CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK: A BACKCOUNTRY PARADISE
Oct 5, 2017 | By: Famagogo
The Channel Islands are composed of a chain of eight islands (five of which make up the national park) off the coast of California stretching from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles. After a little research, we set our sights on a three day backcountry adventure on Santa Cruz Island, just off the coast of Ventura.
A little over a year ago we were in the midst of planning a massive undertaking: to visit 40 of the 59 National Parks in celebration of the 100 year anniversary of the National Park Service. When planning out our route, the hardest part was deciding which parks to visit and which to skip. Some were simply not an option, like the ones in Hawaii, American Samoa and the Virgin Islands. And of course we had to return to some old favorites: Yosemite, Grand Tetons, Dry Tortugas and Zion. As for the rest, a lot of the fun was in researching and discovering the incredible diversity of wild places that make up our National Park System. Now, 40,000 miles and 40 parks later, we find ourselves at the end of an incredible journey, wondering what lies over the horizon for famagogo. For over a year, everything has been beautifully choreographed, one adventure flowing into the next as we checked park after park off of our list. But the funny thing about great adventures, once you get started it’s really hard to stop. And really, 40 parks was just an arbitrary number that we thought we could pull off in a year - there are still 19 of the best wild places on earth that we have yet to discover. So, in lieu of throwing in the towel and patting ourselves on the back for a job well done, we pack up the Winnebago and head west to National Park #41 - Channel Islands.
The Channel Islands are composed of a chain of eight islands (five of which make up the national park) off the coast of California stretching from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles. After a little research, we set our sights on a three day backcountry adventure on Santa Cruz Island, just off the coast of Ventura with ferry service via Island Packers. We wake before dawn, for an early morning departure on the ferry, and load our backpacks, kayaks (JK Traverse) and dive gear aboard the Island Adventure and then hustle up to the top deck for a birds eye view during our hour and a half voyage to the park. We pulled away from the docks of Ventura Harbor and within minutes, we spot three sea lions draped across a bobbing buoy. Our captain takes us in for a closer look, and as we approach, the largest of the trio lets out a booming, guttural bellow letting us know that we are encroaching on his territory. Just past the entrance of the harbor, a pod of dolphins appear in our bow wake and serve as escorts from harbor. The journey to the island passes in a blur as we spot whales and dolphins, one after the next punctuating the smooth surface of the expansive horizon. As we make our final approach, a mega-pod (1000+ individuals) of dolphins welcomes us to the island with an impressive display of aerial acrobatics that envelop our vessel on all sides and keep us racing from port to starboard and back taking in the incredible grand finale of our voyage. As the captain shuts down the engines, the dolphin take their cue and return to the deeper waters surrounding the island and we set out to explore Santa Cruz.
From the instant we arrive, we are taken with the rugged scenery of the island. Flanking the harbor, crumbling cliffs stretch up to the heavens. Nestled in between the precipices, a deep valley lies with a well maintained group of cabins surrounded by lush gardens that hail from days long ago when the island was occupied by a working sheep ranch. As we press on, the path meanders through a eucalyptus grove where we spot a few scattered picnic tables and fire rings that indicate we have arrived at our campsite. Surprisingly, there are no other campers in sight giving the impression that we have the entire island to ourselves. We make quick work of setting up our tents and then don our snorkel gear and head back down to the water to explore the kelp forests that flank the harbor.
Even clad in thick neoprene, the frigid water takes my breath away as I make the transition from land to sea. Pushing away from the shore, I am no longer concerned with the temperature, as I am consumed with wonder as I enter the surreal kingdom of the kelp forest. I swim with my arms outstretched out in front of me, to protect my exposed face from the serrated tendrils of kelp that constantly tug at my mask and scratch my cheeks. As I push away the dense foliage, I discover open caverns scattered throughout the forest that are teeming with exotic creatures: colorful fish, a leopard shark, an octopus, and countless abalone. I dive deep and peer into a crevice below a boulder and spot two lobsters that are each almost as long as my arm. After more than an hour of exploration, the cold water again has my attention and I return to the beach to thaw.
Back at camp we throw together a quick lunch, and then head out in our Treavers 10’s and small Zen for an afternoon paddle along the craggy cliffs. The sea is calm and the wind light, so we make our way into the open water that surrounds the island to see what we can see. The cliffs are punctuated periodically by sea caves.
We paddle into one of the larger caves and discover a labyrinth of tunnels that appear as the waves recede. We spend the afternoon refining our timing to surf the waves through the maze of tunnels. It feels much like riding a waterslide leading from one rumbly cavern to the next. As we make our way around the south side of the island, we discover a perfect surf wave that occupies our attention until the late afternoon tidal shift.
Tired and hungry we return to camp just as the sun dips below the horizon. The first order of business is dinner. As we prepare our dehydrated meals, we discover the eyes! Abby spots them first reflecting in her headlamp, and once we notice they are there, it doesn’t take long to realize that we are completely surrounded by almost a dozen creatures hiding in the darkness around us. We watch in horror as the first pair of peepers begins to descend the hill just beyond the perimeter of light cast by our lantern, followed in short order by the rest of the concealed demons. We hold our breath as the most-certainly menacing, and likely human consuming beasts cross the threshold of light of light around us, and discover a…miniature fox that is endemic to the island and about the size of a house cat.
Abby squeals with delight and declares the island fox the “cutest thing EVER”. That is until the rest of the pack arrives and it becomes an all-out war to see who will actually get to eat the dinner we are preparing. The instant one of us steps a few feet away from our post, a mini-fox is there ready to abscond with any morsel it can get its adorable hands on. Famagogo eventually prevails in the Battle of Dinner with full bellies. Weary from a great day on the water, we retreat to our tents and quickly drift off to sleep.
The next morning we spend kayaking and snorkeling, and after lunch decide that it’s time for a hike. We follow a nearby trail that leads us up, up, up to the top of the sea cliffs. Even from our high vantage point, we can still see the giant garibaldi goldfish that we had snorkeled with in the kelp forest earlier. The miles pass quickly and we are escorted by an island fox almost the entire way.
Eventually we come to a harbor and as we take in the view from up above, a cacophony of guttural barking catches our attention as the sea lions in the caves below us banter back and forth across the bay with their resounding bellows. We listen for a while as they serenade us and then head back to camp spurred on by a quickly setting sun.
Even the 7mm neoprene could only ward off the cold for a couple of hours. Right on schedule the boat arrives and we head back to Ventura Harbor for a celebratory Italian feast at Milano’s. As we nosh on seafood pasta, Abby declares Channel Islands her absolute FAVORITE national park (as frequently happens after exploring a new park) and we happily banter back and forth about where our next adventure will take us. With heavy eyelids we stumble back to Winnie the View, and revel in the comfort of crawling back into our own comfy beds. Home sweet home always feels so good!