Liz and I just got back from a four day trip to Santa Cruz Island, helping to maintain the hiking trails. We drove all the way from Colorado to California for the opportunity, and we've been so many times we've lost count. On the drive, I was thinking about what keeps us coming back, and why I recommend it to anyone who loves the outdoors.
The trip over
To get to Santa Cruz Island you need to take an Island Packers boat from Ventura harbor. The trip only takes about an hour, but it packs in an amazing range of sea-life. Just yesterday we had a humpback whale leap out of the water and do a 180 degree twist only 200 feet from the boat, there's always hundreds of dolphins, and I've even had Orcas approach close enough to bite me.
Solitude on LA's doorstep
That's the view I wake up to every morning on the island. With no permanent inhabitants or cell reception, the only vehicles a few ranger trucks, and a hundred square miles to lose yourself in, Santa Cruz is heaven for anyone looking to get away from it all. Even better, you can be there in just a couple of hours from the center of LA, whether you want a quick day trip or a longer camp out.
There's no commercial presence there at all, no food stands, not even a soda machine, so you'll need to be prepared for a trip back to the 19th century, but it's worth it for the tranquility.
Watch a world recover
When we first started visiting almost a decade ago, the sheep had only just been removed and there were still wild pigs roaming everywhere. Ecologically it was a mess, the sheep had devoured almost all the native vegetation, leaving nothing but brown grass to cover the hills in the summer; the pigs were digging up the dirt in search of roots and causing the hillsides to erode, and with no predators the mice were everywhere. Now they've eradicated all the pigs, deported the golden eagles that lived on them and reintroduced bald eagles, and got rid of the fennel thickets that choked the trails. The difference over just a few years has been astonishing, with clumps of buckwheat, coreopsis and the unique island oaks popping up over previously bare hillsides. Even better, the indigenous island foxes have gone from being endangered to pests in the campground in record time, with numbers up from a few hundred to 1,200 in just two years now the golden eagles are no longer picking them off.
You'll never get another chance to see a whole National Park turn itself from a barren wasteland into a natural garden packed with plants and animals you'll find nowhere else. Get out there now while it's still in progress, and I guarantee you'll be amazed at the changes as you keep coming back.
Experience a dark history
I don't know if the island attracts crazy people, or if it turns normally sane people a little nuts, but you'll be surprised at how many of the people you'll meet there have ended up with a borderline obsession with the place. I'm one to talk, driving 1200 miles to visit, but its recorded history is a long succession of feuds, disputes and dreams of private empires. The one man who built a successful ranching venture on the island left behind a family that squabbled for over a century, with lawsuits ricocheting so long that finally most of it was sold to pay the legal bills, with the final parcel taken over after a dawn helicopter raid by a SWAT team in 1997! Long before that there's evidence of over 13,000 years of Chumash habitation, possibly the earliest in the Americas, before the population was taken to the mainland for easier control. There's so much archaeology, it's hard to walk anywhere that doesn't show evidence of a midden or worked chert fragments.
You'll need to be a big donor or volunteer with the Nature Conservancy before you can visit the main ranch situated on their land (their acquisition of that property was more fallout of legal feuding; the previous owner was determined to avoid being forced to sell to the NPS) but you can explore the smaller stations such as Scorpion and Smugglers, with century-old groves of olive and cypress trees to shelter under. There's also a new visitor's center at Scorpion, with some amazing work by Exhibitology giving a fascinating look into the island's past.
I haven't even touched on the breathtaking hikes, secluded campgrounds like del Norte or diving so spectacular that Jacques Costeau considered it the best in the temperate world. If you need to refresh your soul (and are willing to risk developing a lifetime obsession) visit Santa Cruz Island.