By Chuck Graham
Visitors to Santa Cruz Island who are excited to go kayaking often wonder if it’s possible to paddle around the largest island off the California coast. They don’t realize how massive the island is, with 77 miles of rugged, treacherous coastline.
They don’t realize that the island experiences its own little microclimate and that gale force winds, pea soup fog and unruly surf can rear up without warning, a fact that usually deters any notion of circumnavigating the most biodiverse isle in the Northern Channel Islands archipelago.
Besides, there’s plenty to explore on the southeast end of the island, a lifetime’s worth, particularly at Scorpion Anchorage, the most accessible location on the mountainous islet and the staging area for sea cave kayaking, snorkeling, camping and hiking within the Channel Islands National Park. Just a ferry ride away, the chain is remote, a step back into “Old California,” yet only 60 miles west of the megalopolis of Los Angeles.
For many visiting Santa Cruz Island, the experience is memorable, even intoxicating. The islands virtually guarantee the chance to revel in their natural splendor for all who venture to their rocky shores.
Kayaking is arguably the best way to explore the islands because kayakers can get to coves that can’t be reached on foot. One of the best, most diversified trips is the 6-mile round-trip paddle to breathtaking Potato Harbor.
Along the way, day-trippers and campers will marvel at towering 300-foot-tall cliffs honeycombed with volcanic sea caves, perfect for spelunking and exploring the innards of Santa Cruz. Visitors paddle through grottos named Elephants Belly, Sharks Tooth, Harbor Seal Cave and In and Out. Harbor seals and California sea lions enjoy the dank, craggy caverns, too, so give wildlife a wide berth while kayaking. The cliffs and sea caves are also excellent for roosting and nesting seabirds such as cormorants, gulls and black oystercatchers, but also for the fastest flying bird in the world, the peregrine falcon.
Once paddlers head west and around Cavern Point, they venture into deeper water where the possibilities of spotting marine mammals like Risso’s and common dolphins increase. Depending on the season, kayakers could possibly see, in the distance, tail flukes of gray, humpback and/or minke whales from the seat of their kayaks.
After paddling past Split Rock and The Three Sisters, the gaping sea cave respectfully known as Surging T awaits. With swell possibly entering from three separate entry points, Surging T can be the highlight of a trip that brims with them. Entering from any opening can be a wild ride of uneven swell resonating off the cave’s walls until kayakers are deposited into calmer waters.
From there, the temptation to shoot through the mussel-choked keyhole beckons from the northeast before spilling into tranquil Potato Harbor. This is a perfect lunch and snorkeling spot before making the easy downwind paddle back to Scorpion Anchorage.
Treading Lightly, Island Flora & the Avian Pulse
A late-afternoon walk is the ideal remedy for loosening stiff legs after kayaking most of the day. Light out along the scenic North Bluff Trail, first swooning over Cavern Point where aerodynamic ravens would put a fighter jet to shame and squadrons of California brown pelicans plunge the frothy, teeming waters below. Cavern Point is also an ideal perch for watching a feeding frenzy of seabirds and marine mammals, induced by dense bait balls of fish.
For nearly two miles, hikers wander farther west searching for some of the 60 endemic plants and animals found only on Santa Cruz. Don’t be in a hurry while searching for island paintbrush, giant coreopsis and seaside daisy. It’s no wonder the entire chain is also known as “the Galapagos Islands of the North.”
Continue on, circling well above Potato Harbor and walking through a virtual botanical island garden that will take hikers past Mordor-like Coche Point and stunning views of shimmering Chinese Harbor. Brilliant multi-colored lichen cloaks the weather-beaten rocks along the trail where Santa Cruz Island Live-Forevers (rare succulent plants also known as Dudleya nesiotica) sprout from rock next to durable Island deerweed.
While hiking along the ridgeline and peering into side canyons that serpentine down into Scorpion Canyon, tiptoe around tiny Santa Cruz Island silver lotus attempting to get a foothold in the crumbly soil. Then listen for one of the rarest birds in the world, its rattling calls resonating throughout the craggy canyon. The island scrub jay received species status in 1994, and sightings are sought after by birders around the globe. Its deep blue feathers are undeniable even in the spindly canopies of island oak trees for which it favors.
The descent into Scorpion Canyon is swift, but keep your binoculars handy, because birders might spot something even rarer than the island scrub jay. Scan the lemonade berry bushes for the Northern Channel Islands loggerhead shrike. There might only be 40 of them on Santa Cruz, but Scorpion Canyon is a favorite haunt of this passerine bird.
There’s a Fox in the Box & It Took my Socks
While light breezes waft through the eucalyptus grove in Scorpion Canyon, and visitors relax in the shade, keep an eye out for the rambunctious island fox. The current number of island foxes on Santa Cruz is somewhat staggering. Biologists estimate there are 2,500 of the cinnamon-colored rascals bounding across the island, the carrying capacity of which is still an unknown, but that wasn’t the case 12 years ago.
There was a time when only around 60 island foxes struggled to survive on Santa Cruz, nearly wiped out by non-native golden eagles. Lured to the island by the feral pig population, golden eagles soon discovered that island foxes were an easier catch. However, since the late 1990s, The National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy and the Institute for Wildlife Studies have embarked on a four-pronged effort to bring the island fox back from the brink.
After a 50-year absence due to DDT pesticides, bald eagles were returned to the chain, and golden eagles were captured and returned to the California mainland. The feral pigs were eradicated from Santa Cruz, and because island fox populations are genetically different on each island, captive breeding took place on Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel islands. However, the island fox will soon be removed from the Endangered Species list; when it is, it will be the swiftest recovery of a land mammal in the history of the Endangered Species Act.
So at night when campers are lying in their sleeping bags, they shouldn’t be alarmed when a curious island fox comes to investigate their tents or runs off with their shoes and socks. It’s an island initiation performed by the tiniest predator, the largest land mammal on the biggest island, a grateful reminder that a natural balance has returned to Santa Cruz Island.
If You Go
Island Packers has transported visitors to the islands since 1968. 805/642-1393, islandpackers.com.
Channel Islands Outfitters is the only outfitter that provides food for its clients and also offers snorkeling tours, backpacking trips and camping gear rental. 805/899-4925, channelislandso.com.
For camping reservations, recreation.gov.
For catered food delivered at Island Packers, contact Channel Islands Provisions at 805/758-3375, cip.bz.
This story was originally published in the Summer 2016 of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.