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Hiking the Channel Islands

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What’s an active sailor-type to do in the Channel Islands area with a 36-ft sailboat and some time on his hands? I had enough time off work this year to have some adventures, but not enough time to take my Ventura-based Islander 36 Bella Dama down to Mexico again. I decided to look for some sailing excitement closer to home, and found it in the Channel Islands National Park.

One night in February, 2007, my 15-year-old son Brett and I were anchored at Scorpion anchorage on Santa Cruz Island. At that time of year, it’s possible to be the only boat anchored there, unlike the summer months, when it can get extremely crowded.

We paddled our double kayak over to some of the nearby caves. One of my favorites goes through a large offshore rock between Scorpion and Little Scorpion anchorages. I was very familiar with the cave as I’d been there many times before, so we hadn’t bothered with lifejackets, not to mention helmets, paddle-leashes or even gloves. This is one of several “through-caves” - where you can paddle in one entrance and out a different exit, all within an hour's paddle from Scorpion.

On this occasion, complacency and lack of preparation turned dangerous, as a large set of waves surged through the cave when we were in the middle of our transit. We were thrown off our sit-on-top double kayak into the cold water. I immediately started trying to right the boat, which was difficult as more waves slammed us into the sides of the cave. It suddenly occurred to me that Brett was nowhere to be found. I can’t begin to describe what was going through my mind, but after what seemed like minutes, he finally popped to the surface and swam to the kayak. We climbed back aboard and lay prone, like on a surfboard, but we weren't out of trouble just yet. We'd lost our only paddle, were still at the mercy of currents and wind and, well, look at that - bleeding like pigs. Both Brett and I had apparently sustained cuts from the rocks lining the sides of the cave.

To make a long story short, we made it out of the cave, and some nice fishermen delivered us back to Bella Dama.

Okay, lesson learned. Maybe we should try hiking.

The next month, mostly healed, my buddy Marvin Stevens and I took off for a circumnavigation of Santa Cruz Island. This perfect trip included a night at Smuggler’s, followed by riding a warm Santa Ana up the backside all the way past Gull Island. After the wind died, we motored the last 10 miles or so to Becher's Bay on Santa Rosa for the night.

In the morning, we paddled the kayak ashore - yes, wearing helmets and lifejackets - and hauled it up on the landing. It's only a mile or so past the ranger station to the campground, where we were shocked to find clean, modern, flush toilets, and showers nicer than most marinas - out there on seldom-visited Santa Rosa Island! Who knew?
The next stop on our winter itinerary was Painted Cave on the western end of Santa Cruz. On the way there, we saw many whales and heard them making an odd 'roaring' sound, audible from nearly a mile away.

Painted Cave was almost blown out. Winds were 25 knots, and the water was rough. We managed a quick kayak sortie into the cave, but were equally quick returning to the boat and heading on to calmer pastures. We tried Diablo, but when the wind veered after only an hour and the boat swung close to the rocks, we got out of there fast. We ended up spending a peaceful evening at better-protected Pelican Bay.

The next day, we enjoyed a hike to Prisoner's Harbor, even sighting the resident bald eagle. I also 'enjoyed' some unplanned maintenance. The engine was vibrating, had no power and was overheating. The first part necessitated a dive into the frigid water to cut loose some line that had wrapped around the prop. The second part required disassembling the cooling system from one end to the other - while hove to - to clear the culprit: a bit of seaweed which had been sucked into the thru-hull. A bit more blood was spilled, but the engine was purring like a kitten. Better yet, we had completed our circumnavigation of Santa Cruz Island, and enjoyed the “capper” - a beautiful broad reach home in 20 knots of wind.

A few weeks later, I did a solo sail out to Willow’s anchorage on the back side of Santa Cruz Island. By now, I was really getting into the hiking thing. This time, my goal was to hike up the Willow’s Canyon trail up to the ridge road.

At Willow’s, you can either anchor in between the west cliffs and the two rocky spires, or in the more open area east of the spires. The former is more popular, despite the surge. I chose to anchor in the more open east side because I thought the boat would be safer there during my all-day hike.

After landing my kayak at Willow’s beach, I took off with a backpack full of water and snacks. It’s a bit tricky following the rocky creek bed through bushes and large rocks, looking for the way up the canyon. I made more than one wrong turn before finally finding a trail that led to a spring-fed narrows full of crystal-clear running water. A little creek-hopping and rock-scrambling through this scenic area led to what was clearly the beginning of Willow’s Canyon Road, gradually ascending all the way to the top of the ridge, from which you can see down into the central valley. It also affords a great view of the rugged area surrounding Mt. Diablo, the highest point on the Channel Islands. The hike takes two to three hours up, and an hour and a half to come back down. It’s fantastic exercise, and a memorable hike, but be sure to get your Nature Conservancy permit before you go.

In August, three friends and I left the sailboat at home and took the Island Packers ferry to Prisoner’s Harbor, where we began the marathon - a one-way, 15-mile hike across the eastern 40% of Santa Cruz Island to our destination at Scorpion Ranch. Along the way, we came across the rotting remains of a few wild pigs, victims of an eradication program over the last two years to rid the island of non-native species. We also passed the wreckage of a WWII-era military plane.

This hike, which takes five to six hours, uses a dirt road on the uppermost spine of the island, and offers spectacular views of the California coast and, on a clear day, the Santa Barbara, Santa Catalina, and San Nicholas Islands. We once spotted San Clemente Island from this spot, even though island literature says that San Clemente can’t be seen from Santa Cruz Island.

If you want to take it a bit easier, you can camp overnight at Del Norte Campground above China Bay. The Island Packers ferry boats make the one-way hike possible, and throw in some whale watching on the way - well worth the $50/person round-trip fee.

