Backpacking Channel Islands National Park

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Every summer, my buddy Marv and I lace up our hiking boots and head out on a four-day backpack trip, usually to a national park. In 2012, our tenth annual trip took us to Channel Islands National Park off of the southern California coast.

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Normally, our wives drop us off at the trailhead and meet us (with shower gear and clean clothes) at the trail’s end four days later, but considering that our chosen island, Santa Cruz, is about 25 miles offshore, we had to change our M.O. All four of us took an Island Packers boat out of Ventura Harbor, and the gals spent the day hiking with us before they headed back to the mainland.

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The campground was far from the backcountry campsites we’re used to — these were more of a cross between backcountry camping (carrying your gear in) and car camping (carrying a LOT of gear in – our neighbors had four coolers!). We were definitely the lightest packers in the 25-site campground, which was complete with a water tap (no need to pump water from a stream, which was a good thing considering that there were no streams on island!), animal-proof food storage boxes, copious shade from 100-year old eucalyptus trees, picnic tables, and bathrooms with pit toilets and hand sanitizer!

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We set up camp and had our traditional dinner of freeze-dried entrees (just add boiling water!). A game of chess (travel size) took until well after dark, when we took advantage of the amazing night sky for a peek at the Perseid meteor shower, which delivered a handful of bright shooting stars before we called it a night. The Milky Way was easy to see — hard to believe since we were only 50 miles or so from LA!

Backpacking on an island gave us the unique opportunity to use Scorpion campground as a base camp, which gave us two distinct advantages over traditional backpacking: not having to carry all of our 35 or so pounds of gear on our backs every day, and not having to break down camp every morning & set up camp every night.

On day two, this allowed us to sleep in a bit later than usual. After a breakfast of instant oatmeal, we hiked through the upper part of the campground, which was in a wider, less forested part of Scorpion Canyon.

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Knowing we wouldn’t have to set up camp tonight, we took our time and did some birding along the way, spotting flocks of house finches along with song sparrows, ravens, horned larks, kestrels, Hutton’s vireos, and the endemic island scrub jay, which lives only on Santa Cruz Island. The jay is larger and much brighter blue than its mainland relative. Our best “bird nerd” moment was getting buzzed by a startled barn owl!

Our hike continued up (a recurring theme) along a trail that was definitely NOT designed as a hiking trail. No switchbacks, lots of rocks, and steeeeeeep. After climbing above the valley, we figured out that the “trail” was actually an old road to an exploratory oil well!

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Atlantic Richfield used it to look for oil in 1966, drilled up only water, and left it to rust (during pre-national park days). We explored it, used it for a bit of much-needed shade (another recurring theme), and then followed the old farming road down to Smugglers Cove.

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Smugglers Cove, like Scorpion, was the site of an old ranch and offered lots of shade under almond and eucalyptus trees. Picnic tables on the beach offered a great snack & rest spot, and a small sandy section of the otherwise rocky beach provided a great place to take a cooling afternoon swim! The hike back up from Smugglers was hot but provided great ocean views (another recurring theme).

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It was awesome to come back to camp a bit later than normal and not have to do the usual backpackers’ routine of finding a flat spot for the tent, setting up the tent, pumping a few liters of water through a filter, and using rope to hang the food bag high in a tree. Instead, we busted out a flask and added some schnapps to our hot chocolate – extra weight we’d have left behind on a normal backpack trip!

The next day, our final hike took us to the highest point on the island – Montañon Peak, about 2000 feet above Scorpion.

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This was a steep, hot hike — absolutely no shade to be found — but we were rewarded with amazing Pacific Ocean views for nearly its entirety. Montañon Peak afforded a 360-degree view of the island and about 270-degrees of ocean view, including neighboring Anacapa Island and the distant California coastline.

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Throughout our stay, we saw the endemic island fox, a smaller version of its mainland cousins and squirrel-like in its behavior around the campsites. These cute opportunists poked around other campers’ open food storage boxes while the campers ate nearby and even left two dusty paw prints on the side of our tent one night!

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On our final morning, we took our time breaking down camp before walking a few minutes to the boat dock for the ride back to Ventura and civilization. En route, a group of common dolphins swam alongside the boat, and we spotted a sea lion in the open ocean.

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Reentering civilization (complete with ice in its beverages, noise, and higher standards of personal hygiene) after a few days in the wilderness is always an interesting adjustment. But a hug from Erin, a hot shower, a cold beer, and a good night’s sleep a few feet above ground always soften the blow.

Backpacking has given me the opportunity to see some of the most spectacular scenery America affords – and almost none of what I’ve seen can be seen from a road. That, coupled with the chance to spend some uninterrupted time with a good friend, increased self-reliance, solitude, wildlife sightings, and an occasional refreshing dip in an otherwise inaccessible beach or mountain lake make the trail dust and sore muscles more than worthwhile.

Enjoy your week or your weekend out on the trail!

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