Santa Cruz Island (Channel Islands National Park)

For my wife and I’s fifteenth wedding anniversary we wanted to do something fun, memorable, and somewhat relaxing. A couple of years ago we discovered our love of Ventura, a coastal city in Southern California. We appreciate the cities laid back and relaxed atmosphere, state beaches, the food (The Lure Fish House being probably our all time favorite restaurant), unique shops in the downtown district, and the pier.

On this visit to Ventura we decided to mix things up a bit. We stayed in our first AirBNB, Casa al Mare Ventura, a peaceful little cottage in a quiet downtown neighborhood. The outside of the cottage was completely secluded; surrounded by lush vegetation, a koi fish pond, with a deck for sitting. The inside had many of the comforts of home, and provided a comfortable place to spend the evening after a day out.

The highlight of our trip was a day trip to Santa Cruz Island, one of eight islands that make up the Channel Islands, and one of five islands managed as part of Channel Islands National Park. These islands were home to the Chumash as far back as 13,000 years ago, with 148 identified village sites, eleven of which are found on Santa Cruz Island. Santa Cruz had the largest population of island dwelling Chumash who created an advanced civilization, utilizing shell beads for currency, and trade with mainland tribes. The Chumash remained on the island into the Mission Period, until they were removed by the Spanish and forced into the Mission system.

After the Chumash were removed around 1822, ranchers devastated the pristine island, introducing invasive plants, and feral animals. At one time Santa Cruz Island had the largest population of feral sheep in the world, with estimates of a population over 21,000. Once the National Park Service acquired land on the island in 1997, they began the long process of removing all feral sheep, relocating them to the mainland.

Today the entire island has some form of protection, whether it be the National Park Service, or the Nature Conservancy. Together they share the same ideas of long-term protection of the islands fragile resources.

 

On our Island Packers boat, Santa Cruz Island in the background.

On our Island Packers boat, Santa Cruz Island in the background.

 

To get to Santa Cruz Island, we chartered a ride with Island Packers, a local tour company that provides boat service to all five of the islands that have land managed by the NPS.

Our boat set sail at 8am for a sixteen mile, hour and a half ocean excursion to the pier of Prisoners Harbor (in 1830, thirty convicts were dropped off here to “do their time.”). It wasn’t long after we pulled out of Ventura Harbor that we began to see seals, and dolphins frolicking freely in the water. The temperatures quickly plummeted when the boat reached higher speeds in open water, thankfully we came prepared with hoodies and our Columbia jacket shells, allowing the both of us to continue enjoying the ride across the vast open water.

 

Seals rest on a buoy.

Seals rest on a buoy.

 

A pelican and a dolphin as we approach Santa Cruz Island.

A pelican and a dolphin as we approach Santa Cruz Island.

 

As we approached Santa Cruz Island, our captain announced that we’d be making a quick stop at Potato Harbor to release two seals that had been rescued and rehabilitated. Rescuers produced two dog carries with the seals inside. The beautiful sea-dogs appeared happy to be returning to their home at Potato Harbor, as they jumped into the ocean and disappeared into their natural habitat.

From Potato Harbor to Prisoners Harbor it was another fifteen minutes out. As we neared Prisoners Harbor, two humpback whales were spotted spouting off a short distance from the shore. The boat came to a halt, and we watching with anticipation for them to resurface, but in the five minutes that we sat there, they never did.

 

Potato Harbor on Santa Cruz Island.

Potato Harbor on Santa Cruz Island.

 

Potato Harbor on Santa Cruz Island.

Potato Harbor on Santa Cruz Island.

 

Potato Harbor on Santa Cruz Island.

Potato Harbor on Santa Cruz Island.

 

Potato Harbor on Santa Cruz Island.

Potato Harbor on Santa Cruz Island.

 

Potato Harbor on Santa Cruz Island.

Potato Harbor on Santa Cruz Island.

