Island Foxes greet each other with obvious affection; seeing these foxes was the highlight of our journey to Santa Cruz Island

En route to Santa Cruz Island, the boat’s captain steered us off course, so we could see dolphins porpoising (or is it porpoises dolphining?) over the Santa Barbara Channel. Our crossing was smooth, so we were glad that we hadn’t applied the seasickness patches; they work, but make me groggy.

Dolphins viewed during our ride to Santa Cruz Island

We pulled up to Scorpion Anchorage, a protected cove with a dock, where a National Park Service Ranger greeted us and filled us in on the rules and regs. He also checked our campground reservations.

Visitors arriving on the Island Packers boat from Ventura; from here we carried our packs and other gear about a half a mile to the campground.

Then we gathered our gear and began the scant half-mile trudge to our campsite, which proved to be a lovely spot under huge old eucalyptus trees that were planted in the early days of Scorpion Ranch. There was a picnic table and a pair of food lockers, one at each end of the table, to ensure that campers’ food was kept away from the inquisitive and daring little Island Foxes that trot through the campground with regularity, as well as the startlingly intelligent Common Ravens that know we are a source of food.

Campsites are located in a eucalyptus grove

After setting up our tent, we followed a trail up Scorpion Creek, then went off trail into Scorpion Canyon, in hopes of seeing the Island Scrub-Jay among the oaks that thrive in that canyon. Skirting pools of standing water, we walked and scrambled up the rocky, narrow reaches of the canyon. It was lovely, with red rocks and intricately branched oaks. There were lizards and small birds and species of plants that we had never seen before. There were even a couple of small rock overhangs, one of which had clear evidence of early humans. With the pile of chert and abalone shells out front, we could imagine a Chumash Indian crouching there, eating a meal and waiting for night to steal away the day, revealing a stunning spread of the Milky Way overhead.

Wild and beautiful Scorpion Canyon is the the best place to see the Island Scrub-Jay when coming to Scorpion Anchorage, though it is a rough hike over the boulder-strewn creek bed

Then we heard it … a clear call of a jay. In the oaks across the canyon, higher on the dry slope, there was a big, blue Island Scrub-Jay foraging in the branches of an oak. This species lives nowhere else on earth, so all the bird listers from across North America have to make a similar pilgrimmage into this remote canyon in order to add the species to their life list.

Island Scrub-Jay–a species found nowhere else on earth. This species is substantially larger than its nearest relatives on the mainland, and makes its living feeding mainly on Island Live Oak acorns.

After the jay moved on, so did we. The day was getting late, so we had to figure out how to get out of the canyon and back to camp before nightfall. We decided that instead of going back, we would try to climb out of the canyon by going due north up the steep side of the canyon. It was a huff-and-puff climb and scramble, but eventually we emerged onto a stunning, grassy plateau, where we followed an old ranch road toward Potato Harbor. As we gazed down toward the crashing sea below, Karen spotted an Island Fox trotting through the grassland. This was incredibly exciting for us, since we had hoped to see a fox but thought the chances were remote. Little did we know that, since their population recovered from near extinction, the little foxes are again thriving and don’t seem to mind being seen by humans. They are certainly not tame, but they are not especially afraid of us, either.

Island Fox fitted with radio collar to help scientists monitor the population

Island Foxes are about a quarter the size of their closest mainland relatives, and saw their populations plunge from above 2,000 in the 1990s to below 100 about seven years later, due to a complex series of events set in motion by mankind. I will fully explain this chain of events in a coming weblog.

We watched a second fox hunting in this area above Potato Harbor, and this one had on a radio collar that was recording its every move, so that scientist could monitor the recovering fox population.

The high and lonely headlands above Potato Harbor

Is it just me, or does this formation above Potato Harbor look like a warning that Indiana Jones would have disregarded?

With darkness coming fast, we switched on our headlamps and followed the old Potato Harbor Road back toward the campground. As the road led steeply down off the plateau, we crossed some extensive patches of bare, white earth. These were different from most of the soils of the island, and they turned out to be diatomaceous earth, which is composed of billions of silicon skeletons of algae that once lived in the sea.

