Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz Island is the largest of the eight Channel Islands off of the coast of Southern California. The northern Channel Islands are part of Channel Islands National Park, which protects the unique ecosystems that have evolved parallel to the mainland, lending the islands the nickname “The Galapagos of North America.”

Distance: 8.5
Elevation Gained: 1,700′
Difficulty: Moderate
Time: 5:00
Critters: A massive pod of dolphins, island scrub jays, 4 island foxes, ravens, weird boners

Get there like this.  (Tip: waterproof)

Note: Santa Cruz Island is mainly accessible by boat. The primary (and perhaps only) boating option is Island Packers, which runs a number of tours and ferries out of Ventura and Oxnard harbors. The trip to Santa Cruz is $59 round trip, and it allows about 5 hours of day-hiking. Camping is a more sensible option if you really want to enjoy and explore the island.

Details:

Anacapa Island

I’ve lived within about 50 linear miles of the Channel Islands for most of my life. During that time, I had become vaguely familiar with the concept that there were islands out there, and at various times, I had seen them from vantageous spots on the coast. Almost never during that time did I think, “wow, that would be interesting to go traipsing around local islands.” On occasion, I would consider it before running headlong into the steep fee imposed by the obvious transportation challenges. 35+ years in, I finally set foot on an island chain that boasts a unique, primeval ecosystem with stunning views.

I got to thinking about why that is while sitting atop High Mount with a soaring view of the west side of the island about a thousand feet below me. The answer comes in two stages: the first was ignorance. Even when I was vaguely aware that their were islands out there, I had no idea what the compelling reasons were that would actually encourage a visit. The second was an insidious process of justification, by which I thought of different reasons not to go: steep fare, far away, don’t want to go alone, maybe some other time, etc.

The abandoned oil well on the Scorpion Canyon Loop

I know that ignorance is a tough thing to combat, and even so, there were times in my life when I didn’t really care about hiking (hard to believe). However, the justifications were more troubling. A big part of why I had never done this was that I had actively thought of reasons not to. When a person is justifying something, it never actually feels that you are trying to find reasons not to do something compelling and possibly memorable and satisfying, but that’s what is so insidious about justifications. You are persuading yourself not to do what you want to do, and the whole process is cloaked in this facade of pseudo-rationality.

I’ve spent a lot of time doing that in my life, and it is times like this when I am sitting atop a peak with an island below me that I realize how much I have missed. I’ve taken safer routes using justification as a road map, and many opportunities have been lost in the process. Had I the gumption that I have now, say, ten to fifteen years ago, there’s no telling what amazing adventures I might have had or what challenges I would have taken on. I realize that I’m sounding unjustifiably regretful, particularly considering the satisfying and fulfilling things I have done over the last three years. But that’s not the point.

I’m not sitting here wishing that I could have lost time back because that is a futile exercise in frustration. Besides, retrograde thinking just reinforces the tendency not to live fully, which only exacerbates the problem. However, I wish to call justifications out and expose them for what they are: fear masquerading as reason. It becomes part of a self-created and self-directed narrative that appears to protect and guide us, but quite frequently prevents us from pursuing the things that add an essential layer of meaning, excitement, and experience to our lives.

I don’t mean to confuse this with the kind of rational thinking that weighs consequences and seeks to arrive at the most sensible conclusion. Generally speaking, that’s just the sort of thought process that would benefit people the most, as it eschews justifications in favor for an attempt to see things as accurately and fairly as possible. Justifications, however, are not fair. They are based on fear, which is always trying to tell you to take the safer road, regardless of where it may ultimately lead. The safer road is fine, if that’s the most sensible option according to your desires. Don’t go quitting your job to run around the globe if you have mouths to feed and obligations to meet. However, don’t keep your job if it’s making you miserable and preventing you from doing something you’d find more satisfying and productive.

Anyhow, I took a hike. Taylor and I hopped on the 9:00 am boat out to Santa Cruz Island. The boat cruised over rough seas and traveled right through the center of a pod of dolphins that must have had at least 500-1,000 of the cheeky little bastards. The Channel is home to about 25,000 dolphins, so the odds are high that you’ll spot a few (or a thousand).

After an hour-long crossing, the boat pulled into Scorpion Anchorage, at which point we politely endured some “be careful out there’s” and “pack in what you pack out’s” and some “probably best not to go that way because it could be strenuous’s.” I appreciate the heads up, and some people really do need to be reminded not to leave their trash about. After that, we set off up the side of a grassy slope until standing atop a broad, sloping plateau with views out over Anacapa and across the Channel to the coastline.

Our goal was to make it up to Montanon Ridge, which would undoubtedly offer great views of both sides of the island. The NPS only owns 24% of Santa Cruz Island, with the rest being owned by the Nature Conservancy. Getting up to the ridge with its views in either direction would be the most efficient way to get the lay of the land and a full taste of what the island had to offer. Of the 50 people on the boat, only one other person elected to tackle the moderate 8 mile/1,700′ foot hike (and he was way more badass than we were). I guess I could say something about shying away from challenges and forsaking the rewards, but I’ve pontificated enough.

The endemic Island Scrub Jay

The higher up we went, the more primeval and fascinating the land became. Views stretched over placid blue ocean and rugged coastlines. Familiar plants such as oaks, laurel, buckwheat, manzanita, and sage displayed the unique parallel track upon which this island has evolved independent of the mainland. Moss and lichen-draped branches obscured Island Scrub Jays, which only live here. And, finally, when we crested Montanon Ridge, the entire west side of the island rolled out like the love child of Big Sur and the Napali Coast.

The island’s variation on buckwheat

Santa Cruz Island is familiar and alien all at once. At times, it recalls the drier south sides of the Hawaiian islands. At other times, it is classic California. At still other times, it is its own unique world independent of any natural analogy. At one point, we found ourselves relaxing under giant eucalyptus trees abuzz with bees and humming birds, when a pair of Island Foxes (also unique to these islands) came tearing out of the bushes and rushed by within mere feet of where we were sitting. This is a whole other world, and it is one not to be ignored.

February: 15.4 Miles
Year-to-Date: 117.2 Miles

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