Channel Islands National Park

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Channel Islands is unlike most National Parks. It consists of five islands off the coast of California. Despite being relatively close to me, my lack of a boat meant this trip required more planning than usual. I decided to take day trips to both Anacapa, the closest island, and Santa Cruz, the biggest island.

My trip started with excitement when I narrowly missed my boat to Anacapa. I was so happy to be on board (and not out $56 and a whole day of activities) that I took the first seat I could find. I am no stranger to seasickness, but I figured if I just stared at the water, I’d be okay. I will spare you the details, but what followed was one of the most, uh, human hours of my life.

I had no idea what to expect of the islands, but primitive is a word the National Park Services uses. As we neared the dock, I noticed a fly on my hand, then as soon as I shook it off, another appeared. We were all quickly covered in flies, but did our best to pretend we weren’t bothered. A long staircase leads from the dock to the top of the island, and despite still feeling weak, I couldn’t get up it fast enough.

Anacapa is the smallest island and only part of it is accessible, so it’s possible to walk it end-to-end very easily. I ate lunch and then headed for Inspiration Point, stopping several times to admire what appears to be endless ocean. From Inspiration Point, you can see the two other parts of the island, the ground between them covered in water. I must have looked deep in thought, because a stranger walked up, patted me on the back, and said, “Feeling inspired at Inspiration Point?” Whether it was the boat, the flies, or the very small island, I don’t know, but there was a sense of camaraderie among us all that I have not experienced visiting other National Parks.

Next I walked back across the island to the lighthouse, which I learned was built after more than one boat hit the island. There is a sign that prevents you from getting too close, saying the foghorn will damage your ears. The sound can be heard across the island, but quickly became background noise to me. Because it is so small, there’s not much hiking to be done on Anacapa. I walked the whole island twice, returning to each spot to take it in again. Finally I sat on a peak and watched sea lions and divers below.

The islands have been used for various things throughout history, and in some ways they are more primitive than other National Parks, and in other ways less pristine. I could not see the coast no matter how hard I stared at the ocean, so as the park literature reads, I felt like I was in another world, even though I was so close to a major city.

After returning to the boat, we took a slight detour to get a closer look at Arch Rocks, as well as some resting sea lions. On the trip back, I stood at the very front, watching the horizon.

The next morning I got up early to head to Santa Cruz, which is the biggest island in Channel Islands National Park. Santa Cruz is so huge that at many points I forgot I was on an island. I had ambitious hiking plans, so I started right away on Scorpion Canyon Loop. It humbled me. I stopped to take pictures often so that I could catch my breath. At the top I saw the road to Smugglers Cove and decided to follow it instead of turning around. My ambitious hiking plans became more ambitious.

The road was long and mostly downhill. I heard the waves before I saw the ocean. Smugglers Canyon was actually used for smuggling alcohol (and other things) during prohibition, and even though it was a beautiful day, I could picture boats hitting shore in the dark, smuggled goods being carried back to the ranch. The islands do have beaches, but they also have cliffs, so many of the beaches are hard to reach, and it felt special to be there. I had the place completely to myself until a group of 20 hikers showed up at once. I couldn’t think of a polite way to say, “I was having a moment!” when they said hello.

A hike I know will be difficult always seems less difficult that I expected, at least that was my experience hiking out of the Grand Canyon and Smugglers Cove. I made it to the top and then finished Scorpion Canyon Loop before returning to the pier. I had already hiked more than seven miles, and my feet were not happy about it, but there was one more place I wanted to see.

I walked through the campground to the trailhead, making notes on where I might want to stay if I return (and also outlining a screenplay called Murder Island), and then I stopped when I saw a small animal sitting in front of me. It was a Channel Islands fox, famous for being small and adorable. All of us standing around just stopped and stared, and the fox completely ignored us.

I hiked up to Cavern Point, which offers one of the best views on the island. By that time it was so windy that it felt like the wind might carry me over the edge. I took a seat on the grass and stared out into the ocean. Santa Cruz is mostly green hills (the kind you could run through singing, “the hills are alive . . .”) and tall golden grass. I never could quite capture its beauty or diversity, and the ocean is so vast that it hardly registers. I took the steep trail back to the beach and dipped my sad feet in the very cold water.

It was a choppy ride back to the coast, with water spraying up over the sides, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when my whale watching trip the next morning was canceled because of the wind. My guidebook had warned that weather in the area was unpredictable, which makes it hard to schedule a trip to Channel Islands National Park, and I felt lucky for two days of great weather, even if it means I have a wicked sunburn. I will return to see the whales.

My guidebook also mentioned that 90% of the people who visit Channel Islands National Park never visit the islands, which hardly makes sense because the islands are the National Park. I loved seeing Anacapa and Santa Cruz, and judging by how different they were from each other, I can’t wait to visit the others, especially now that the sea and I are on better terms.

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