Monday, January 18, 2016

Del Norte-Navy Road Loop, East Santa Cruz Island

Prisoner's Harbor
Back to work for the week and I was headed for the mid-week doldrums when my daughter decided to take a day trip to Santa Cruz Island and asked if I could come along. Hell yeah! Fortunately, my schedule was accommodating, so I quickly put things in order at the office, got the blessing from the big man in charge, and off we went.

The original plan, if it could even be called that (it was more like a thought), was to go to Scorpion Anchorage and climb to the high point along Monta├▒on Ridge. But the sea was a bit angry on the day we went with high surf and big swells, so the concessionaire that runs the boats out to the islands (Island Packers) made the decision we were all going to Prisoner's Harbor where the pier is more protected and de-boating was less hazardous. Taking a quick look at our options out of Prisoner's, we decided to make a run out to the Del Norte trail camp instead of joining the NPS-led hike to Pelican Bay on the Nature Conservancy side of the island. Having done that hike previously, we already knew the terrain, but also knew the pace would be slower than we were hoping for. We wanted new and were hoping for something slightly more robust. 

Out of Ventura Harbor, the ocean was indeed impressive with huge waves crashing against the shore and big swells tossing us about. As a result, the concessionaire forbade us all from standing along the rail at the front of the boat. But once beyond the breakwater and into the channel, things calmed considerably and it was smooth sailing all the way out to the island. Despite the bumpy start, it was a perfect day to be on the water. The sky was blue, the ocean was bluer, and migrating Humpback and Gray Whales made themselves at home in the channel.

Platform Gilda in the Santa Barbara Channel
Migrating Humpback Whale
Migrating Gray Whales Near Santa Cruz Island
Gray Whale
Gray Whale Fluke
Upon arriving at Prisoner's Harbor, the boat captain announced that the boat would be leaving for the mainland at 2:45 p.m, He then reiterated: at 15 minutes to 3 p.m., the boat would be leaving; if you wanted a ride off the island, you needed to be back at the pier no later than 14:45; at 3/4 of an hour after 2 p.m., the boat would be leaving; be back to the pier no later than 1/4 hour before before 3 p.m. unless you're prepared to spend the night on the island. Being the astute and perceptive folks that we are, we surmised from this cluster of announcements that we should probably be back to the pier at least 1 hour before  3:45 p.m. to make sure we got back to Ventura that night.

After getting off the boat, we listened patiently as the NPS docent gave us the obligatory spiel: pack it in, pack it out; everything is protected down to the most insignificant stone; there is no food or water on the island so its entirely BYOB/BYOF; do not feed the wildlife; be back to the pier no later than 2:45 p.m. The docent then solicited questions and I contemplated asking what time the boat was leaving, but figured I'd check my smart mouth and spare my daughter the embarrassment. We were then finally released on our own recognizance and off we went up the Navy Road leaving our fellow boat-mates to their own devices.

Shortly up the road after a short but stout climb, the Del Norte Trail branches to the east. Here we jumped off the road and followed the wide trail as it dove into deep canyons only to reclaim the lost elevation on the other side of the V. To the north, the Santa Barbara Channel was a constant companion, framed by the the Santa Ynez Mountains far in the distance. Eventually the trail took us to empty Del Norte Trail Camp which sits high on the bluffs above the Pacific and affords magnificent vistas of what I imagine the coastal California landscape must have looked like before the Europeans invaded with their four-hoofed locusts.  Here, we spent entirely too much time soaking in the absolute silence, feasting on snacks, and being thoroughly entertained by several Santa Cruz Island Scrub Jays that are endemic to the islands and call the oaks surrounding the camp home.

View West from Navy Road
Beginning of the Del Norte Trail
The Santa Barbara Channel from the Del Norte Trail
Looking Back to Prisoner's Harbor from the Del Norte Trail
Del Norte Trail Camp
Endemic Santa Cruz Island Scrub Jay
After a leisurely hour of loafing at Del Norte, we finally gathered ourselves and our gear together and made our way up to Navy Road which runs along the crest of the eastern side of the island. Upon reaching the road, we realized that we still had a 4 miles trek back to Prisoner's and only one hour to accomplish it. Remembering the dire and absolute warnings of the boat captain that we had scoffed at earlier, we began jogging back to Prisoner's in a bit of a panic. As it turned out, we arrived back at the pier with plenty of time to spare, even as we stopped to photograph rare island flora and fauna. But the whole episode was worth a minor, yet free adrenaline rush nonetheless. 

Campo Del Norte with Chinese Harbor in the Rearground
The Mountainous West Side Owned by the Nature Conservancy
Santa Cruz Island Coastline
Prisoner's Harbor Beach and Pier
Cliff Aster in Bloom
Endemic Island Fox
The "Beach" at Prisoner's Harbor
On the way back to the mainland, the orgy of migrating whales continued and the boat stopped for a decent amount of time for us to take photographs and otherwise satisfy our voyeuristic tendencies. During one of these stops, I overhead one of our boat-mates comment that we had seen more whales on our day trip then they had seen on a previous trip devoted exclusively to whale-watching. At that, we felt very fortunate to have made the trip when we did.

Back at Ventura, the ocean became more violent again and we rode the big swells into the harbor as the surf continued to pummel the coast. After landing, we rushed to the beach to catch one final glimpse of our islands as they slowly disappeared in the fading light of day. 

Anacapa Island from the Channel
Another Gray Whale Fluke
More Gray Whales
Migrating Gray Whales
Parting Shot - We Both Have Places to Be
The Ride Home
Sunset Over the Islands


  1. Great photos! Looks like it was a clear day on the island. My wife and I camped there in the summer of 2014, but it was very hazy and hot. Winter sounds like a better time to visit, as long as the sea cooperates and allows you to leave! I'm also impressed that you saw the fox; they only came out at dawn and sunset when we were there, so maybe they are getting even bolder this time of year as the number of visitors decreases. We saw lots of dolphins, but you saw whales. Nice!
    My TR:
    -- John

    1. Hey thanks jfr. Yeah, I've been to the islands in the summer but winter is nice because it's green, cool, clear, and uncrowded. Would like to do the trip you guys did and spend a couple of nights at Del Norte. Not looking forward to lugging all that water however. :/ We saw the fox along the road down by the pier around 2:30 p.m. He was well fed and not afraid of humans at all.

  2. Awesome wildlife photos. Definitely on my list. Well done!

    1. Hey thnks teke. It's a fun day. Go earlier or later in the season. It can be pretty warm and dry in mid-summer.