Heading back to camp by headlamp

We reached the campground well after dark. While walking through the campground, Karen caught the gleam in a fox’s eye as it stood atop a picnic table, foraging on food left on the table by some campers who had turned their backs and were rummaging in their tent. Another coup for the wily fox!

That night, the stars splayed magnificently across the sky as we prepared a backpacking dinner with the hiss of the MSR stove and the stabbing rays of our headlamps. Deeply tired, we sank into pleasant sleep.

The next morning, we awoke to beautiful sunshine on the grassy hills rising across Scorpion Creek from our campsite. We spent a couple of pleasant hours exploring the Scorpion Ranch buildings and immersing our minds in the lives of those who spent generations here, growing grapes, raising hay, tending sheep, maintaining roads, and all the other tasks of a large-scale rancher. The National Park Service has maintained the ranch buildings beautifully, and repurposed one of them for use as a visitor center. This is the area where people coming off the boat for the day generally have lunch, and there are plenty of big lockers to keep food from the foxes while people are taking a short hike or exploring the ranch buildings.

Golden hills and cirrus clouds in morning light near the campground

Old ranch buildings and blooms of bougainvillea at Scorpion Ranch

This was a beautiful, but sometimes lonely, place to live and raise sheep

The walkway into the building now repurposed as a National Park Service visitor center is paved with tumbled and polished beach stones

Old ranch building with a huge circular saw blade

At Scorpion Ranch there is a lot of old and rusting ranch and road-building machinery; this photograph shows the fanciful logo of an old Caterpillar bulldozer

Canned goods inside the old kitchen, now part of the visitor center at Scorpion Anchorage

Interior detail of an old blacksmith shop at Scorpion Ranch

We stopped and photographed an Island Fox in the bright sunshine as it foraged among the tall grasses of the hillside. Then we walked down to the pier to see what tide pool creatures we could see, and were rewarded with the sight of a colony of bright purple sea urchins. There was also a crab that was bigger than we expected to see–about a foot across. We got glimpses of it through the kelp that waved back and forth. There were fish about a foot long, and we looked for large, bright orange Garibaldi (California’s state marine fish), but didn’t see any.

An impressionist view through surging waves of Purple Sea Urchins, which are collected for their edible roe by divers in the vicinity of the Channel Islands

We decided to do another hike up Scopion Canyon, to see if we could get a closer look (and photograph) of an Island Scrub Jay. We enjoyed good looks at Pacific Chorus Frogs and their tadpoles. We also saw a new bird species for our life list–the Rufous-Crowned Sparrow. We eventually saw a jay, but it kept its distance.

Side-blotched Lizard in Scorpion Canyon

Pacific Chorus Frog in a stagnant pool in otherwise dry (that day) Scorpion Creek

Rock shelter used by Chumash Indians, perhaps over thousands of years during their occupation of the island

Again, we climbed out of the canyon onto the plateau. This time, as we looked down the length of Santa Cruz Island where the steel gray Pacific met the land, there were thick gray layers of clouds, with watercolor washes of rain falling on the distant hills. We decided to head quickly back to camp.

High grasslands in the area above Scorpion Canyon and Potato Harbor

Headlands above the Pacific Ocean between Potato Harbor and Cavern Point

That night, the heavens opened up, with hard rain all night. We stayed dry in a new tent, but other campers weren’t so lucky. Two young men were sitting glumly at their picnic table early the next morning; when I asked them if they got wet, they grumbled that they were soaked, because water came up through the bottom of their tent. Later, I watched them pouring GALLONS of water from the tent as they packed up. I asked a lady ranger how much rain had fallen overnight, and she said there was about 1.6.” That’s roughly 10% of the yearly annual rainfall here. There were puddles in the road, but the plants looked as fresh and happy as the wet campers looked wet and dejected.

