Channel Islands National Park - California
When you search for information on the Channel Islands National Park the photos that pop up are of clear sparkling water and a blue sky overhead. But I suspect that most of these come from the summer months, peak tourist season, and during our visit in April the island looked quite a bit different.
It was an overcast and chilly day when we took the Island Packers boat to Santa Cruz, the largest of the five islands that make up the Channel Islands National Park. The water started out deeply blue and the greens muted. But later in our hike the sun came out and suddenly the hills were vibrant and the water took on that color seen in so many photos.
For 150 years the island was ranched before being turned over to The Nature Conservatory and National Park system. A large portion of the island is covered by the Nature Conservatory and closed to the public. When you arrive on Santa Cruz, and leave the pier behind, Scorpion Ranch is there to greet you. Besides the buildings to explore there are campgrounds, picnic areas, a place to rent kayaks, and the trails covering the National Park side.
Santa Cruz is home to over 600 different kinds of plants, 140 land birds, and 11 land mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. The most adorable resident is the Island Fox and because they’re protected they have little to no fear of people. If you aren’t careful they’ll steal your lunch.
Hiking Santa Cruz is one of our all time favorite hikes. For the first part of our day the trail was empty and the quiet peacefulness complete. We went the opposite way of the group that came over on the boat, going through the valley to Potato Harbor, and then looping around along the cliffs back to the beach.
We stopped for lunch overlooking the harbor (there’s no beach access here) to watch the water and listen to seals bark at each other. About half way through our sandwiches people began to show up from along the cliff side of the trail. And on the way back that section was much more crowded.
My legs were sore by the time we’d made the loop and come back to the beach. We tried to climb the hill across from the way we’d come back down towards Scorpion Bay but stopped at a bend in the path and sat to watch the ocean and the people on the beach instead. I just couldn’t face another hike up and then down the hills because I was pretty sure my legs might fall off. Of course it means I should probably work on getting into better shape and buildings my endurance so we can see and do as much as possible. Especially if it’s a place we might not get to visit again.
Eventually we left our spot overlooking the water and made our way down to the beach. There was a young elephant seal laying peacefully in the sun, for a moment I couldn’t tell if it were breathing or not, but it was only napping. We kept our distance, not wanting to disturb it and if you’ve ever seen how sharp their teeth are you wouldn’t want to either.
There were a lot of day travelers hanging around, waiting for the boat to make the return trip, and three small girls approached the seal. They stood so close, within biting distance, and one kicked sand at the animal. An adult belonging to the three just stood there with his arms crossed and watched. We didn’t say anything, I was honestly surprised and not sure what to say. What adult would let their kids do that? I was relieved when someone rushed over and told the girls to leave the seal alone. If you’re ever in a spot where you’re that close to a wild animal you’re too close, respect the creature’s space.
Next time you’re in California, or if you live there and have never been, head out to the Channel Islands and spend the day exploring. It’s a beautiful place and so removed from the mainland that it truly feels like another country, set apart and mostly untouched by time. Go soak up the beauty of clear blue waters with the wind in your face and the sounds of birds calling to each other. I hope you get to see the Island Foxes (almost a guarantee since they’re not afraid of people) and watch pelicans whirl overhead.
Visiting Santa Cruz Island was the highlight of this trip. I don’t know how we’d managed to be in California three years in a row but that’s how it worked out. Honestly it feels a little strange not to have a trip planned this year as well. There’s so much to see and so many beautiful places and National Parks. And we packed so much in on our vacations that I’m still going through photos and sorting out posts.
If you’re interested in catching up with some of the places we’ve visited in California you can here -
A few helpful things to know before you visit Channel Islands National Park -
Santa Cruz is the largest and most visited of the islands - if you’re going just for the day I’d recommend checking out the map and planning your hike in advance.
Island Packers Cruises - reserve a trip to one of the islands or book a wildlife watching cruise.
Channel Islands National Park website - check current conditions and alerts.
The Island Fox is found only in the Channel Islands and it’s one of the smallest foxes in the world. Also incredibly adorable but the Park Rangers won’t let you take one home.