Our trip is split into three equal pieces: an outbound week on the road, a week with my folks, and a week on the road headed home. We love this itinerary – plenty of time to meander through new territory, hike the wilderness, see some friends or family along the way, and solid family time with my folks. In addition to loving our time with them, we feel lucky to hang out with them in such a place; my parents live in a beautiful part of California with coastal views, agaves, and mountains. A stay with them includes the pleasures of a morning swim in the pool, fresh seafood dinners, a Sunday craft fair, and bikerides along the beach. It’s a far cry from growing up in Chicago and England, this coastal vacation paradise, yet visiting my parents still always feels like coming home.
The Channel Islands sit tantalizingly close off the coast from Santa Barbara and Ventura. We can easily see them from my folks’ home, clear on the ocean horizon when the morning mist burns off. Colin and I have come in close to them, scubadiving off of Anacapa in the looming thick green kelp forests, sea floor covered in black and red sea urchins, and the occasional – but invasively increasing – striped and spikey lionfish. But we’d never been ashore of the islands, until now.
We have booked passage on a 9am Island Packers ferryboat from Ventura to Santa Cruz. They’re the official NPS transport to the islands, and a sweet boat ride indeed. Colin and I are up at the bow before we have left the marina, joyfully riding the waves from the lower deck, closest to the water.
We are halfway to the island when we see the first dolphins; before we know it, we’re surrounded by a giant pod of some 500 of them – one of the largest the crew has seen. The dolphins roll and leap and play around us, swimming beside the bow just 10-20 feet from where we stand. Magical doesn’t even begin to cover it.
And then, a humpback whale. Yup, that really happens. Just as the last of the dolphins frolicks away toward the island and we are underway again – we see it off the bow: the unmistakable “T” outline of a whale’s tale, grey and spotted against the blue sky in the middle distance. The captain throttles back the boat’s engine, we bob and turn and wait. There’s a whoop from our fellow passengers on the starboard side, and Colin turns quick enough to catch it: a spout! The same whale? Unknown. That is all we have, the gift of a glimpse of the ocean’s grandest creature, and on we go.
A day on Santa Cruise is a treasure. We disembark at Scorpion Anchorage, get a quick orientation from the NPS volunteer guide in groups according to activity, and 50 passengers disperse across the island, to kayaking, snorkelling, or, like us, to hike the hills.
The views are immediately breathtaking. It’s as though nature decided to build a geological biological wonder, and plunged into the project on a sunny breezy day using her best parts kit from the White Cliffs of Dover and the Virgin Islands, seasoned with a taste of the Mojave. We opt for a 5.5 mile round trip along the cliffs to Potato Harbor. Grassy rolling hills inland give way to dramatic drop-offs overlooking cozy inlets, with pelicans and other seabirds gliding far below along the coastline. We stop frequently to take it in, certain that THIS is the most beautiful spot on the whole island. And we are right every time: the most awe-inspiring view is always the one that sweeps you away right now.
Potato Harbor must be one of the island’s crown jewels. There’s no access from above, making it a marine life safehaven. We can hear sea lions barking and calling, the sound filling the lagoon, but don’t spot them until we scan the rocks through binoculars. There we see a little family of two, perhaps a mom and cub, splashing and diving in the turquoise water, here and gone, here and gone.
We take the inland route back to the boat, dropping down to protected lowlands dotted with small stands of trees. We pause to refill our water bottles at the quiet, remote campsite and then a 1/4 mile later, come out near the shore, somewhat incongruously, at a beach hut. We had prepared, per NPS website, to bring all water, food, and first aid needs with us; yet here we can buy a disposable camera and some sunglasses. The sunkissed staff tell us they provide kayak tours, official concessionnaire for NPS. We make a mental note to pack a tent next time and make an island weekend of it. Hike the cliffs, dive the kelp forests, kayak the coastline. Find Your Park: Channel Islands.
Around 3:30pm we’re back at the dock. Other passengers are milling about, prepping gear, or snoozing in hammocks they’ve tied up under the pier. No-one wants to miss the boat; it’s the last one for the day. We settle for perusing the remnants of Scorpion Ranch, where we learn about foodways of the Chumash people whose ancestors have been on the island for over 11,000 years, and about the historical but problematic sheep raising (as is the case just about everywhere: where goes European influence, so goes biological detriment). The ranch is full of stories about the island. 1960s: DDT weakened the bald eagle eggs; the golden eagles moved in and munched up 95% of the tiny island foxes. Caught in the nick of time, the golden eagles are relocated, the bald eagles come back, and the tiny foxes recover. Meanwhile bats have moved into the ranch’s kitchen and displays there are off limits for the breeding season. Foxes and bats get priority. I like their thinking.