Channel Islands National Park

I visited: Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park, off the coast of California. This island, along with the other Channel Islands, was home to the Chumash people for hundreds or possibly thousands of years. They enjoyed an apparently thriving civilization until the arrival of European colonizers in the 1500s. This NPS history is a good starting place. This was my 15th National Park.

Smugglers Road to Smugglers Cove

Listen, I know my reflections about National Parks typical focus on my personal and spiritual circumstances and how they manifest inside any given park. (Uh, exhibit A.) This entry is going to be the closest I can get to a straight-up travelogue, an adventure diary, because our day-long visit to Santa Cruz Island was a walking dream, an almost fantastical episode like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It was breathtaking from start to finish.

Julie, Steve, and I woke up early enough to grab coffee on the way to catch the ferry that would take us from Ventura, California to Scorpion Cove. The ride over took an hour, and to my disappointment the ferry captain’s initial promises of “This time of year, you’re nearly guaranteed to see whales or dolphins” slowly gave way to, “Well, that’s how it goes sometimes, but I bet we’ll see some on the ride home.” In any case the distance was far enough that the mainland was slowly, fully obscured from our rear-view before Santa Cruz Island materialized ahead of us, holding us briefly hanging in an expansive liminal space.

Then we landed on the island, and after a brief orientation we were released with only the packs on our backs for a day of exploration and fun. Santa Cruz Island has a few buildings, pit toilets, and water spigots, but otherwise it is mostly primitive, especially when it comes to cell service. In spite of myself (and the well-worn trails we hiked), in spite of the colonizing history hanging in the air, I couldn’t help feeling like we were exploring some kind of mysterious, newly-discovered paradise. As urgently as we felt the deadline to make it back to the pier in time to catch our afternoon ferry ride home, I simply can’t remember the last time I felt so unencumbered by productivity or obligation, with the only purpose for the day so clearly and tangibly defined as play.

Two objectives did tempt us, in the form of two species endemic to Santa Cruz: the island scrub-jay and a particular subspecies of island fox. It wasn’t far into our hike to Smugglers Cove that one of us—I don’t remember which—started quietly squealing to alert the others to one of the foxes, about the size of my terrier Hank and seemingly unbothered by our presence. We saw a handful of foxes over the course of the day, and each time we absolutely erupted in silly affection. The scrub-jay was more modest, but after our long hike we saw a few right up close, sleek and cobalt blue. Mission accomplished. (I failed to capture satisfying pictures of either, but the sightings sufficed for me.)

Our long hike took us over a series of pastoral ridges and down a steep incline to a secluded beach, Smugglers Cove, where we encountered a few other people, including some bent into yoga poses. We saw California blue mussels and two seal heads bobbing off the shore (or were they sea lions? We only caught glimpses, and both creatures live in the region). None of us had clothes for the cold water, but it was magical merely to walk along the beach, in part because of just how remote the cove was; it took some real effort to get to that beach, even if most of the effort was carried out by airplane pilots and ferry captains.

Scorpion Cove, where our ferry docked

After our long hike we each split up and wandered around. I found my way to a campsite that was nearly overrun with island foxes, who had taught each other that even the most conscientious campers couldn’t help but leave accidental scraps of food behind. I nibbled on the few snacks I had brought, already thinking about dinner on the mainland but happy to stay on the island as long as we could, in that dreamlike daze. It was like LOST, it was like Eventide Island, it was like the kind of place the Dawn Treader might dock. I can only describe it in the language of fairy tales because it all seemed so impossibly lush and exotic and wide.

And then we were lined up to board the ferry back. Again we craned our necks for sea life, sweeping our eyes back and forth for the telltale signs they had mentioned—sudden bursts of spray, small flocks of gulls—but what occurred on that second ride is a story I’ll save for another time. Soon we three were sitting around a restaurant table stuffing our glowing faces with buttery Brussels sprouts and beer.

When we were planning this trip, Steve suggested we spend a day on Channel Islands, which was utterly unknown to me, and which I agreed to only because I could cross another National Park off my list, although Steve cleverly won me over by spoiling the surprise of island foxes. Since our trip I’ve told everyone I know about it, a tropical utopia only a ferry ride away. I have almost nothing to show for our time there—no profound reflections, no sharp photos of scrub-jays—and I’m not sore about it. It was the most fun I’ve had in years.

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