steep path north from the campground to Cavern Point. From there we had a commanding view of the ocean and the island coastline. We could even see a sea cave.

Hiking to Cavern Point
Looking down at the coast and cave

From Cavern Point we continued hiking on top of the cliff bluffs, winding our way west towards Potato Harbor. It was a scenic hike, with the setting sun shimmering on the water and illuminating the cliffs below us. We had seen a few people at the beginning of our hike but passed only one other couple as we continued.

Potato Harbor had a viewpoint looking down into its cove and small sandy beach. A sailboat was anchored there, and we watched it bobbing up and down in the churning water. We took a moment to sit and view the setting sun, but realized we needed to start back, as we had not brought headlamps. We made a loop of the 4 mile hike by using the dirt Potato Harbor Road to take us back to the campground, with plenty of time to spare before it got completely dark.

Looking down the north coast of Santa Cruz Island during our hike
Potato Harbor

In the morning we packed up our tent for the final time and stashed our packs and trash in the day use area. The ferry was scheduled to leave at 4:30 pm, so we had time for another hike. This time we set off south towards Smugglers Cove. This beach is a popular place for day trippers, and we thought it might be crowded. However, we saw just one other person the entire time.

We walked along Smugglers Road 3.25 miles each way to arrive at the beach. It was a windy day, providing us with clear views of Anacapa Island, just five miles away. Even along the dirt road there were several steep climbs, and we were glad to arrive at the beach, nestled among the trees.

Trees and ocean view on the way to Smugglers Cove
Blooming flowers on the trail
Anacapa Island and ocean from Smugglers Road
Climbing down to Smugglers Cove

A picnic table beckoned to us in the shade. There, we spread out our lunch and enjoyed the peaceful sights and sounds of the beach, with the birds flying in and out of the water and the waves crashing on shore. We saw both seagulls and California brown pelicans. The pelicans were removed from the endangered species list in 2009. The only breeding colony of these birds in the western United States is on Anacapa and Santa Barbara Islands.

Darren eating lunch and admiring the view
Beach at Smugglers Cove

Soon it was time for us to leave and make our way back to Scorpion Anchorage to meet our ferry. As we walked back, we passed the 400 mile point of national park hiking on our journey. With the completion of the 6.5 mile distance of this final hike, we trekked a total of 402 miles in the parks that we visited. And we so appreciated the beauty and solitude that we experienced during our time on Santa Cruz Island.

The ferry left a little late on its trip back to Ventura, and the Santa Barbara Channel crossing was somewhat choppy in the whitecaps whipped up by the wind. However, the rough ride was made up for by a school of dolphins that appeared right next to the ferry. The majestic sight of the dolphins gliding in and out of the water was a thrilling end to our trip.

Dolphins in the Santa Barbara Channel

During our last dinner on Santa Cruz Island, we also took time to celebrate our journey with a bottle of champagne. After popping the cork, we toasted our adventure, visiting 27 national parks in 34 states over the past 4 1/2 months.

We want to thank all of you who are reading this for coming along with us. We so enjoy the likes on our posts and reading your comments. Our hope is that you learned more about the cultural and natural significance of our national parks, while following our travels. Thanks again, and Happy Trekking!

Celebrating the last night of our Trekking the Planet NPS journey with champagne

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