Blue tarp campers–more commonly seen in the Pacific Northwest, where we live, than in southern California

In the unsettled weather, we decided to hike the dirt road to Smugglers Cove, where there was another old ranch. The road surface was slick from the overnight rain, and our hiking boot treads caked uncomfortably with heavy, squishy mud. Once atop the plateau, the views across the open grasslands toward the sea and the distant mainland were stupendous. We stopped for a break in a grove of Monterey Cypress, then continued on to the ranch. Descending the steep hill to the ranch, we walked past an old grove of olive trees, planted when the owners long ago decided to get into the olive business.

Scorpion Anchorage viewed from the Smugglers Cove Road

Monterey Cypress grove along the Smugglers Cove Road, with a view to Anacapa Island

An evocative view along an old fence line intersecting Smugglers Cove Road, with the grand Pacific Ocean distant

An olive orchard was part of the Smugglers Cove ranch operation

As we approached the ranch from the cobble beach, four foxes that had been foraging in the meadow scattered into the adjacent brush. The ranch still had plantings of bougainvillea, which was bright with magenta blooms. We took shelter under the eaves of a building next to the ranch house during a hard shower; and I took the opportunity to pick a couple of oranges for us from a tree. As northern people, we had never before had the opportunity to pick oranges fresh from a tree [In contrast: when I was displaying my photography at an art show in San Francisco several years ago, one woman said my photograph of apples hanging on a tree in late autumn, and she said she had never seen an apple tree!]. There was also a nearby lemon tree, very pretty, but we decided that these fruits were impossible to eat fresh from the tree.

After leaving the ranch and heading back up on the plateau, we took a spur road that led up to an abandoned oil well, where I stopped to photograph the

Rusty surface of a steel shed at the old and abandoned oil well

old machinery. Then we descended steeply into the valley of Scorpion Creek. In the valley, Karen suddenly stopped and said that a Loggerhead Shrike had just dived into a bush about four feet away from her. I got out my long lens and was able to get great photographs of the shrike when it emerged and perched atop the same bush, perhaps eight feet from us. It lingered a long time, enabling me to get dozens of photographs at this unexpectedly close range. This gave me a sense of part of what the National Park Service means when they call the Channel Islands the “Galapagos of North America.” The wildlife is abundant, different from the mainland, and not very afraid of people.

Loggerhead Shrike in lower Scorpion Canyon; a subspecies endemic to the Channel Islands that is relatively rare

Mourning Dove on an old fence

We walked back along the trail along Scorpion Creek, which had turned from a dry creek bed with intermittent pools where frogs lived lazily with their tadpole offspring, to a raging, brown current that moved boulders, carved stone, and carried little tadpoles out to the playground of sharks. This was an excellent lesson in canyon-cutting, and we were glad we didn’t need to hike up narrow Scorpion Canyon again in order to see endemic jays. We might not have made it.

Finch foraging on a thistle near Scorpion Creek

On our next and final morning, we hiked up a trail to Cavern Point. Nearing the top, we saw a fox trotting up the trail ahead of us. Suddenly, it dashed across the meadow; I thought we had scared it, but then we saw what it was doing. It had sighted another fox across the field and was running over to see it. It was like a glorious reunion of people who have not seen each other for years. Well, maybe a bit different since there was tail-wagging (I didn’t realize that foxes could exhibit this dog-like behavior) and vigorous sniffing that looked like kissing. After a long greeting, the two foxes foraged in close proximity to each other. It was thrilling for us to be able to see such fascinating emotional behavior.

Two Island Foxes greeting each other like long-lost buddies

Island Fox hunting in a meadow; these foxes eat a lot of insects, scorpions, mice, and berries

Island Fox foraging on Santa Cruz Island near Scorpion Ranch

Then it was time to leave. We were extremely satisfied with our hikes and wildlife sightings. What a wonderful place!