 

Once on shore we struggled to find trails that were accessible to the public, much of the land surrounding the harbor is owned by The Nature Conservancy, who appear unfriendly in regard to visitors. So we opted to hike a couple of miles along a graded dirt road which gained elevation quickly, and provided some stunning views overlooking the eastern portion of the island, and the ocean. Along the way we had the opportunity to view a staggering amount of the islands fascinating flora (see flora images at the bottom of this post) and fauna, many of which are endemic to the islands.

One such encounter was with an Island Fox that came trotting down the road with no fear, walking right past us before disappearing into some bushes. This little guy is endemic to six out of eight of the Channel Islands. They are the smallest of all foxes in North America, typically, the head-and-body length is 18–20 in., shoulder height 4–6 in., and the tail is 4–11 in. long. With less than 135 remaining, in 2004, the Santa Cruz Island Fox was added to the endangered species list. Due to their protection, the popular has rebound to 1,750 in 2015.

 

The island fox is endemic to six of the eight Channel Islands.

The island fox is endemic to six of the eight Channel Islands.

 

The island fence lizard, Sceloporus occidentalis becki, is endemic to the Channel Islands of California.

The island fence lizard, Sceloporus occidentalis becki, is endemic to the Channel Islands of California.

 

Side-blotched lizard

Side-blotched lizard

 

As we returned down the steep grade we noticed that one of the humpback whales that we had briefly seen while pulling into the pier had returned. With a couple of hours remaining of our brief stay, we opted to relax along a rocky alcove overlooking the ocean. Our humpback friends proceeded to put on a fascinating show for the duration, breaching on several occasions.

 

Humpback whale breaching along the shore of Prisoners Harbor.

Humpback whale breaching along the shore of Prisoners Harbor.

 

Humpback whale breaching along the shore of Prisoners Harbor.

Humpback whale breaching along the shore of Prisoners Harbor.

 

Humpback whale breaching along the shore of Prisoners Harbor.

Humpback whale breaching along the shore of Prisoners Harbor.

 

Humpback whale breaching along the shore of Prisoners Harbor.

Humpback whale breaching along the shore of Prisoners Harbor.

 

Sadly our adventure had to come to an end, but not before a pod of hundreds of common dolphins approached our boat just off of the shore of Santa Cruz. To say that our experience on the island was anything short of magical is an understatement.

My only warning to those looking to visit Santa Cruz Island is to stay for several days. The few hours available to you on a day trip are barely enough to get your feet wet.

 

A pod of hundreds of dolphins engulfed the waters around the boat.

A pod of hundreds of dolphins engulfed the waters around the boat.

 

A pod of hundreds of dolphins engulfed the waters around the boat.

A pod of hundreds of dolphins engulfed the waters around the boat.

 

A pod of hundreds of dolphins engulfed the waters around the boat.

A pod of hundreds of dolphins engulfed the waters around the boat.

 

 

Flora of Santa Cruz Island

 

Coreopsis gigantea with the common name giant coreopsis, is a woody perennial plant native to coastal regions of central and southern California and also to northern Baja California.

Coreopsis gigantea with the common name giant coreopsis, is a woody perennial plant native to coastal regions of central and southern California and also to northern Baja California.

 

Calystegia macrostegia, with the common names island false bindweed and island morning glory, is a species of morning glory in the Convolvulaceae family.

Calystegia macrostegia, with the common names island false bindweed and island morning glory, is a species of morning glory in the Convolvulaceae family.

 

Dichelostemma capitatum (syn. D. pulchellum), called blue dicks, purplehead and brodiaea (alternate spellings, brodiea, brodeia).

Dichelostemma capitatum (syn. D. pulchellum), called blue dicks, purplehead and brodiaea (alternate spellings, brodiea, brodeia).

 

Lupinus albifrons, silver lupine, white-leaf bush lupine, or evergreen lupine, is a species of lupine (lupin). It is native to California and Oregon, where it grows along the coast and in dry and open meadows, prairies and forest clearings. It is a member of several plant communities, including coastal sage scrub, chaparral, northern coastal scrub, foothill woodland, and yellow pine forest.

