Going back in time on Santa Cruz Island

Last week, we decided we had to get a break from the relentless 2017 news cycle. Which was convenient, because the unseasonably cool weather made it the perfect time to explore one of Southern California’s most inaccessible natural and historic attractions, Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands National Park.


It’s best if it’s cool when visiting Santa Cruz Island, because the sheep and pigs who grazed the hills starting in the mid-19th century destroyed the native oaks. Since the island became a protected landscape—the western 76% controlled by The Nature Conservancy, the remaining 24% by the National Parks Service, following a byzantine series of estate battles and eminent domain seizures—these invasive creatures have nearly all been eradicated, small oaks are growing in gullies and the grasses are high.

But shade is rare, and day visitors must come when the sun is high and carry all the water they’ll need on the trail.

We booked passage with the Island Packers outfit (since 1968), arriving at Ventura Marina with minutes to spare before the 9:00am departure. The two-level vessel was full of schoolkids, solo hikers and customers of a kayak tour company. But with many passengers spending the 90-minute trip at the rail, the boat didn’t feel crowded.

The sky was gray and the sea glassy as we shot between the tall oil platforms off Ventura, a reminder of the devastating 1969 Santa Barbara spill which left birds and sea mammals dying on the shore. The sea around the oil rigs is nutrient rich, attracting fish, birds and large mammals. The captain steered off course to visit with a pod of common dolphins, who surfed our wake and performed spectacular jumps to the delight of the rail hangers.

This was a hoot at the time, and on the return voyage when the show was repeated. But we would feel the negative effects of this impromptu detour for much of the day, as we struggled to complete the 8-mile hike from Scorpion Ranch to Smuggler’s Cove and back in time for our 4pm departure. And to spare you, gentle reader, any sympathetic anxiety, we’ll confess we didn’t make it as far as the beach at Smuggler’s, but we also didn’t miss the boat.

But what a magnificent day’s hiking it was! We began in the sunny natural anchorage at Scorpion Ranch, dotted with rusting relics from the ranching days, and pretty old houses set back among flowers. An interpretive center and topographic map provide context for the island, and well-kept pit toilets a last pit stop before setting off into the wild.

The wide, well-maintained dirt road wound up to the crest, red sand glittering with broken bits of abalone shell. Flowering succulents climbed down the cliff walls, each of them a little unfamiliar from those we know on the mainland, like nearly every living thing on Santa Cruz.

Oyster salsify, before…

…and after.

Very soon, we reached the top of the island and began the long, mostly flat hike across this sunny, grassy peak in the middle of the blue sea. It’s an idyllic place that scratched our escapist itch divinely.

A fascinating bonus: the trail was full of colonies of mining bees, busily popping in and out of their individual tube homes to feed their young, and occasionally scrap with each other.

We finally stopped on the ridge overlooking Smuggler’s Cove, for a picnic among the little lizards and scrub oaks. Then back across the island making double time to descend the path to Scorpion Ranch just before the boat departed, where we stole a few moments with the island’s fearless native foxes, who are worth the trip all by themselves. We returned to the 21st century replenished, and recommend this excursion to anyone feeling the weight of modernity heavy on their neck. A little fox’ll do ya!

Recommended Reading: For the warts and all history of post-Chumash life, love, conservation and business battles in the Channel Islands, pick up Santa Cruz Island: A History of Conflict and Diversity by John Gherini, a member of one of the last families to own a piece of that contentious rock. If you’d like to hike in our footsteps, archeologist Don Morris’ guidebook to the park side of the island is a fine pocket companion.