After our first encounter with the Santa Cruz Island Fox (on May 29, 2016), Patrick, Sean, and I set off on a hike to the cliffs above Potato Harbor. We would combine this hike with a return past Cavern Point, creating a pleasant, five-mile loop hike on the eastern edge of Santa Cruz Island, where the undulating landscape is slowly recovering from over a century of intensive ranching, including acres in crops and pastureland.
The plant species of eastern Santa Cruz Island are a mixture of common southern California coastal species, endemic species found only on Santa Cruz Island or some combination of the Channel Islands, common wild invasive species from the mainland, and purposefully cultivated invasive species leftover from the island’s ranching history The animal species tend toward the native, since the wild hogs and sheep and other domesticated animals have been removed. The removal of these farm animals has allowed the island flora to begin to recover after a century of grazing.
From the Scorpion Campground area, we followed Potato Harbor Road as it climbed into the hills west/northwest of Scorpion Canyon.
At steeper places along the trail, which was an old ranch-era road, the chalky bedrock was exposed, creating a fine layer of dust on the trail and eventually on our boots.
Our next encounter with the island’s wildlife was in the grotesque form of the Jerusalem Cricket. It was about 2.5 inches long and lying on the trail, seemingly dead. We weren’t sure what it was, even, or whether it was poisonous. Then it started to move, and we were slightly unnerved. Later, we would learn that these large, flightless insects native to the western United States and Mexico, are relatively harmless.
The landscape was almost classic rolling California chaparral and pasture. And it was exceptionally dry. Even though we were visiting in spring, the grasses were dry and yellow with the mixture of the West’s years-long drought and the unusual weather patterns of an El Niño year.
We noticed several tiny piles of fox scat. The little foxes mark their territories in part by leaving their droppings in noticeable locales.
Our next insect encounter was with hundreds of pill bugs living in colonies in the sedimentary rock along the trail. They would climb up the rock, slip, roll down the slope, and then climb up the rock again. Over and over again, they confirmed the nickname roly-polies given them by children. None of us had ever seen so many of them in one place before.
As we reached the top of the hills, the scrub and brush grew shorter, clear evidence of how windswept the islands were. Plants in the protected canyons and valleys grew taller than those on the higher, more exposed areas of the island. Here too, the flora was a mix of invasives and bizarre endemics, perfectly adapted to the rigors of life on the Channel Islands.
At the crest of the ridge we had been climbing, we were suddenly on cliffs three hundred feet above the Santa Barbara Channel.
Out in the channel, huge shipping vessels slid silently past in the perfectly calm water. Any possible glimpse of the mainland was obscured by the still-thick marine layer.
We continued on Potato Harbor Road as it ran west along the cliffs toward Potato Harbor.
In the distance, we could see the ranges of the rest of Santa Cruz Island. Most of that land is owned by the Nature Conservancy because the ranchers who sold their land were not keen to have it become part of a federal park, but they were amenable to having a land trust like the conservancy hold the land.
As we approached Potato Harbor, a lone raven stood sentinel on an old fence post. It was unconcerned with our presence. In fact, we had been warned that the ravens sometimes grabbed the untended items of unfortunate visitors and threw them off the cliffs for sport.
The fence posts and the road were not the only evidences of the former ranch. Parts of the cliff edge were a tangle of barbed wire and endemic plants.
We reached Potato Harbor at around 11:45, about an hour after we’d departed Scorpion. Here the cliffs dropped precipitously down to the protected cove of the harbor.
Far below, kayakers explored the formations and sea caves of the harbor.
We got excited when we say some sort of mammal swimming in the water of the harbor…
…but it turned out to be merely Homo sapiens sapiens in SCUBA gear.
We settled in on the edge of the cliffs for a picnic lunch. While we ate, other hikers arrived, including a couple with whom we got chatting and who were well into their own National Park odyssey, with a number of visited Parks in the upper 30s. We were also there long enough for the guided hike to catch up with us, and its participants fanned out along the overlooks.
Meanwhile, far below, the kayakers were having their own lunch on the beach at Potato Harbor.
After lunch, we began to make our way back, ultimately headed to Cavern Point. Instead of following Potato Harbor Road, we kept to some trails near the cliff edges.
Then we met back up with Potato Harbor Road and continued east the way we had come.
Far below, flocks of pelicans hung out on offshore rock formations. While other pelicans and gulls soared along the cliff faces below us. Under the marine layer, the water was a metallic gray, but the air temperature was warm.
We completed this first section (more-than-half) of our hike at the junction between Potato Harbor Road and Cavern Point Trail.