Many years ago, Vicki and I spent three days cruising around the Channel Islands on a friend’s sailboat, and had a great time. We anchored overnight, but never actually managed to land and hike on any of the islands.
We decided to change that this year. After searching online about other people’s trips to the islands, we decided to visit Santa Cruz Island, as it had established campsites, hiking trails, and less bureaucratic hassles than the other islands.
Since we didn’t have our own boat, we had to get a ride on someone elses. The park currently allows Island Packers Cruises to service the islands. Campers pay $79 each for the round-trip boat ride. Camping permits are $15 per campsite per night and are issued for the park via phone or the recreation.gov reservation website. The campsites fill up fast in the summer, and we reserved ours over a month in advance.
Now there was a bit of a Catch-22 to get this working. Island Packers wouldn’t give us a ride out there unless we had a camping permit, and the park wouldn’t give us a camping permit unless we had a ride out there. So what did we do? Well, I’m not at liberty to divulge which entity may or may not have received inaccurate information from us in order to escape this particular Catch-22.
It would also be advised that you thoroughly read all of the information they send you in regard to the boat trip and camping. We discovered that the Scorpion Campground had water, but the Del Norte Campground had none. The Del Norte campsite was the one near Prisoners Harbor, and was the site we chose. Note that it is a three mile hike to get there from the pier, climbing about 600 feet, then dropping 300 feet, followed by another 400 foot climb to end up at 700 feet elevation. So 1000 feet total climbing, which is a nice day’s work. We were staying two nights, and it was summertime, so we would need about one gallon of water each per day, meaning six gallons total! Forty eight pounds of water! And it had to be carried up there personally; no wheeled coolers or wagons were allowed, as you would discover if you actually read all the fine print.
We decided to make three hiking trips that first day, one for gear, one return trip with an empty pack, and another for the water. We had a five gallon jug that would fit perfectly in my big old backpack, so it wouldn’t be too bad. Luckily for us, it was almost-but-not-quite too late when I read the fine print regarding the boat’s rules, and discovered that the largest water containers they would take were three gallons, as they had to lift these up by hand onto the pier (five gallon jugs were too heavy, I assume). Backpacks also had a 45 pound weight limit for the same reason (though five gallons of water only weighs 40 pounds). So the night before we left I went to the store and bought two 2.5 gallon water jugs, and I redistributed one or two dense, heavy items from my big pack into a day pack to make sure I’d comply. And it’s a good thing that I did, because they had a scale at the dock and checked the weight of everything that went on board!
We left San Diego early for the long drive to Ventura Harbor, and arrived in plenty of time to get our gear loaded. The backpacks were stored down below in the ship’s hold, the water jugs were stuffed under a bench seat near the stern, and our bottle of stove fuel was placed (per the rules) in a large metal box that was stored up on deck near the bow (unlike the diesel fuel that the ship uses, gasoline and propane fumes can ignite and are unsafe when stored below decks).
We boarded the Island Packers Cruises vessel “Islander” after loading gear at the dock. On the way, we saw several offshore oil platforms, as well as Anacapa Island in the distance. We stopped at Scorpion Anchorage first, and a number of people left the boat. As we made our way around the island, we came across a pod of dolphins. We motored along with them for a short while. They were having a great time and so were we.
Dolphin Pod Video
We off-loaded our gear at Prisoners Harbor Pier on Santa Cruz Island and prepared to hike. Vicki tried attaching the 2.5 gallon water jug under her pack. It was funny watching it swinging against her legs. She made it to shore (and a picnic table) where she reconfigured the load.
The majority of passengers came with a guide service and were kayaking in Prisoners Harbor, whereas a few arrived for a day-hike with a guide. There were several backpackers besides ourselves, and they all took off much faster than we did. They had less water as they were only staying one night. As we climbed up the steep road we soon realized that strapping twenty pound water jugs to our packs was not a viable long-term strategy. Seventy pound packs get old really fast when trudging uphill! Soon enough, we stashed the jugs in the bushes and hiked on. It was too hot to carry our backpacks plus the water uphill. Once we broke through the low clouds, the sun was fierce and the shade non-existent.
0126 Trying to hike with big water jug on the Prisoners Harbor Pier on Santa Cruz Island
We reached the intersection with the Del Norte Trail, and hung a left. Looking west we could see Red Peak (elev 1822 feet) in the distance. North were clouds over the Santa Barbara Channel.
It turned out that there was a trickle of water down in the bottom of that canyon. They lied about no water! This made me mad, knowing that I still had to go all the way back for the two jugs. I know it wasn’t much, water-wise, but I’ve filtered nastier water along the desert portions of the PCT. Oh well. Time to hike onward.
We made it down to the next canyon bottom where there was a tree and some shade. Vicki decided to take a serious nap, as she was tired and gets overheated easily. I emptied my big backpack and set off to get the water by myself. By the time I got back to the water jugs, I discovered that the kayaks had been loaded on the ship and the rest of the crowd were boarding in preparation for the trip to the mainland. You could hear the deep thrumming of the big diesels as the boat departed eastward for Scorpion Anchorage and Ventura Harbor.
When I got back, Vicki was up and had already started ferrying gear up the next incline. I stashed the jugs one more time and we proceeded to the Del Norte Campground. There were five tent sites, with picnic tables and bear-boxes (since there are no bears on the islands, these should more accurately be called fox-boxes). We set up our tent and had some food and a brief rest. Then we hiked back for the water. It wasn’t very far this time, and it was much cooler out by then.
