When you hear the words “remote island,” you might think of Tom Hanks. Or, like, a coconut. But, we didn’t find either of those during our three-night stay on Santa Cruz Island, one of a series of islands that make up Channel Islands National Park off the coast of California.
If we saw Tom Hanks, I would think we were stranded. And, if we saw coconuts, I’d think we were in the tropics. And, neither were true. We were an hour-long boat ride from Ventura, California and the water was cold, wet-suit cold, not tropical. And, full of dolphins, which are apparently mankind’s great equalizer. No one hates dolphins, according to our anecdotal research.
But, the island was remote. So remote, that the park ranger who gave us a pep talk just after we stepped off the dock from the transport boat said we should try to avoid needing high-level medical care.
“Just don’t have an emergency,” he said.
So, we did everything except have an emergency. Or a shower. Because the island is basic. It has drinking water and outhouses, and that’s it. Campsites are set under canopies of eucalyptus trees, each anchored by large metal “fox boxes” that keep food in and sneaky, snacky foxes out. There are no fire rings or electricity, but the night sky lights up with a canvas of stars.
So the everything we did do included a hike to Potato Harbor, where the turquoise water was so clear we could see a seal swimming in it from our private perch hundreds of feet above the surface. We had the bluff to ourselves for hours, as hikers intermittently passed through, snapping a few photos of the view before moving on. And that privacy would be a recurring theme throughout the trip, where several times we would look around and not see a single other soul. Coming from one of the biggest cities in the country, it kind of blew our minds whenever we recognized our solitude.
It meant a hike to Cavern Point as the sun set, giving us a small window of colorful light atop a bluff that overlooked caves we would kayak into the following day. Hiking to these bluffs is doable, totally, but not easy. They involve wardrobe changes mid-stride, as the steep incline warms you enough to strip your top layer, only to put it back on again once the wind hits you as the trail evens out. But, that’s what backpacks are for. And this day, I needed two sweatshirts. And, a headlamp, to find our way back to camp.
It meant taking a three-hour kayak adventure, with a local guide (who camps on the island like everybody else), to explore the coastline and paddle through a series of remarkable sea caves.
Some felt like cathedrals, with high ceilings and open walls, while others felt impossibly small, not meant for full-size humans on kayaks – which must feel even smaller on days with angrier surf, unlike the ultra-calm day we had.
It was on that tour that we met a guide who not only previewed what our neighbor boy will look like as an adult, but also gave us answers to burning questions about the island. It was during that ride that we learned the brown grass that covered the part of the island protected by the national park was invasive, brought there in an attempt to correct the damage caused by the livestock that grazed there before the park took ownership.
It’s where we learned that no one really knows how the thousands of island foxes got there, but they do know the foxes aren’t found anywhere else in the world, like a number of other species on the island.
It was in geology cove where we learned that the island formed as a result of subducting tectonic plates, and it’s where we learned that most of the park is under water, which became obvious as we navigated through thick kelp forests filled with fish, vegetation, lobster, urchin and rays, among other creatures.
And, before paddling into one of the deepest caves in the country, an expedition that required a flashlight and a deep breath (for anxious folks like me who aren’t keen on tight spaces), it’s where our guide tipped us off to a trail that would lead to our favorite spot on the island, Little Scorpion Cove.
Channel Islands National Park is a sanctuary. Not only does it take guests away from email and Wi-Fi and traffic and ATMs, it is an oasis for breeding for birds, seals and other wildlife. So, much of it is protected. In fact, one massive rock in the water is protected because birds use it to nest free of predators. We can’t even touch it.
So, if you want to fish, you have to follow the rules and find a spot outside of the marine protected area, also known as the MPA. And, that’s where this cove is. Getting there meant hiking to a bluff, then following a trail that isn’t any wider than your two feet, and trusting it as it takes you up steep inclines and down equally as steep grades. And, you’re doing all this with your gear strapped to your back.
It’s not as treacherous as it sounds, but it’s also not a stroll on the beach, either. BUT IT IS SO WORTH IT. It was so worth it we did it twice. The first time, Ron took his speargun out and snagged a fish while I read a book on the shore. And the second time, we had more gear, bringing along all the goods I would need to snorkel, too.
Through goggles, the park multiplied in color and diversity. It’s where we saw and touched purple urchin, coral-colored bat fish (like a star fish, but webby-er), sting ray, a seal, schools of tiny fish that jumped out of the water, vibrant Garibaldi fish, kelp and beautiful vegetation swaying in the current. The area is recognized as one of the best places to snorkel.
And, when we were done, we just napped on the beach in that tiny cove, snagging some sun to the sound of the waves crashing on the sand. It almost didn’t feel real. In that tiny cove, that one we had to ourselves, it wouldn’t have been weird to see Tom Hanks wade out of the water with his volleyball, because we felt that far away from civilization.
But we were lucky. He didn’t come. We had it to ourselves. A beach, a trail, a bluff on a remote island. All to ourselves.