Common Raven on the headlands at Cavern Point

Beautiful cliffs of Scorpion Anchorage

Patches of white diatomaceous earth–made of the silicon “skeletons” of untold billions of ancient algae that once inhabited the sea–along road leading down to the Scorpion campground

Limbs of an Island Oak along Scorpion Canyon

To get to the Channel Islands, Island Packers offers boat access to each of the islands.  Check their web site for all details and schedules. The National Park Service has excellent descriptions of Channel Islands National Park, including information about the biology and geology of the islands, and the rules for visiting. T.C. Boyle has a new novel, “When the Killing’s Done,” about the ethical implications of the National Park Service’s replacement of exotic species in the Channel Islands with native species; it’s an excellent and timely novel for anyone interested in National Park policy.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to (Just ask if you see a particular photograph you like; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

112 Comments on “CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK: Exploring Santa Cruz Island

  1. Thanks for sharing Lee. Very well done. I now live in Utah, but recal with great fondness camping out on Catalaina and Anacapa and offshore at Santa Cruz with family and biologist friends in the 70s. Reading Boyles’ novel was a recent reawakening of my desire to return. The closest I’ve gotten to the islands in the past few years is Paradise Beach near Pt. Sal when we’ve taken a timeshare at Avila Beach. Ed Motola

  2. Very cool! I had no idea there was such a wide variety of animals living on the islands. Learn something new everyday.

  3. All photos are beautiful specially the birds.

  4. Great pics and overview. Looking forward to your explanation of the drop in the population of the Island Fox

  5. Magnificent! Sadly, I had no idea this place existed. Adding it to my list. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Amazing photos – thanks for sharing! I visited the Channel Islanda area; Santa Cruz Island last Summer – GREAT EXPERIENCE!!! Congrats on being FP!

  7. Wow! Beautiful pictures. I am excited about passing this onto a friend who was curious if the camping near the Channel Islands would be interesting. Thanks for sharing.
    You Matter! Smiles, Nancy

  8. This looks like a place I would absolutely love to visit, just for the fauna alone. The island foxes have the sweetest faces. I really like the shot of the rusting shed, too. Lovely pictures.

  9. I do not think words can describe what your camera has captured. I enjoy these pictures very much cannot stop going through them.

  10. What an amazing place! your photos are beautiful, and I am in love with the foxes. Just gorgeous! Thank you for trip info as well, as I was wondering that all the more as I read through this entry.

  11. Incredible Photos!!! The animals, especially the foxes, are so adorable. I love all the photos. A well deserved Freshly Pressed post 🙂

  12. Thanks for sharing this awesome photos. Those foxes are adorable and I love how the dolphins swim freely on the second photo – haven’t seen one since my existence. The experienced must have been breath taking. 🙂

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  13. So beautiful – love the foxes! Are they a sub species of grey foxes? Is this off the coast of California?

    • They used to be considered a subspecies of the grey fox, but are now classified as a distinct species. Yes, it is off the coast of California; Malibu is nearby on the mainland.

  14. Hi after taking the chance to view the info on the Channel islands I am here to share my point of view. After being born in the 805 area Ventura county raised in the city of Oxnard,Clovis California , Arizona’s Phoenix , Mesa & Chandler City’s i would like to say a few words about the wonders near to us. Nothing like fishing at the island’s them self and nothing grater the n the combination of islands to see every day. Now in Clovis California. The Channel Islands are a sight to remember. And a place to visit some day again.

    Johnny Lozoya Jr.

  15. Beautiful photos – I love the loggerhead shrike. It’s only after you look at it that you realise it’s just a little grey bird. I thought this would be about the Channel Islands in Europe (Jersey, Guernsey etc.) so this little patch of paradise was a real surprise to me.
    Nice blog!

  16. Great photos. Thanks for posting this trip summary – we love hiking and camping and have explored many national parks, but had never heard of this one.

  17. Beautiful photographs and a great piece. Love the foxes. I play golf and there is a a little guy that lives near the 5th hole of a course nearby, who is the most charming little fellow. The groundskeepers can’t get the fox to leave, and the fox has a recurring role, live, here in Baltimore. I really enjoyed reading this.

  18. Very nice! I used to do archaeology work with the Chumash on the mainland and we always kept an eye out for artifacts that could be definitively traced to the islands, but I never got a chance to visit them. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  19. Thanks very much due to browsing great and gorgeous pics and nice issues.

    once agains thanks for creating such a nice and fantastic website.

    so beautiful 😦 Regards,

  20. Thank you for the lovely post. I made reservations last week for a trip out to Santa Cruz for birdwatching, a day to to Prisoner’s Harbor. We can’t wait. I hope we’re at least half as successful as you were.

