Photo by T Christian Gapen
California is filled with frosty-white wonderlands: Yosemite, Mammoth Lakes, Tahoe, the Sequoias — just to name a few. Closer to home, however, there’s a vastly different way to experience winter. It may not offer snow-covered hills and ski slopes, but Santa Cruz Island is a spectacular destination for January and February outdoor adventures. Brisk ocean breezes, sparkling blue water, world-class kayaking and scuba diving, seacliff vistas and more await those who venture out to this unique natural ecosystem and marine sanctuary a mere 20 miles from the mainland.
Santa Cruz Island is the largest of the five land masses — including Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Barbara and Santa Rosa Islands — that make up Channel Islands National Park, and as such, it offers the best weather and the most to do. “Santa Cruz is the most popular island in the winter,” says Cherryl Connally of Island Packers, the authorized concessionaire for transportation to Channel Islands National Park. “There are a variety of things to do for the outdoor person.”
Love kayaking? Explore 77 miles of craggy coastline. Head beneath the surface to see dense kelp forests teeming with life, or check out the sea caves and the wrecks of a WWII minesweeper and plane. Topside, numerous hiking trails traverse the eastern side of the island, which is managed by the National Park Service. (The Nature Conservancy owns the rest, around 76 percent of the island, which is closed to the public.) Some are rugged, some are easy, but all provide a glimpse of the vegetation and animals that call the area home. “Isolation has had an impact on the wildlife here,” notes Yvonne Menard, chief of interpretation at Channel Islands National Park. Adapting to island conditions means many of the animals found here have evolved into unique, endemic species.
Island Packers offers several boat trips throughout the week in the winter months, and while inclement weather and poor sea conditions can force a cancellation, Southern California’s relatively mild winters mean there are plenty of days between storms when the crossing to Santa Cruz is a breeze.
The adventure begins the moment you come aboard one of Island Packers’ large, two-tiered catamarans. You’ll want to be bundled up to withstand the cold wind that whips by once you leave the protected environs of Ventura Harbor. But for a seagoing experience, it’s hard to beat. The chill air is invigorating, the ride feels smoother, and you’ll be well-positioned to spot dolphins, pelicans, sea lions and — if you’re lucky — whales that might appear during the hour-plus passage. Winter is gray whale season, when these majestic giants migrate through the channel on their way to Baja, and Island Packers offers half-day whale-watching trips from December through March. These runs don’t stop at the islands, but they’re an excellent way to take in the marine wildlife.
Approaching Santa Cruz in winter, you might be surprised by the sheer amount of green that carpets the island. Seasonal rains turn the usually brown, dry countryside into a verdant landscape, and comparisons to Ireland are not uncommon. Coming ashore on the newly rebuilt pier at Scorpion Anchorage (the most popular of the two drop-off points), you’ll find the air feels warmer and softer, too. While hot summer days and cold winter nights are possible, the moist ocean air surrounding Santa Cruz keeps the climate fairly moderate. Air and water temperatures don’t vary much throughout the year; winters are only 10-15 degrees colder than summers. Aside from occasional storms, winter conditions are no deterrent to the kayakers, divers, hikers and even campers who come to indulge in the island’s many splendors.
Just half a mile from the pier are the remains of Scorpion Ranch, a relic from the 1800s when sheep farming was big business on the island. A blacksmith shop, farm implements and restored ranch house add a little history to the natural wonders. Before that, of course, Santa Cruz Island was one of the centers of Chumash culture. Island Chumash were called Michumash (“makers of shell bead money”) by those on the mainland, and indeed, much of the achum used up and down the coast was “minted” on Santa Cruz Island.
The area’s diverse wildlife is a draw any time of year. The island scrub-jay, island fox and island fence lizard are among the many species endemic to the Channel Islands. Smuggler’s Cove offers excellent tide pooling, and Scorpion Beach’s cobblestones are worth exploring, too. Overnight campers might see a Townsend’s big-eared bat or a spotted skunk. Numerous other land, sea and shore creatures can be seen throughout the island; patience and a sharp eye won’t go unrewarded.
Avid hikers will have plenty to do here, too. Cavern Point is a bit of a climb, but fairly short, and the gorgeous ocean views are worth it. Once at the top of the bluff, it’s relatively flat, and a popular spot for a scenic picnic — and for cliffside whale watching. (Look for spouts of seaspray on the horizon.) Continue east along the bluffs to return to Scorpion Beach, and take in the excellent views of Anacapa Island. Along the way, you might see National Park Service employees working to restore natural vegetation on the plain. Or, for a longer hike, turn west from Cavern Point and head to beautiful Potato Harbor. You’ll have expansive ocean views most of the way, with numerous spots to drink in the scenery or stop for a breather along the 5-mile loop.
And that’s just from Scorpion Anchorage. Debarking at Prisoner’s Harbor, farther to the west and next to the boundary with The Nature Conservancy’s property, entails another set of adventures, including backpacking opportunities and views of the south side of the island.
Campers have the opportunity to do longer (and more strenuous) hikes. Campsites are rustic: pit toilets, no trash cans (prepare to pack it out), fires not permitted. Scorpion Ranch is the only campground on Santa Cruz Island with potable water, and all supplies need to be hiked in, whether your campsite is 0.5 (Scorpion Ranch) or 3.5 (Del Norte Camp) miles away. (There are picnic tables and food storage boxes, however.) But once the day-trippers have left, a sense of serenity and remoteness descends. “Santa Cruz allows you to have some isolation yourself,” Menard says. “That factor affects the human experience as well as the wildlife. I think people get a lot of recovery from it.”
It’s not the typical winter getaway, neither a snowy wonderland nor a tropical paradise to chase away the January blues. But Santa Cruz Island is anything but typical, offering natural wonders, fascinating history and a breathtaking marine environment — all a short boat ride away from your doorstep. A mere hour from civilization, but worlds apart from anything else on Earth.
Island Packers offers trips to Santa Cruz Island year round, and can recommend outfits for kayaking and scuba diving.
1691 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura, 805.642.1393
There are no fees to enter Channel Islands National Park, but reservations and a fee are required for camping. Note that transportation arrangements must be made prior to reserving a campsite. Camping is only allowed in designated campsites, and gear and supplies, including trash, must be packed in and out.
For more information, visit www.nps.gov/chis/planyourvisit/camping.htm.
RULES AND REGULATIONS
Santa Cruz Island and the waters surrounding it are carefully protected by the National Park Service. Rules and regulations exist for the safety of the fragile island environment and its wildlife, as well as its visitors.
For more information, visit www.nps.gov/chis/learn/management/lawsandpolicies.htm.