A Day in the Islands: Channel Islands National Park

Located offshore, these five islands, known as the American Galapagos, inspire with wildlife viewing, hiking, sea cave kayaking, and world-class diving. Isolation over thousands of years has created unique animals, plants, and archeological resources found nowhere else on Earth and helped preserve a place where visitors can experience coastal southern California as it once was.

Channel Islands National Park

These islands, on the edge of the North American continent, were never connected to the mainland. During the last Ice Age, when sea levels were lower, the four northern islands were joined as a single island known to geologists as Santarosae. When the sea rose again it created the four northern islands we see today.

Channel Islands National ParkWe had a chance to visit these islands and I delight in sharing the highlights of our trip with you.  We booked a tour with Island Packers, who visits all five of the islands that make up the Channel Islands National Park and National Marine Sanctuary. Our tour included whale watching and allowed a full day of exploration on Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz Island

At over 96 square miles in size and the largest island in California, Santa Cruz contains three mountain ranges; the highest peak on the island (rising above 2000 feet); a large central valley/fault system; deep canyons with year round springs and streams; and 77 miles of craggy coastline cliffs, giant sea caves, pristine tide pools and expansive beaches.

Scorpion Ranch HarborAround Scorpion Ranch area, where we moored, volcanic rock mixes with siliceous shale made of mud and tiny sea plants and animals that lived when the island was part of the seabed. It was fascinating to walk along the shoreline and look for fossils. My daughter even braved the chilly waters for a short swim.

This area was once a lively ranch complex. French and Italian artisans, farmers, and workers collaborated here to raise sheep, roosters, and other farm animals. Residents had to adapt to the limited resources and barren landscape.

Remnants of the ranching era can be seen throughout the landscape.  Adobe ranch houses, barns, blacksmith and saddle shops, wineries and a chapel all attest to the many uses of Santa Cruz in the 1800 and 1900s.

We visited in May and thus the water was too cold yet to swim so we spent the day hiking along the many trails and roads that traverse the islands. We began on Cavern Paint Loop and connected to the North Bluff Trail out to Potato Harbor.

Santa Cruz Island FoxAnimals & Plants

Owing to millions of years of isolation many distinctive plants and animal species have adapted to the island’s unique environment. The Channel Islands are home to nearly 150 endemic plants and animals – species that are found here and nowhere else.

Dozens of species are endemic to the archipelago in general, for example: Island Western Fence Lizard, Island Gopher Snake, and Island Deer Mouse. The Santa Cruz Island Fox, Silver Lotus, and the Island Jay are found only on Santa Cruz Island. Plants include Santa Cruz Island Manzanita, Whitehair Manzanita, and the Santa Cruz Island Lacepod and Gooseberry, amongst others.

Channel Islands SucculentChumash People

The islands were first colonized by the Chumash and Tongva Native Americans 13,000 years ago. The Chumash made ingenious use of all the island’s resources. They depended heavily on the ocean – fishing, gathering shellfish, and hunting sea lions, seals, birds, and other animals.

They also harvested plants for food, medicine, bedding, building materials, and to make beautiful baskets. Rock collected on the island was used to craft tools for harvesting and preparing food, building plank canoes or tools, and making beads.

Saxipak’a ~ Once upon a time.

The Chumash also traded with communities on the mainland and other islands for things that were limited or unavailable on Santa Cruz. Shell beads, fishhooks, otter pelts, fish and shellfish were traded for products like acorns, bow and arrows, seeds, plants, and deer bone.

The native peoples were then displaced by European settlers who used the islands for fishing and agriculture. The U.S. military now uses the islands as training grounds, weapons test sites, and as a strategic defensive location. The National Park Service (NPS) lead the conservation efforts to maintain the islands’ endemic species as well as provide education for future generations.

Cavern Paint Loop TrailIntegrated Learning Experiences

The award-winning book, Island of the Blue Dolphins, was inspired by the true story of an American Indian woman left alone on one of the Channel Islands for 18 years in the 1800s. She’s come to be known as the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island and is thought to have been of Gabrielino-Tongva descent.

Though San Nicolas Island is closed to the public, you can experience island isolation and the natural resources described in the book by visiting the islands. The National Park Service and other partners have developed resources to guide those interested in learning more.

Students and teachers can explore the unique ecology and geology of the Channel Islands, learn about the marine and island ecosystems, their human history, and the challenges of managing and protecting these areas via the curriculum materials available from the NPS as well.

Santa Cruz Potato HarborWe would have loved to see more of the island but this was a day trip – we’ll be back! After a day of hiking and exploring (I believe we hiked about 5 miles), we returned to the mainland in the evening and enjoyed a Santa Maria style barbecue at Shaw’s Restaurant. It was the perfect way to conclude our day in the islands.