My summer included many other overnight trips to Smuggler’s, Prisoner’s Harbor, and some of the other island anchorages. I spent one night anchored at Anacapa Island's East Fish Camp, where winds can swirl around quite a bit before settling down. In the morning, I kayaked from East Fish Camp, around the famous Anacapa arch (possible only in fair weather), and pulled my kayak up the ladder and onto the landing so I could hike the island. This is lovely, easy hiking, but be sure to bring some extra line to make it easier to pull the kayak up onto the landing. I then did some snorkeling - for which Anacapa is famous - and a bit of kayaking, both at spectacular Cathedral Cove.
Soon the season came to a close, and I had to get back to work. So my buddy Rick Dahl and I planned the trip that we hoped would be the highlight of the summer: climbing Mt. Diablo. Though it's only 2,400 feet above sea level, I doubt anyone climbing Mount Everest could have been more excited.

Unlike the well-tended trails we'd been enjoying, there are no marked or mapped trails ascending the mountain from the north. (There is a Jeep road that ends less than an hour’s hike from the other side - from the central valley - but it's illegal to use it, even for permit holders.) Our research showed that a climb would need to begin from either Fry’s, Lady’s, or Cueva Valdez anchorages, which are quite a way to the west. Normally, sailing to the western portions of Santa Cruz Island requires upwind work from Ventura, including an upwind crossing of Windy Lane, notorious for 25-knot westerlies in the afternoons.

On the morning of our departure, we couldn’t believe our luck: the wind was steady from due east! And it stayed that way all the way across the shipping lanes, Windy Lane, and into Fry’s Harbor.

Fry’s is well-protected from the prevailing west winds but, on this day, the anchorage was wide open to our benevolent easterly and the attendant chop. So we went further west to Lady’s anchorage, which is better protected from the east. After struggling a bit to set our stern anchor, we settled in for the evening. Over barbecued steaks, we studied our maps and mentally prepared for our big hike in the morning.

A word about our maps. The best topographical maps of the islands are published by National Geographic and are available for sale at the Island Packers office in Ventura Harbor. We complemented these with printouts from Google Earth to plan our route. The tracking feature of our handheld GPS units came in especially handy to avoid turning down the wrong canyon on the way down.

The hike itself involves some momentary use of both hands and both feet to negotiate some rocky areas. Otherwise, it's just up, up and more up.

The steepness varies from pleasant uphill hiking to quad-burning areas so steep you have to side-step or grab tree branches to pull yourself up. It was a very strenuous three hours up and two and a half hours down - easily a seven-hour trek, including breaks.

Carrying many pints of water per person, food, and some emergency supplies for this hike is advisable. I was happy I had a full Camelbak of water.

As you might expect, the higher you climb, the more spectacular the views become. Once you make the top ridge, you can see over to the water on the back side of the island. Once you're atop the ridge, the terrain requires you stay there all the way to the top.

We hadn’t seen so much as a footprint the whole day, so needless to say, we were surprised when we reached the top and were greeted with a friendly “hello” from a young man who was between bites of his sandwich. He was taking a lunch break from his work tracking the island fox, and had hiked up from the top of the road in the central valley.

The scenery from Mt. Diablo is a treat and a half, with great views of almost all the Channel Islands, as well as Catalina beyond. The only island you can’t see from there, oddly enough, is nearby Anacapa, which is obscured by the mountainous east end of Santa Cruz.

Since we were sailing home that afternoon, we couldn't linger long. We soaked in the view, took some photos, and started back down the mountain.

Not all hikes on the island are so tough. The route recommended for more casual hikers starts from Coches Prietos on the back side of the island and follows a well-marked trail. Be sure to hang a right at the only fork in the road and, after about an hour of sweat equity, you'll be atop the ridge.

In the past on this trail, we've seen two snakes and a quail family including baby quail less than an inch tall. From the top of this trail, you get a great view of the Main Ranch. It now shows up on maps as a UCSB research center, but was the hub of operations during the island’s ranching days. Especially appealing is the tiny chapel, which is still used for an annual Christmas service, or so we've heard.

Again, remember that this entire part of the island is Nature Conservancy property, and a permit is required to come ashore and/or hike at Coches Prietos. However, even this permit will not allow physical access to the central valley. You must stick to photos only of this beautiful area, best taken from the top of the trail.

On a recent sailing trip, we circled the island again, this time anchoring for the first night in Coches, and doing the hike described above. We then motored up the island about three more hours to Forney’s Cove on the extreme west end. Forney’s is a beautiful spot, well protected from the normal direction of the seas, but occasionally exposed to the full force of gales whirling off Pt. Conception. It requires careful planning or luck with the weather to approach from the east. The reward when you can land is the beachcombing - spectacular. The Chumash Indian midden site, or shell mound, takes some searching to find, but is pristine. Forney's also boasts some of the only hiking on the island that doesn’t require a heart-pounding climb, as the surrounding terrain is pretty flat.

There is plenty of room to roam, many small coves to explore, and the road to Christy’s Ranch can be followed for quite a while before access is restricted. There is also a trail up and over the saddle to the other side of the island which can be a pleasant one- or two-hour hike. Again, you’ll need a Nature Conservancy permit to land or hike at Forney’s. And be careful when you round the Potato Patch, if you plan to round the westernmost tip of the island, as we did.

Also be ready for one of the best parts of almost every trip from Ventura Harbor to Santa Cruz Island - a perfect sail home with everything Windy Lane can dish out, all aft of the beam.

- chad kominek

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This story was reprinted from the the August 2008 issue of Latitude 38. To order a copy (complete with color photos), use the subscription order form, and specify the 8/08 issue, or just drop us a note with a check for $7 to Latitude 38, Attn: Back Issues, 15 Locust Ave., Mill Valley, CA 94941.

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