  21. I love the California coast! I haven’t had a chance to really explore it in depth but love driving from San Fran to Monterey. Breathtaking! I think next time I’ll start in Monterey and head to Ventura or catch a boat! Didn’t know about the boat tour. Amazing pics! Thanks for sharing and congrat’s on being FP’d.

  22. Beautiful photos! I love reading about how so many other people love doing this stuff, because in real life I only know a handful. It’s such a blessing to be able to explore nature like this. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  23. Wonderful! We have foxes here in South Jersey but they are so rare that I know only one person aside from myself who has seen one. It really makes one wonder what the New World was like before the Old World landed on its shores.

  24. Wow! I love this post. So glad I found you on FP. I like the various types of shots: wildlife, close ups, vista. Gorgeous! And of course those foxes are adorable!

  25. Reblogged this on RiverPark 411 and commented:
    And to think, all of this is just a few miles off our coast! We live in one of the greatest location on Earth!

  26. I really enjoyed this post. Your pictures and details of wildlife are fascinating. I need to put this three day trip on my California bucket list.

  27. I’ve enjoyed your site so I’m nominating you for the Illuminating Blogger Award for informative, illuminating blog content. I know not everyone participates in blog awards but I hope you’ll at least check it out because it’s a great way to discover new blogs, meet new web friends and pay it forward, so to speak. If you’re interested in participating, you can check out the details at my site … … Hope you’re having a great day!

  28. Superb images. Excellent craftsmanship and creative expressions abound. Indeed very impressionable and memorable. Loved your description of such a great place. Thanks for sharing.

  29. An interesting acount with excellent photos! I haven´t ever even eard of Santa Cruz island and now I´ve seen it. Thank you for sharing.

  30. Wow! What a fantastic post! Love the pics. Photos like those are one of the great adventures the I-net and blogging provides us. Seeing an area that is such a stark contrast to the SW Florida place I live in is wonderful. If you want a glimpse of the difference visit me and go down a post and see the video clips of manatees and pics of the night herons nesting in the mangrove swamp. Three WOOFS for your post!!! Sandy

  31. Fantastic and in-depth exploration. My personal favorites are the ‘warnings Indiana Jones would have disregarded’ and the foxes. Some of the landscapes appear like mad faces cackling at the feelings of beauty their insane expressions inspire. The foxes just make me think of kisses on a sofa over the cover of a favorite book…

  32. This post just gave me another wishlist place to visit! The Island foxes are just beautiful creatures! I hope you have photos of the foxes for sale! Thank you for sharing your photos and adventure!

  33. I live in the Pacific Northwest as well. Blue Tarp Campers, I love it! Awesome job with the pics and congrats on being FP.

  34. wow, what gorgeous pictures! I love those foxes (they’re a pest here in Oz, so killed on sight, but in their natural habitat they’re so sweet looking).

  35. What a gorgeous spot! And fantastic pictures + a great story: thanks for sharing.

  36. Love your photos. What a pity we’re missing visiting the channel Islands while on our current Road trip USA… looks wonderful!

  37. Your animal pictures are great. Those Island Foxes look like a bit like Hyenas.

  38. The island foxes and the birds stole my heart! What a great time you must have had.

  39. Hello, I am Janelle, the art editor for Murmurations Magazine. I was wondering if you might be interested in submitting some of your work to our magazine. Please let me know if you have any questions.

  40. I have lived in Southern California my whole life; I can’t believe I haven’t visited Santa Cruz Island yet. I will definitely have to put that on my bucket list, it looks gorgeous. I wonder how Santa Cruz and Catalina’s hiking compare.

  41. Wonderful photographs and narrative. We are traveling that way from Georgia and hoping to start a blog soon. Y’all are an inspiration for both aspirations. Thanks for helping us discover another special spot.

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