 

The Islands of the Galapagos: Baltra & Santa Cruz

baltrasantacruz

This is the first post of a five day hopscotch series. Join me each day this week as I share with you our discoveries in the Galápagos Islands.

Baltra

Isla Baltra is a small, flat island located near the center of the Galápagos. Created by geological uplift, the island is very arid and vegetation consists of salt bushes, prickly pear cactus and Palo Santo trees.

During World War II Baltra was established as a United States Army Air Force base. Crews stationed at Baltra patrolled the eastern Pacific for enemy submarines and provided protection for the Panama Canal. After the war, the facilities were given to the government of Ecuador.

Today the island continues as an official Ecuadorian military base. The foundations of buildings and other remains of the US base including the old airfield can still be seen on the island.

Upon arriving into Baltra, all visitors are transported by bus to one of two docks. The first dock is located in a small bay where the boats cruising the Galápagos await passengers. The second is a ferry dock which connects Baltra to the island of Santa Cruz via the Itabaca Channel.

We were transported to the ferry dock and from there, boarded a panga with which we crossed the Itabaca Channel to Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz

Situated in the center of the archipelago, Santa Cruz is the second largest island after Isabela. Its capital is Puerto Ayora, the most populated urban centre in the islands. There are some small villages whose inhabitants work in agriculture and cattle raising.

Highlands of Santa Cruz

The island is a large dormant volcano. It is estimated that the last eruptions occurred around a million and a half years ago. Upon our arrival, we boarded another bus and drove up into the highlands of Santa Cruz  which offer exuberant flora and are famous for a gigantic lava tunnel that is over 2000 meters long. Along the drive, we were fortunate to observe a Galápagos Rail (an endemic, flightless bird) on the roadside but sadly we weren’t able to capture a photograph.

We enjoyed a wonderful lunch al fresco (the first of many) and from our table could watch giant tortoises doing the same. Thereafter we put on our wellies (which were provided for our use) and were then guided around the property. Here, we observed the large tortoise populations up close. Though it is rare to see females in the highlands (they nest in the dryer area of the lowlands) – we did see one.

We visited the highlands once again on our sixth day – touring the property of a cattle ranching family where we were able to walk around at our own leisure. It was here that we enjoyed a little spelunking in a lava tube. It reminded us of the lava caves in Central Oregon and Hawai’i that we’ve explored previously.

We drove up to Cerro Mesa for a fabulous view of the island. It was quite overcast and cloudy but the view was incredible. A short distance from the peak was a huge crater with steep walls that were covered in diverse, lush vegetation – even cactus.

bachasbeachLas Bachas

On our fifth day in the islands, we spent the morning on Playa Las Bachas sunbathing and exploring the fringes including a small brackish lagoon where we hoped to see flamingos.

Snorkeling near the shore, I loved seeing hundred of sea cucumbers, evidence that the fishing restrictions were aiding in the comeback of these echinoderms. [I had read about the illegal harvesting of sea cucumbers in Galapagos at the Crossroads: Pirates, Biologists, Tourists, and Creationists Battle for Darwin’s Cradle of Evolution.]

landiguanaCerro Dragón

In the afternoon, we hiked along a trail near Cerro Dragón where we observed land iguanas foraging. The area is also known for its flamingo lagoon but these elusive pink birds eluded us all week. It was here on this hike that we really began to understand the geography of the islands [Developing Map Skills in the Galápagos].

Puerto Ayora

The Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) and the headquarters of the Galápagos National Park Service (GNPS) are located on Santa Cruz. The GNPS and CDRS operate a tortoise breeding centre here, where young tortoises are hatched, reared, and prepared to be reintroduced to their natural habitat, which we visited on the afternoon of the sixth day of our 8-day voyage.

The hatchlings we observed were just a couple years old. They remain in captivity – gradually moving from one enclosure to another – each with less ‘protection’ and a more natural environment. Hatchlings are highly susceptible to predation so the efforts at the research station have dramatically improved the population numbers.

CDRSHere, were also had the opportunity to see saddleback tortoises, two of whom had been “roommates” with Lonesome George who sadly passed away just two years ago.

The most memorable moment at the research station was watching “Charlie” – one of the tourists in our group – befriend a little cactus finch. The finch was so curious, she must have spent 10 minutes hopping about on his arm and shoulder, pecking every now and then. It was clear that the nickname we had given him was well suited.

Read my other posts in The Islands of the Galápagos series:

Isabella

Fernandina

Santiago & Bartolomé

Española

hopscotchjan2015

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