A short 19 miles away lays a national park with rich biodiversity, incredible topography, stunning views and a hell of a history. It has its own endemic and distinctive species, and it boasts over 2,000 different kinds of plants and animals, including a recovering bald eagle population. It has clear tide pools, sheer coastline cliffs, pristine mountain ranges, deep canyons, massive sea caves and beaches as beautiful as anything a vacation getaway could offer. It has a tumultuous history too, as it has been occupied by Chumash, conquistadors and ranchers alike. Whether you know it or not, you’ve seen this park. It dominates your ocean view; it’s Santa Cruz Island.
One of the five islands belonging to the Channel Islands National Park, Santa Cruz Island is the largest, most diverse and most geographically complex. Legend has it that the island is named after a priest’s staff that was lost on the island in the late 18th century. It was originally called “La Isla de Santa Cruz,” or the Island of the Sacred Cross. The Chumash dominated the island for over 9,000 years, but a changing of hands eventually resulted in a series of ranching communities that lasted from 1857 to 1980, when it attained national park designation.
Currently, the Nature Conservancy, a global conservation agency, owns and operates approximately 75 percent of the island. This portion is inaccessible and fenced off for research and species conservation. While this seems like a large amount, the island is a massive 97 square miles. That leaves you, the bold adventurer, approximately 24 square miles for island activities. What exactly is an island activity? There are plenty: hiking, kayaking, camping, backpacking, fishing, scuba diving, free diving, cave diving, spear fishing, whale watching and island ball, to name a few. To clarify, island ball is a great drinking game with the exact same rules as bocce ball, except you don’t use bocce balls. You use rocks! One drink per point you lose per round. Tips: Keep one big rock in your arsenal, and pick a distinctive pallino.
While island ball is a game destined to one day be in the Olympics, it doesn’t compare to the island or its many potential uses. As far as camping is concerned, there are two options: Scorpion and Del Norte. If you’re looking for a sequestered spot and willing to lug your water in, perhaps Del Norte is for you; but I’d recommend Scorpion, as it has potable water and greater access to beaches and hikes. The campground is secluded, fairly priced and riddled with bold island foxes. The nearest beach is a marine sanctuary, complete with pinnipeds and a kelp forest full of cabazon, rockfish and California’s state marine fish: the garibaldi.
Making a trip to Santa Cruz Island should be on everyone’s to do list, and here’s a to do list while you’re out there. Hike Devil’s Peak and get a peek at the island’s size and the ocean beyond. Visit the ranching house, which is now a museum. Bring, borrow or rent a kayak; the island is internationally renowned for sea cave exploring. Go free diving — with bonus points for spear fishing. Trek the ridges in the thick spring fog. Watch at least one sunrise. Watch every sunset.
To sum it up, take advantage of the island’s proximity and rich geography. You’ve looked at it often enough and wondered what the hell’s out there; why not find out for yourself?
Daily Nexus columnist Harrison Gibson believes Santa Cruz Island breaks the rule, “Good from far, but far from good.”