We went on a sibling backpacking trip in Channel Islands National Park this past December. Chris’s sister Becky and Anna’s brother Joe joined us for the adventure. We were very excited to spend some quality time with them, and to explore a new place at the same time. We planned two days of hiking, a day of kayaking, and a half day of snorkeling before heading back to mainland California. We could never have guessed what surprises the park held for us!

We woke early, piled gear into Joe’s car, and headed about an hour north of Los Angeles to Ventura, CA. We arrived at the harbor on time, checked in, and put our packs below deck. It was a sunny, gorgeous winter day. The only odd thing that morning was a terse email from Island Packers ferry service stating “We are running the trip to Prisoners Harbor today.  The crossing to the island will be rough.” That couldn’t have been farther from the calm, sunny weather we were enjoying on the shore.

Minutes into the ferry crossing, the captain got on the loudspeaker, slowed the engines and started taking about a Stellar sea lion he’d just spotted. He explained that it was rare to see a Stellar sea lion in Southern California waters because they mostly live near Alaska. It was huge, much bigger than the California sea lions we’d seen before.  The captain also explained that the large semi-circular scar near the sea lion’s tail was likely from a shark bite. The sea lion made a deep call and even stuck out its tongue at us as the boat drifted by.

Stellar sea lion

Farther from shore, the wind picked up and the waves grew taller. The ferry started to rock and roll. As we rode wave after wave high into the air, then fell into an empty void below, it felt like we were on a roller coaster. Salty spray drenched the boat as the fierce wind chilled us. Dolphins seemed to like the waves and the ferry. For a few minutes, several swam playfully alongside us, even jumping occasionally. They were so beautiful and graceful.

Dolphins swimming next to ferry

The ferry ride was turning out to be part of the adventure, not just transportation to the island! The first stop was Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island. The majority of passengers, many of them birders, were to disembark here. Unfortunately the dock at Scorpion had recently been damaged by a mix of climate change-induced sea level rise and a king tide. With the dock unusable, passengers had to be skiffed to shore six at a time.

Skiff dropping people off at Scorpion Anchorage

Our stomachs started to feel uneasy while waiting over an hour on the bobbing ferry. We watched the horizon to fend off seasickness.

Finally, the ferry started moving again. We passed steep cliffs and grand arches carved into the rock. Whitecaps kept the boat rolling. We were glad when we arrived at Prisoners Harbor, and set our feet on solid ground.

Ready to start our trip on Santa Cruz Island! (photo by Becky Alexander)

We sat down at a picnic table to reorganize gear and eat a little food since it was now past lunch. The beach was beautiful. Waves broke in even rhythm against the rocky shore. The unpolluted sound, with no mechanical or human interruption, reminded us that we were now in a National Park.

Prisoners Harbor on Santa Cruz Island

A cute island fox appeared. We had read about the native island fox that is much smaller than mainland foxes, but hadn’t expected to see one so soon after disembarking! The Channel Islands, having been isolated from the mainland for thousands of years, are home to 145 plants and animals that are unique and are not found anywhere else in the world.

Santa Cruz Island fox

We started hiking up the dirt road, slowly gaining a higher viewpoint on the ocean around us. Our packs were heavy with two days of water because there weren’t any freshwater sources on this part of the island.

Hiking in Channel Islands National Park (photo by Joe Sofranko)

As we continued up the road, a large military jeep came round a bend and stopped next to us. The driver told us that everyone had to evacuate the island tomorrow due to bad weather. We were quite surprised to hear this news. There’d been no mention of an evacuation when we got off the ferry just an hour or two earlier. The guy in the jeep said a ranger would come to our campground that evening to discuss further.

We were sad to hear that our Channel Islands trip would be cut short, but decided that we could still continue our sibling camping trip on the mainland. We tossed around ideas as we continued to hike. Maybe we could go to Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley National Park, San Gabriel National Forest, or explore tide pools along the coast. Regardless, we should enjoy the time we had left on the Channel Islands. It sure was beautiful, and got even nicer when we turned off the dirt road onto the smaller Del Norte Trail.

Del Norte Trail in Channel Islands National Park

The hillsides were covered in dry grasses, fennel, sage, clusters of oak trees, and occasional wildflowers, which were a treat to see in December!


We hiked up and down a few little canyons. Some parts of the trail were steeper than expected.


After 3.5 miles, we reached Del Norte Camp and pitched our tents under a cool old twisted oak tree with a beautiful view of the ocean. Staking one of the tents proved to be entertaining. The ground was too solid for stakes, and the rocks lying around were oddly lightweight. We ended up using a mixture of rocks and water bottles to hold down the rainfly.

Del Norte Backcountry Campsite on Santa Cruz Island

There are no bears on the island, but foxes and ravens like to steal human food. When not in use, all of our food and scented items went in the metal locker provided by the National Park Service.

We cooked and ate dinner while Cheep Cheep played in the squiggly oak trees.

File Feb 18, 11 30 10 AM
Cheep Cheep playing in the trees

A ranger stopped by and confirmed that bad weather was coming. There would be a ferry at 2:45 PM tomorrow, then probably not another ferry for six days due to wind and swell. Our group decided that we would catch the ferry back to the mainland tomorrow because we couldn’t risk missing flights or big holiday gatherings.

We watched a great pastel sunset. It was cool to look out across the water and see a view of the California coast we’d never witnessed before.

View from Del Norte backcountry campground

The stars started to shine and we picked out Cassiopeia and Orion. A silhouette of a fox scooted in front of Chris. When we crawled into our tents, the distant sound of ocean waves lulled us to sleep.



  1. Leave us in suspense!! What about this pending storm?

    I LOVE the fox. Was he tame, or was that a telephoto lens that got him up close?


    1. Glad you like the fox photo! It’s super cute but also mischievous-looking at the same time. Our camera has a great zoom lens, plus we cropped the photo once home. That particular fox we saw near the dock was more accustomed to humans, though it still kept its distance. We glimpsed a few foxes later in the trip, but they didn’t stick around for photos.


  2. Our kids loved the story and pictures! Thanks for sharing your great adventures with us!
    You are surely living an adventure!


  3. Gorgeous and inspiring! I’m amazed you saw so much wildlife in a short amount of time. This is definitely on my list. Can’t wait to hear where you ended up.


    1. The amount of wildlife surprised us too. Equally surprising is how few Angelenos have been to Channel Islands National Park, since the ferry dock is only an hour away. Next time you’re visiting your parents, you should plan a day trip. Note that ferry tickets can sell out so it’s best to plan a little in advance.


  4. What gorgeous pictures! Can’t wait to hear the adventures of the following day. You folks lead an exciting life, that’s for sure.


  5. Wow. That looks like an amazing place. Probably a good choice to cut the trip short versus being stranded on an island for 6 days!!! Can’t wait to hear more. Are there services on the island? I’m assuming not, but I was surprised when you mentioned a vehicle. How big is it? (I could probably just look up these questions myself!!)


    1. Santa Cruz Island is about 100 square miles with the Nature Conservancy owning 70%. The Nature Conservancy’s land is reserved for wildlife and researchers only. There is a Navy facility on Santa Cruz as well. The Prisoners Harbor side of the island, including the backcountry Del Norte campground, has no water. The Scorpion campground on the east side of the island has potable water pumps, pit toilets, a visitor center and larger campground.


  6. Yay, a new post! I love this blog so much, I missed you guys. I live vicariously through your adventures. Seriously, I want to hike and travel as much as you guys do. Love the pictures and the narration, as usual. Keep up the wonderful work.


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