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Santa Cruz Island…my day trip

January 19, 2012

Kitesurfers talking at sunset
Sunset over Santa Cruz Island. It calls to me!

I bolted awake at 6 a.m. Sunday morning with one burning need: to go to Santa Cruz Island. Weird, right? Every day when I walk the dog by the beach, I see the Channel Islands, just 20 miles off the coast, and wish I was there.

I usually have some reason I can’t go – some appointment that keeps me on land for at least part of the day, and it is a whole-day trip. But on the Sunday of a three-day weekend, I thought I might be able to skip church, delay mom’s grocery shopping, and escape. You go out in the morning, spend about four hours on the island, then return around sunset.

The islands are utterly undeveloped and deserted. No visitors’ center, no gift shop, no Starbucks. Crazy, I know. If you go, you have to take everything you need, including water, and pack all your trash home.

The pull for me is to really, really escape civilization for a little while, to see some wildlife you can never see from shore, and to go to a quiet, magical, natural world that is both so close and so far.

I packed my day pack with some warm clothes, lemonhead candies (to head off sea-sickness, a trick my mom taught me) water and granola bars. I dropped Goldie off at Mom’s and headed to the boat, praying they would have an open spot for me.

$56 later, I was in possession of a ticket on the Island Adventure, one of the Island Packers’ gleaming white steel-hulled double-decker catamarans that make almost daily trips to Channel Islands National Park.

We rode out of the harbor on calm seas, about 40 of us, most sitting inside the cabin, but a few of us heartier souls out in the morning breeze – me, a group of German college students from UC Davis, an aging hippie dude noodling dissonantly on a wooden flute.

As it leaves the harbor, the captain suddenly speeds the boat up to 20 mph, so the wind blowing over the bow gets stiff and cold. They warn you to literally hold on to your hat. (They also inform you “The emergency exits are located wherever there is green or blue liquid.”) I put on a beanie, thick jacket, gloves and scarf.

The winter ocean was almost black and almost waveless as we flew along, the water singing against the metal hull, pelicans and cormorants scattering before us. We made a quick detour to laugh at big, fat sea lions lounging on a buoy, drying their fur in the morning sun.

In an hour, we were at our first island stop, Scorpion Landing, Santa Cruz Island, 19 miles off shore. Almost all of the travelers disembarked, leaving just 10 of us and the crew of four to continue on.

As soon as we pulled out, the able Captain Jimmy announced that he had spotted grey whales – a group of six or seven traveling close together. This is the season when grey whales travel south to feed in the warm lagoons of Baja California.

We watched as the water rippled and roiled and they blew spouts into the air about 1/4 mile from us. I didn’t take any photos, because I knew I wouldn’t get anything good – unless you have a telephoto, you can expect this – shots of lumpy, blue water. It does not do them justice.
Humpback whales

They are magical, no doubt about it. I get awe-struck and almost prayerful, watching their power and elegance.

We got off the boat a few miles down the coast at the long white dock at Prisoner’s Harbor, which in days past had served as part of a cattle and sheep ranching operation.

The hiking group took off one way and I took off, alone, in the other direction. For me, the islands are about being outside in a quiet, quiet place, alone. That peace is something I crave and don’t often find – to be in a truly quiet, natural setting.

I began to climb on the trail. And climb. And climb. Finally I came to a lovely picnic spot and stopped for some water and a banana.


Suddenly I heard voices. Dang, a couple had come up the road with their camping gear and were stopped by the side of the road, eyeing my picnic table, the only one around.

I packed up and began hiking up, and up again. I kept thinking the trail would level out just around the next curve, but 95 percent of it was climbing. I hadn’t hiked uphill for a long time and I kept stopping to catch my breath or to remove another layer of clothing.

The couple was hot on my tail, usually a couple hundred yards behind me. I was determined to pull away from them, so I kept climbing.

After about 45 minutes of climbing, I found a path to the campground. I went partway down the path and then stopped to lay down in the soft green island grass.


Soon, the young couple came along, schlepping all of their camping gear. They told me they were spending the night. They had a brand-new tent still in the wrapping, and they looked remarkably fresh and happy for people who had just carried all their gear and a few gallons of water (there’s no water on the island) up a mountain.

Meanwhile, I was whupped. I watched the couple disappear down the path, then headed back down the mountain. On the way back, I was captivated by the sight of an endangered island fox eating holly berries by the side of the road. I got a couple blurry pictures. He’s that dark-colored spot on the left side of the road.

I saw the famous island scrub jays, a species found only on the islands, and cause for birdwatchers from all over the world to visit:


I ambled around the island a little more, avoiding the hills:


The purple-flowered lupine bushes reminded me of my old botany teacher, Dr. Shirley Pimentel, who did her doctoral work on those lovely legumes:


At 2:30, it was time to get back on the boat and head for home.


I stood on the deck the whole time again, freezing cold and smiling madly, watching the common dolphins race the boat, peeling off to flip and spin in the air. I could have sat in the cabin, but I didn’t want to miss a thing.


  1. January 19, 2012 14:30

    I’m jealous.

  2. January 19, 2012 16:48


    • January 21, 2012 07:34

      You’re quite a hiker, aren’t you, Meno? You probably wouldn’t have been fazed by the climb up to the top, but it had been a long time for my fat little self. But I liked it!

  3. Elvie permalink
    January 19, 2012 17:26

    sounds peaceful and wonderful. I need to go someday.

    • January 21, 2012 07:35

      I wish you would come out with me! PK wants to go, too.

  4. January 20, 2012 08:06

    Lovely, I never went when I lived there, maybe I will visit the next time I get to CA.

  5. January 26, 2012 08:46

    Oh my gosh! Gorgeous! I love all of the pics, especially the one of the road with the trees that create almost a little archway.

    • January 26, 2012 09:29

      If you ever get a chance, definitely visit. The wildlife alone is worth a trip.

  6. mar permalink
    February 1, 2012 06:04

    No Goldies allowed?

  7. February 1, 2012 20:06

    What a gorgeous part of our fair state you live in! Beautiful.

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