Santa Cruz Island

October 12, 2007 at 5:38 pm (Diving, Environment, Travel, Writing)

(I originally wrote this in mid-July, and just never got around to revising and posting it. So, here it is, months late!)

According to the official National Parks’ reservation website, Santa Cruz Island has campsites set aside for walk-ins.

Now, that may not seem odd to you at first. After all, doesn’t every national park have some campsites set aside for reservations, and others available on a first-come, first-serve basis? Sure. But other national parks aren’t, well, islands. Getting to Santa Cruz requires a one-hour boat ride from Ventura Harbor that sets you back $60. This isn’t really the kind of thing that you just do on a lark, hoping they’ll have space for you. Getting out to the island isn’t a jaunt, it’s an investment.

Luckily, it’s well worth the investment. Although every mention I see talks about how incredible the sea-kayaking is (Santa Cruz’s cliffs are dotted with dozens, if not hundreds, of sea caves to explore), there is actually a lot more to do on the island than that. The hiking is excellent and varied, ranging from moderately strenuous to bloody difficult, so you can pick your poison. The island is dotted with the rusting relics of its ranching past, always a fun discovery for those with an archaeological bent, like me. And the views are amazing, looking out over the gentle, rolling hills of the island’s surface onto the azure Pacific and the neighboring islands, or down rocky cliffs to crystalline bays. And I’m told that the dry creeks of summer become waterfalls and swimming holes during the spring, something I’ll have to try next year. And that’s just on the land!

Where Santa Cruz really shines is in the water. It can perhaps be argued that other states (read: Florida) have more incredible snorkeling, etc. along their coastlines. But most Angelinos are probably never going to get themselves into Florida’s reefs, and the Channel Islands’ kelp forests are absolutely world-class. Scorpion Bay, the beach nearby which the campgrounds are located, has kelp groves at both the north and the south ends, perfect for the amateur snorkeler (but bring booties, since the beach is rocky in places, and a wetsuit if you’re planning on being in for more than 10 minutes). You can see stingrays (especially in the south), crabs, and all sorts of beautifully colored fish and other sea life. Plus, that beach is a regular hangout for a number of sea lions and various seabirds, all of whom you can watch from the relative safety of the pier. We headed out there early Sunday morning, while the schools of “bait fish” were swimming through, and were treated to a show by over ten sea lions, plus diving pelicans, cormorants and gulls. It’s amazing to watch the diversity of life that the kelp forests support. If you’re into body-surfing, a beautiful 3.5 mile hike will take you over the hill, past a 130-year old olive grove, to Smuggler’s Cove, which has boasted beautiful 3-foot tall waves every time I’ve gone there (again, bring booties of some sort to get over the pebbles on the shore and out to where it’s sandy). It’s also outside of the marine protected zone, so you can fish there, if you want. Of course, I’ve since been told it’s Great White Shark water, so you may be the bait!

Camping there is a relatively laid-back affair, too. Unless you’re backpacking over the ridge of the island, you’re getting off the boat at Scorpion Bay and walking 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile to your campsite over a level road. That means that you can bring in the kind of gear that you might bring car camping (seriously, we brought a giant cooler full of food for three days), especially if you have a folding dolly with big wheels. The limited number of campsites, however, means that you won’t be overrun with fellow campers. It’s a lot like having your own island paradise, especially if you can spare a few weekdays, when you’ll be one of the only people on the island at night. Just watch out for the endangered Island Fox: Last year, we saw one, from a distance, at night, and considered ourselves lucky, but this year, thanks to a combination of the captive breeding program and the ready availability of snacks in the campground, there were four or five prowling around our camp every morning and evening. They’re really cute little fellers, until one of them pees on your table and equipment overnight to mark its territory. So be a dear and use the provided food storage boxes. Really, you’d never know they were endangered, except maybe from bad cholesterol.

Oh, and those walk-in campsites? According to the ranger, it’s a bug in the website that appeared just before the pre-4th of July weekend. So no spontaneous island hopping for you. But don’t worry, that works in your favor if you can plan ahead. Figure out which weekend you want to go, or better yet, schedule some weekdays, too. Like I said, you’ll have the whole island to yourself. And it’s a pretty big island to have to yourself.

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