Two California Channel Island Foxes (Urocyon littoralis santacruzae) made their home at the Del Norte Campground. They prowled around the campground as we watched the sunset. These critters were looking extremely well fed. They came out to search the campground at both dawn and dusk. Nearby, we found a trail of debris that led into the brush where they often dragged their stolen loot. These island foxes have no natural predators, so over time they evolved to be smaller than the mainland variety. These campsite rogues also had little to no fear of humans, though they were wary enough, not coming much closer to us than about fifteen feet. We took way too many photos of them.
The next morning we woke up inside the clouds. Cool and moist, with little visibility. But we knew it wouldn’t last. Still, we decided to start hiking uphill while it was easy. Our plan was to visit the Pacific Ocean on the south side of the island. From what I could tell on the maps, there was a road down toward Valley Anchorage that was still on the Park’s side of the property boundary with the Nature Conservancy.
Another option for this trip was to spend the second day hiking the twelve miles east to Scorpion Anchorage, where we could have taken the same boat back to Ventura. We decided against it after looking at the weather reports: It was predicted to be over 90 degrees that day during the humid summer monsoon. Not a great prospect for hiking on a near-shadeless island.
So, we decided to simply day-hike and relax. Take life easy. “We be on Island Time, mon.”
Our first stop was the Park Ranger’s ranch house southeast of the Del Norte Campsite. Nice place. They even had a tractor that kept the invasive fennel plants cut back (they also used it to mow the campground). It was quite scenic. There was an old concrete water trough full of clear water with floating clumps of green algae at the ranch house. There was also a nice new garden hose on a spigot with clean water! We had been lied to once again! There was plenty of water within a half mile of the campground. I hate to say this, but a reasonable person can’t help but come to the conclusion that the park doesn’t want the public visiting the island at all. Could this really be true? For shame!
We continued onward, climbing uphill toward the Navy Road. Soon enough we broke out into the sun. It started getting hot. Luckily most of the climbing had already been done. Off in the distance we could see Devils Peak (2450 feet, also called Mount Diablo) and Red Peak (1822 feet). They are both in the western part of the island which is owned by the Nature Conservancy. We reached the turn-off road to the south and Valley Anchorage. The Pacific Ocean was visible down below when the clouds drifted clear. It was very pretty.
This is where we discovered that I had erred in thinking that we could descend to the Pacific Ocean via the road. There was a locked gate complete with “No Trespassing” signs. It was sad that the Nature Conservancy doesn’t allow public access to the island in this area, but technically it’s their property and not the public’s, so we couldn’t complain much. All I can really do about it is whine ineffectually here on an internet blog. Anyway, we respected their wishes, and simply enjoyed the views from the high point. It was beautiful up there, with lots of high clouds making for some really nice photos. We sat in the shade of an old rusted water tank and relaxed for a while. It was so hot out that NOT descending (and ascending) a thousand feet to the ocean was probably the best decision we were forced to make that day.
After that, we turned around and hiked back down to camp. It was too hot to do any serious exploring. Lunch and a nap sounded like a much better idea.
We had some snack, drank some water, and read our books, all while enjoying the peacefulness of the island. Then we headed back for camp.
I took a gnat-free nap inside the tent after devising some extra shade. It was relaxing. Just what the doctor ordered. Later that afternoon we took a short hike down the trail where there was a beautiful view of High Mount (elevation 1581 feet) off to the east. We would have had to climb that peak had we elected to hike all the way to Scorpion Anchorage.
That evening we had yet another dinnertime visit by our local California Channel Island Fox representatives. They were in fine form, but received nothing from us. We knew better than to feed wild animals. We enjoyed an awesome sunset from the Campground and were able to see the California mainland west of Santa Barbara far off in the distance. We took way too many pictures of this, as it kept changing and getting better every few minutes.
We packed up and hiked out the next morning with much-easier-to-carry empty jugs. Also, the trail was mostly downhill. We made excellent time.
We hiked out so early that we arrived back at the harbor before the next boatload of kayakers arrived. It was hot, so Vicki waded into the calm water up to her waist. While she was out there a school of tiny fish swarmed around her and tickled her legs, causing her to giggle. Also some inquisitive seals were steadily approaching. That’s when she decided to get out of the water. Tiny fish are one thing, but big old seals are another.
Little fish school video
Video of wading with curious seals
After that we decided to simply hang out on the Prisoners Harbor pier in the quiet of the morning. We sat around on the creaking dock and waited for the boat to show up.
Video of the creaking dock.
When the boat arrived we realized that we had to hang out all day until it left at three in the afternoon. To pass the time, and to gain some local knowledge, we signed up for the Nature Conservancy Hiking Tour. We hiked along with our guide (a guide is required) northwestward along the shore toward Pelican Bay. And, indeed, we learned many interesting things about the endemic flora and fauna on these islands. It was a nice way to spend the afternoon.
On the boat ride back, we once again came upon a large pod of dolphins, many of which were having fun surfing in the boat’s wake. Seeing them was a great way to end an excellent weekend.
These and other photos from the trip can be found on my Flickr page.
Interactive Caltopo Map of our trip