In front of us, blue waves crashed against smooth round stones. Behind us, wind rustled through large trees. If we gazed to the east, our eyes could just make out the silhouette of the Santa Monica Mountains in mainland California, and to the west, nothing but ocean.
As Cole and I lounged on the coast of Santa Cruz island at a nook called Smuggler’s Cove, we felt it. Total isolation. Complete solitude. Fifteen million people lived only twenty miles away, but here, we couldn’t have known it.
This isn’t the first time we had that feeling on our trip. Naturally, in the thirty-two national parks we have seen on our trip so far, we get to experience quiet moments like this often. But never before have we felt such a clear sense of separation from the city busyness than when we visited Channel Islands National Park, off the coast of Ventura, California (an hour and a half north of Los Angeles). When we booked our ferry ticket out to the island with the concessionaire Island Packers, we didn’t quite know what to expect, with a park so close to civilization.
But we soon found out.
Channel Islands is a sanctuary for the plants and animals that call the islands home, a shield from environmental threats on the mainland. But it’s also, in every sense of the word, a sanctuary for visitors.
An escape for the people
The sense of solitude on Channel Islands National Park is almost immediate. Whether you visit to camp (like we did), or just to explore for the day, it’s easy to spend your time alone.
We chose to spend three days on Santa Cruz, the largest and most diverse of the five islands in the national park. The island provides ample opportunities for adventuring (like hiking, backpacking, wildlife viewing, and kayaking), and also a few conveniences (like water) that make a three-day camping trip much more enjoyable. Although we shared the island with a couple dozen other visitors, we rarely saw a soul along the five moderately-easy trails we hiked.
Smuggler’s Cove provided an especially peaceful experience. In exchange for a 3.5-mile (one-way) hike from the main hub at Scorpion Ranch, we were rewarded with a slice of gorgeous coast. Along the way, we spotted a couple of friendly island foxes and plenty of lush greenery.
Besides Smuggler’s Cove, we spent our three days kayaking around the sea caves (with our trusty inflatable, an extra $19 on the ferry), hiking other trails, (our favorites being 2-mile Cavern Point Loop and 4-mile Potato Harbor Trail) and just enjoying campground life.
We also had the opportunity (when it poured for four solid hours) to read every word on the exhibits at the Scorpion Ranch Visitor Center, where we learned about how animals and plants at Channel Islands have found their own sense of solitude.
A natural oasis
Channel Islands houses an usually large number of endemic (only existing in that place) species of plants and animals. Because of its location 20 miles off the coast of California, living things have a natural shelter that is protected by the National Park Service. But it wasn’t always that way.
Take Santa Cruz island for example. Before the park service took over in 1938 (when the islands were designated a national monument), sheep ranching was taking over the Channel Islands. The effects of grazing on the land made flood damage inevitable, and native plants took a hit.
Then, a company on the mainland dumped the chemical DDT into the ocean, killing off the entire population of bald eagles on the Channel Islands. This disaster made way for golden eagles to nest, and unlike their bald cousins, they did not hunt fish. They hunted island foxes and other mammals on the island. The number of island foxes, who once thrived, dwindled dangerously.
What happened next is one of my favorite NPS success stories.
In a nutshell, the park service deemed it necessary to step in. The golden eagles were relocated to the mainland, the remaining wild pigs and sheep from the ranching days were removed, and slowly but surely, species rebounded. Native plants began growing and healing the soil. The number of island foxes grew to over 1,300 today. And, happiest of all, bald eagle are nesting on the islands again. (In fact, you can watch them via live webcame here.)
It’s a happily ever after for the bald eagles and the island foxes.
And, if you ever visit this pristine, peaceful island sanctuary, you’ll see that it’s a happily ever after for people, too.