It had been months since we were awaken by an alarm clock but we had to do it to get up early enough to make the hour drive from Castaic to Oxnard to catch the 8:00 AM ferry to Santa Cruz Island. We opted to disembark the ferry at Prisoner’s Harbor, the second of two possible landings on Santa Cruz, which added another twenty minutes to the otherwise sixty to ninety minute crossing of the Santa Barbara Channel. Fine with us!
What a spectacular place. According to the crew of the Island Explorer, we were lucky as the channel crossing was quite calm, making the trip magical as the fog banks shrouding the islands gave way to crystal clear blue skies as the sun rose higher in the sky. The calm waters also provided multiple opportunities to view dolphins up close and personal. First, there were bottlenose dolphins, literally hundreds of them, visible to us as they played along side of the ferry. They seemed to enjoy riding the bow wake and we could see them darting back and forth, to the surface and back underwater again. So fast!
Then, as we approached our destination of Santa Cruz Island, we spied the even-more-playful (although, perhaps, inappropriately named) common dolphins. These guys seemed more shy, not willing to come as close to the ferry. Yet, they still enjoyed launching themselves out of the water and crashing down into the breaking waves from the stern wake. What a blast and we had yet to reach the islands!
Oh, right, the islands. So here are a few fast facts about the Channel Islands National Park:
- established in 1980, consisting of five of the eight California Channel Islands; Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara. In addition to these five islands, the park also includes one mile of the Pacific Ocean surrounding the islands, creating a protected area for marine life as well( no fishing in the waters, no hunting on land);
- covers 249,500 acres;
- home to over 2,000 plant and animal species, of which 145 are found nowhere else in the world;
- park access is via boat or plane. This makes it one of the least visited parks in the country.
Since we chose to visit the island of Santa Cruz, here are a few quick facts about that specific island:
- the largest island in the park (and the entire state of California, too), roughly the size of New York’s Staten Island;
- the western and central portions of this island are privately owned and managed by a Nature Conservancy (76% of the land area of this island) while the eastern end is managed by the National Park Service;
- there are two landing areas for the concessioner boats, Scorpion Anchorage and Prisoner’s Harbor.
We agreed to join a ranger-led hike from Prisoner’s Harbor to Pelican Bay. This special experience required that we sign our lives away first, affixing our signatures to a two-page waiver to completely release the Park Service and the Cruise Line from any liability. Its the kinda thing that makes you think about what you are getting yourself into, right? The ranger shared a recent story about a scare they had when a seemingly fit middle-aged man had a heart attack while climbing the first ascent out of Prisoner’s Harbor. Evidently it took some quick thinking, some medical expertise and an evac helicopter to get him off the island and back to the mainland in time to save his life…I’m guessing they wanted to be sure we understood that help was a long, long ways away. As my friend, Mike, once told me when explaining the risks of white-water kayaking – its all about “self-rescue, bud”! Anyway, we went along and it was so well worth it!
Prisoner’s Harbor is located at the boundary of the private nature conservancy and the National Park. It’s a privilege to be allowed into the nature conservancy portion of the island and that can only be done if accompanied by a Park Ranger. What a special treat! The hike was strenuous and the very first climb set the tone for the rest of the trip. Also, with limited time to get to Pelican Bay and back to catch the ferry to the mainland, the ranger set a quick pace to be sure we made the round trip in the time allotted.
You’ve all heard the saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, right? Well, here you go!
I told you this hike was strenuous. Well, this is where the question posed in the title gets answered. When we hiked out of Prisoner’s Harbor for headed for Pelican Bay, our destination (and my personal goal) was quite clear. We climbed up a number of hillsides and back down into the following valley multiple times along our journey. Somewhere along the way, not too far before reaching Pelican Bay, Siobhan decided that she had had enough and wanted to enjoy a relaxing picnic lunch in a shady spot before heading back to the ferry landing for the return trip to the mainland.
Uh-oh, dilemma. I wanted to reach the destination (Pelican Bay) but did not want to leave Siobhan alone in the middle of nowhere. Anyone ever heard of cognitive dissonance? Anyway, after a very brief discussion, I took off to catch up with the rest of the group bound for the destination. Then, suddenly, I stopped dead in my tracks, turned around and went back to join Siobhan for that quite picnic lunch she had in mind. Its only taken 59 years (ok, alright, the better part of 60 – there – I said it) to realize that THE JOURNEY IS THE DESTINATION! Lunch was wonderful and we enjoyed our more-leisurely-paced trek back to the ferry landing. The ferry ride back to Oxnard Harbor was enjoyable even though we didn’t see any more wildlife.
Since we were now well-aware of the traffic conditions on the mainland, we decided to cap off a great experience with a visit to seaside bar in Ventura for a massive plate of chicken nachos and a cold one while we waited for the parking lot to gradually convert back to a freeway for the ride back to Castaic.
Best park yet!