Lupinus albifrons, silver lupine, white-leaf bush lupine, or evergreen lupine, is a species of lupine (lupin). It is native to California and Oregon, where it grows along the coast and in dry and open meadows, prairies and forest clearings. It is a member of several plant communities, including coastal sage scrub, chaparral, northern coastal scrub, foothill woodland, and yellow pine forest.

 

Opuntia littoralis is a species of prickly pear cactus known by the common name coastal pricklypear. It is sometimes called the sprawling prickly pear due to its short stems and habit of growing close to the ground. "Littoral" means "pertaining to the seashore". Opuntia littoralis is native to southern California and Baja California, where it grows in coastal sage scrub and chaparral habitats.

Opuntia littoralis is a species of prickly pear cactus known by the common name coastal pricklypear. It is sometimes called the sprawling prickly pear due to its short stems and habit of growing close to the ground. “Littoral” means “pertaining to the seashore”. Opuntia littoralis is native to southern California and Baja California, where it grows in coastal sage scrub and chaparral habitats.

 

Mimulus aurantiacus, the sticky monkey-flower or orange bush monkey-flower, is a flowering plant that grows in a subshrub form, native to southwestern North America from southwestern Oregon south through most of California.

Mimulus aurantiacus, the sticky monkey-flower or orange bush monkey-flower, is a flowering plant that grows in a subshrub form, native to southwestern North America from southwestern Oregon south through most of California.

 

Arctostaphylos insularis is a species of manzanita known by the common name island manzanita. It is endemic to Santa Cruz Island.

Arctostaphylos insularis is a species of manzanita known by the common name island manzanita. It is endemic to Santa Cruz Island.

 

Marah (the manroots, wild cucumbers, or cucumber gourds) are flowering plants in the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae).

Marah (the manroots, wild cucumbers, or cucumber gourds) are flowering plants in the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae).

 

Mimulus cardinalis, the scarlet monkeyflower, is a flowering perennial in the family Phrymaceae.

Mimulus cardinalis, the scarlet monkeyflower, is a flowering perennial in the family Phrymaceae.

 

Dudleya candelabrum is a succulent plant endemic to California, where it grows wild only on the northern Channel Islands.

Dudleya candelabrum is a succulent plant endemic to California, where it grows wild only on the northern Channel Islands.

 

Quercus agrifolia, the California live oak, or coast live oak, is an evergreen oak (highly variable and often shrubby), native to the California Floristic Province. It grows west of the Sierra Nevada from Mendocino County, California, south to northern Baja California in Mexico.

Quercus agrifolia, the California live oak, or coast live oak, is an evergreen oak (highly variable and often shrubby), native to the California Floristic Province. It grows west of the Sierra Nevada from Mendocino County, California, south to northern Baja California in Mexico.

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.

5 Comments

  • I’ve always thought about going, but so far haven’t done it. Maybe that is about to change.
    Great post Jim. Gorgeous photos!

  • Several years ago, I appraised part of Santa Cruz Island for the Navy. After the inspection of the sites, which included the land under the main buildings, solar arrays, and other small parcels, we talked with the caretaker.

    He mentioned that the Natives buried their dead standing up on the cliffs next to the ocean. Mud and sticks were packed around the body and a bowl placed on the head. Bits of pottery and bones can be found where the cliffs have eroded.

    An old ranch house remains on the island; it is reportedly haunted by a ghost woman who hates men. A scholarly group of bird watchers were on the island doing some sort of study; they spent one night in the house and camped out for the other nights. No one wanted to sleep in the house!

  • Good to see. I spent a night out on Santa Cruz with my camping buddy last August. Hiked out from Prisoners to the Del Norte back country site. That road up you touched on had plenty of bees when I went. And a few inclines on that trail have a pretty steep grade. Del Norte was nice with good views of the island mountains out in the Conservancy and of the ocean. The next day we hiked back to Prisoners and when the boat came to drop off a group we managed to hitch-a-hike with one of the Island Packer guides into the Conservancy.. Was so much more lush than the NPS section of the island that is mostly grass and small shrubs (which were brown that time of year). Wish they had it opened up a little more, but I understand their motive. Was nice seeing the endemics; several foxes and a number of the Island Jays.

    Pictures show the difference in scenery..

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