Channel Islands National Park (map / wiki) is the fourth national park I’ve had to access by ferry (the others being Dry Tortugas NP, Isle Royal NP, and Kenai Fjords NP). Anacapa Island, the nearest of the five islands within park boundaries, resides approximately 20 miles off the coast of Ventura California, which is where the visitor center and park headquarters are located.
I opted to take a day trip to Santa Cruz Island because it provided the greatest diversity of hiking trails. My mom took the train up to Ventura the night before, and after the hour long ferry ride we arrived at Scorpion Ranch ready to explore.
Archeological evidence revealed that Santa Cruz Island had been inhabited by Chumash Native Americans for at least 9,000 years.
The Chumash were a thriving maritime society perhaps best known for the shell bead currency. In fact, the Chumash name is derived from the word “Michumash” which translates to “makers of shell bead money.” The Chumash had control over the how many shell bead “coins” were in circulation because the sharp chert rock used to fashion the drill blades required for bead manufacture could only be found on Santa Cruz Island. This form of currency was so widespread that Chumash shell beads have been found as far away as northern Nevada and southern Utah.
Between the 1850’s and 1984 Santa Cruz Island served as a sheep ranch.
The islands healthy grassland and isolation from predators allowed the ranchers on Santa Cruz to earn a reputation for producing some of the finest sheep in the US, but the ranch’s success came at a price. Grazing sheep reduced the amount of vegetation on the hillsides which in-turn accelerated the erosion of its valleys. While we were hiking it was easy to see where minor hill slides have occurred, presumably aided by reduced vegetation.
My mom and I decided to take the guided hike to hear more about the islands history and to get a lay of the land.
The terrain of Santa Cruz is typical for costal central California.
Brown grass covers rounded hills and crumbling cliffs. Clumps of bushes dot the hillside and congregate in ravines. There are large cypress trees with fibrous brown trunks and angular evergreen branches pointing out in all directions. There are large eucalyptus trees bearded with twisting shaggy bark, each knotty branch swaying independently.
Like many visitors to Channel Islands National Park there was one thing in particular that I was looking forward to most – seeing an island fox.
Island fox are decedents of the mainland grey fox and they are endemic to the Channel Islands. Between 10 to 20 thousand years ago, during the earth’s most recent ice age, lower sea levels brought the Channel Islands to within five miles of the mainland. It is believed that during this time a number of foxes happened to float out to the islands in what’s known as a “rafting event.” The islands they landed on possessed limited resources. By requiring less food and water, the smaller foxes of each generation continued to survive and reproduce. Thus, a present-day fully grown island fox is about the size of a domestic cat.
It’s always exciting to catch a glimpse of unique wildlife, but I restrained my hopes of seeing the famous island fox because I expected them to be sparse and shy.
This was not the case.
Island fox are not nocturnal like their mainland cousins, and because they are the apex terrestrial predator in their environment they are not too afraid of humans, even with all our picture clicking commotion.
My mom and I saw at two foxes while walking around the island. We saw the second (pictured below) after splitting off from the guided group, and he or she let us get to within 15 feet before even taking notice.
We arrived on the island around 10:00AM and we were asked to meet back at the dock at 3:30pm for departure. Subtracting the 15 minute orientation speech given by our guide and the hour long hike she led, we were left with about four hours to explore. We decided to follow the North Bluff Trail along the costal cliffs before looping inland down Potato Harbor Road back to Scorpion Ranch.
With that, US National Park number 50 was in the books. We drove south into the evening and arrived back in Santa Ana that night.