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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.