Kayaking on Santa Cruz Island

“OK, everyone, listen up!” the crewmember yelled. “Once you get off the boat, line up down the pier. We’ll take the gear off by bucket brigade.”


We climbed the six rungs up a rusting steel ladder to step off the Islander and onto the pier at Scorpion Ranch landing on Santa Cruz Island. Then we strung ourselves out from one end of the pier to the other, all 60-plus of us, and started to pass the sleeping bags, cook stoves, coolers, tents, kayak paddles and innumerable other items from one person to the next. Within 15 minutes the gear was unloaded and stacked in piles at the foot of the pier.

Meanwhile, the crew unloaded our kayaks and strung them together in a long colorful line to paddle them to shore.

After a 10-minute welcome from the National Park ranger, (be careful while kayaking; there are no snakes on the island, but there are scorpions), we faced the prospect of hauling all of our camping gear nearly a mile back to our campsite. Fortunately, my friend and our guide for the weekend, Cathy Armstrong, borrowed a cart. We piled the heaviest items on it: coolers filled with food for a weekend, the tents and some awkward beach chairs. Then we loaded the rest of the stuff on our backs, and off we trekked.

Five women, five teen-age daughters, four kayaks, and one isolated island off the Southern California coast. Mother’s Day weekend. This was not an adventure for the faint of heart.


It started innocently enough. Cathy had promised my then-15-year-old daughter, Kendall, that she would take her out to the island as a belated birthday present. Kendall and Cathy’s daughter, Torrie, have been best friends since fourth grade. Cathy has been camping and kayaking on Santa Cruz and the other channel islands almost since they became a national park in 1980. When I said I’d like to go, too, we had the makings of a girls’ weekend adventure.

Cathy’s best kayaking and camping buddy, Dr. D’Ann Lawson, came along, as did our friend Mary Marshall and her two daughters, Montana and Molly; my friend Toni Lorien, a Santa Barbara County attorney; and Kendall’s basketball teammate and friend, Momoko Gill. It could have been a recipe for disaster, but it turned out to be a weekend of distinct pleasures.

All of us discovered something about the island, and, in many ways, about ourselves. For example, I found out that, yes, I could kayak through a narrow tunnel of rock with a surging wave. Twice! Kendall discovered the crabs that live among the rocks at the shoreline are all different colors of red, burgundy and slate. I have dozens of photos to prove it. And guess what? The girls survived without Facebook, cell phones and (for the most part) their iPods.


Santa Cruz Island is one of five islands off the Ventura and Santa Barbara coastlines that are now included in the Channel Islands National Park, and, at 96 square miles, it is the largest. The others are Anacapa, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara. With the exception of Santa Barbara, which is the most remote, all are visible most of the year from Santa Barbara and Ventura. You can visit all of them through Island Packers, which took us out to Santa Cruz from Ventura Harbor. Each island is unique in its topography, climate, flora, fauna and history. Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa were used for ranching in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; Santa Cruz for sheep ranching and Santa Rosa for cattle. All were settled by early native people, the Chumash, more than 10,000 years ago.

Today, the National Park Service is working to protect the delicate natural environments of the islands while allowing limited access so people can enjoy and appreciate the unique treasure they represent.

There are two campgrounds on Santa Cruz. The one at Scorpion Ranch, where we stayed, is more accessible. The campground at Prisoners Harbor, a half-hour boat ride beyond Scorpion Ranch, is a four-mile hike from the harbor mouth. Both have potable water and modern pit toilets. If you want a shower, you have to bring your own (which we did).

Cathy had prepared all the food ahead of time, and we ate exceptionally well. Pesto pasta with artichoke hearts and chicken was our first night’s meal, made in one pot on the cook stove. Breakfasts consisted of muffins, yogurt, granola and fresh fruit. Lunches were soup warmed on the cook stove and sandwiches. Saturday night we had burritos. On the last day, Sunday, we had fresh salads with smoked salmon for lunch.

Santa Cruz is a hikers’ paradise, offering trails that crisscross and circumnavigate the island. Once we had our camp set up, we ate lunch and several of us headed off to hike. The girls went off to explore and several of us took much-needed naps. Saturday morning, Cathy and D’Ann were up and on the water with the kayaks early. It was fairly cold Friday night (take lots of warm clothes and warm sleeping bags), and foggy Saturday morning, so I waited until later to kayak. The best time to kayak is actually when it’s foggy, because as soon as the sun comes up the wind also picks up. Kayaking against the wind can tire you quickly, which is why the rangers recommend going north into the wind on the outset of your trip, then coming home with the wind at your back. We did it the other way, but it allowed us to explore some of the more interesting rock formations, caves and tunnels to the south of the harbor entrance.


We saw lots of wildlife. On one excursion through Oooh Aaah Cave (when you enter, you say “oooh, aaah”), a large sea lion startled Cathy and the others by diving toward them and under the kayaks. The Santa Cruz Island fox, an endangered species, was a common sight, especially near the campsites in the early evening. The Park Service has an active breeding program for the foxes, and many of them wear tracking collars. They are surprisingly small, about the size of a house cat, and seem to have no fear of humans. On the boat ride out, we saw a juvenile humpback whale, but more spectacular was the vision of hundreds of white-sided dolphin that accompanied the boat for nearly a mile on the trip back to the mainland.

After two-and-a-half days of camping, kayaking and hiking, we were happy but exhausted. It was a Mother’s Day weekend we would never forget.