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There are plenty of scenic trails with expansive views on the eastern end of Santa Cruz Island, one of five in Channel Islands National Park, about 25 miles off the California coast. Spring brings a plethora of wildflowers, and the island gives visitors an idea of what California looked like 200 years ago. Photo by E’Louise Ondash
Columns Hit the Road

On Santa Cruz Island, California before Californians

Our boat into Scorpion Cove was a half-hour late in docking, but no one cared. Reason for delay: whales and dolphins.

As we neared Santa Cruz Island, the largest of five islands in Channel Islands National Park, the captain of our Island Packers ferry spotted the spouts of a pair of gray whales cruising south to the warm waters of Baja California.

“Whales at two o’clock,” came the captain’s call over the loud speaker. And with that, the hundred or so passengers quickly shifted to the starboard side of the boat.

Soon after, the first of hundreds of dolphins began leaping from the ocean and racing alongside the ferry for fifteen minutes, delighting all the day-trippers who got a bonus for the price of their ferry ticket.

We had planned to meet friends from Colorado for our one-day trip to Santa Cruz Island in late February, but they had to cancel. In the end, we were glad we hadn’t. 

Buildings from a former ranch operation on Santa Cruz Island have been preserved. The family-owned ranch operated here until 1984, raising sheep for meat and wool. The National Park Service eventually purchased these lands — about 62,000 acres. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

After disembarking, we were greeted by a park volunteer who explained the rules of visiting this pristine island. The most important one: Take out everything you bring in, and that includes trash.

“There are no trash cans here,” he said to emphasize the point. “None.”

Visitors also must bring all they need, including water, and you won’t find the usual national park visitor center, cafeteria or gift shop. What you will find is a piece of California that looks like it did before 40 million inhabitants lived here.

We wanted to explore some of this nearly pristine real estate, so we set out on a circular trail that took us through Scorpion Canyon and past remnants of the family ranching enterprise that was a part of the eastern third of Santa Cruz Island until 1984. The National Park Service completed the purchase of this portion of the island in 1997. (The Nature Conservancy owns the western two-thirds.)

Even though they are considered an invasive species, we appreciated the stand of eucalyptus trees that provided ample shade for a while. We then apparently took a wrong turn or missed some signage because the trail turned to a steep ascent that that took us up and across Montañon Ridge. The mistake brought us to the highest accessible point in the park. At 1,800 feet, we could see almost 360 degrees.

Recent rains had transformed the island into various shades of emerald, and spring flowers were emerging to create spots of texture and color on these 62,000 acres of preserve.  And with the crystal-clear conditions, it seemed as though we could reach east and touch the mainland, about 25 miles away, and Anacapa Island, also within the park’s boundaries.

The pier at Scorpion Anchorage, on the eastern end of Santa Cruz Island, has been rebuilt several times after severe damage by storms. More than 400,000 people visit Channel Islands National Park each year, accessible only by a one-hour boat ride via the Island Packers ferry that runs out of Ventura. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

From this vantage point, it was easier to see that, like much of California, the Channel Islands were created by tectonic forces that thrust them out of the ocean about 5 million years ago. The islands have always been separate from the mainland, which is why they claim 145 species of plants and animals found nowhere else on the planet. Fortunately, five of the islands, their submerged lands and the waters within one nautical mile of each island, are protected by the National Park Service.

As we descended on the trail, we passed areas closed to hikers because of the damage from the 2020 Scorpion Fire, which burned 1,400 acres. It was good to see that the fragile earth was already showing signs of regeneration.

Back at the historic ranch, a couple of bold island foxes, unique to Santa Cruz Island and once on the brink of extinction, patrolled the real estate beneath our picnic table, hoping to score some visitor leftovers. They looked as content as we felt.

For more photos and conversation, visit www.facebook.com/elouise.ondash.

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