Friday, December 20, 2013

Channel Islands National Park: Overnighting on Santa Cruz

     The balcony of the Motel 6 was bathed in California sunrise, the mountains across the highway covered in the same light.  Even from the third floor the palm trees stretched over my head.  They swayed in the morning breeze, a scratching desert song.  We had four hours to get from Twentynine Palms to Ventura, with the Mojave and the city of LA to pass through before arriving at the ocean where our ferry waited to take us to Channel Islands.

     Channel Islands National Park is a chain of 8 islands off the coast of Los Angeles.  Though they sit mere miles from one of the most densely populated cities on the planet, the islands themselves are almost completely undeveloped.  They are a home to many plants and animals that don’t live anywhere else in the world. 

     The average number of visitors to the Islands in a year is 30,000.  This is a relatively small number if you consider the Grand Canyon gets over 4 million.  So if you’re seeking a chance to experience some rare peace and quiet along the gorgeous California coast, Channel Islands could be just what you’re looking for.  

     The easiest way to get there is through Island Packers.  They are located in Ventura right next to the Channel Islands Visitor Center.  5 of the 8 islands are available for exploration.  I chose Santa Cruz because of its campgrounds and also because it promised to be less crowded than the more popular Anacapa Island.  

     Book your trip early.  I suggest reserving your ferry tickets first and then correlating your campsite if you are staying overnight.  There are many people that take the ferry out and stay for the day but I highly recommend bringing along a tent and a few supplies and staying at least one night.  
     We arrived safely in Ventura after a rushed morning of driving through the desert and then LA.  Our ferry left at noon which gave us a little time to explore the Visitor Center.  It was an amazing place.  Even if you’re only in the area or just thinking about planning a trip out to the Islands, the Visitor Center is worth a stop.  

     After an hour and a half on the boat, watching the blue Pacific Ocean glide past and seeing sea lions, dolphins, pelicans, and a plethora of other interesting sea birds fly by us, we arrived at Santa Cruz Island.

     The ferry deposits you at a long dock and then you’re on your feet for the rest of your Island stay.  No cars are allowed on any of the Islands.  

     We stood on the dock for a long time just gazing down at the ocean floor.  You could see crabs climbing around in the sand and beautiful garibaldi fish swimming through the orange kelp.

     Walking along the edge of the island you will see this incredible black & blue volcanic sand.

     Santa Cruz Island is the one and only home for the tiny Island Fox which is no bigger than a common house cat.  They aren’t extremely shy and there is a good chance you’ll see one.  Or in our case, quite a few.

     The campgrounds are only about a half mile from the dock.  We had with us our small tent, a couple sleeping bags, a bag full of food and other supplies, a lantern, and my photography bag.  The ferry has a limit on how much weight you can pack onto the boat but we were well under it.  The walk took us past golden hills and the old Scorpion Ranch, its farm equipment rusting into the ground, made beautiful by its submission to nature’s embrace.

     Just one more thing to love about California:  their reservation website for campgrounds lets you choose your own site in any National Park.  For Channel Islands we picked a secluded spot next to a gently flowing creek.  Gorgeous snow white flowers grew all along the water’s edge.  A towering California Oak shaded our site.

     We spent the rest of the day exploring the top of Santa Cruz Island.  We hiked up towards Potato Harbor.  We wound up the golden mountains on an empty trail lined with dry plants, tall thin white flowers that glowed translucent in the sidelight.  

     We sat by the top of the first ridge and thick fog furled up over the top like smoke from a giant rugged chimney.  

     We had the entire afternoon and evening at our leisure.  That is the one of the most incredible aspects of spending time in an undeveloped piece of land; there are no obligations and no distractions.  Each turn led to an even more dramatic view as every harbor got deeper.  The ridges of the Island spread out like a rocky pinwheel of cliffside, ocean, and light.

     The fog lifted as the sun began to sink lower and lower towards the blue mirror ocean.  It seemed unfathomable that 60 miles across its depths there was a city full of 18 million people.  When right before my eyes, no single other soul in sight, I had miles and miles of coast all to myself.  

     Albatross filled the air, constantly moving.

     Now that sunset was near, the day-trippers to Santa Cruz were all off the Island.  Not that it even mattered because we hadn’t seen another person since we started our hike.  But knowing the ferry was gone and wouldn’t be back until tomorrow morning, realizing that it was just us and the handful of other campers on the Island for the entire night was a lonesome and thrilling experience.  

     We walked on and on, adding our footprints to the vacant trail as I searched for the perfect ridge to view the sunset.  There is no such thing as a perfect ridge, though.  I just wanted to keep going.

     Eventually there came a point where we went no further on the trail.  There was only time to stop and stare.  The alpenglow shone onto the distant isles.  The clouds turned soft and the sky deepened.

     I crouched down on a rocky ledge, using my tripod as leverage as the wind whipped around me.  We watched the last light of day sink into the water, the ocean hundreds of feet below.

     It’s hard to say how far we walked.  Time was too easy to lose track of.  I’m guessing it was around 8 miles in all, though it’s difficult to say for sure.  The Island has many trails and many spectacular hikes.  Some take days to complete.  There are several more primitive campsites nestled among the mountains for these hikers.  Needless to say that is an experience I am determined to have some day. 

     The bright white moon and the dying fires of fellow campers were the only lights that night.  

     The next morning I awoke at dawn.  A heavy fog had rolled in through the night, blanketing everything around us.  We walked back to the dock and sat on a wooden bench, listening to the ocean and admiring the gulls. 

     No other souls were stirring that morning.  We had the entire beach to ourselves.  We walked among the volcanic sand and watched the blue waves appear out of grey sky.  It was a much different experience from the day before.

     For the first time I noticed that the Island has moods.  It occurred to me that every piece of particular land has its moods, but it’s become nearly impossible to determine what they are because the majority of the earth that we spend time on has been taken over by humans.  By their roads, cars, houses, lawns, stores, farms, fields, cemeteries, churches.  There are so few places left that are allowed to just... Be.  

     And Channel Islands is one of those places.  

     Something happens when you can’t see city lights, when you can’t hear the rush of cars.  There is an anxiety of the restless spirit that drifts away, like a wave taken under and returned to sea.  When you spend time in a place like Channel Islands, you are being surrounded by the loving arms of someone much older and wiser than you.  It’s why we feel like ourselves when we return to Nature.  It’s like going home.  It is a home that your soul remembers even if your present body does not.  

     I haven’t felt this way since Havasu, the other true solitary venture I’ve had.  The older I get and the more I travel, I realize these are the experiences I crave most of all.  They are a long forgotten necessity inside an ancient dream.  I’m slowly waking up to them.  

     Go and visit Channel Islands National Park.  You won’t have any other option than to stop and smell the moonflowers.  

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Joshua Tree National Park

     I woke up in Tuscon, Arizona feeling musty after a night of breathing in recycled air from the window unit of the Motel 6 off the side of busy Interstate 10.  I missed the night sky.  I began to rethink my choice of staying in a motel over camping.  With Saguaro reaching daytime temperatures of 110 and relentlessly staying hot and dry throughout the desert night, I chose to stay in the motel to get a good night’s rest.  But trading in the stars for a sterile ceiling  is rarely worth it.  

     We packed quickly in the dawn and locked our car into place on the already streaming highway.  10 took us through the Sonoran Desert National Monument, which was a vast stretch of Saguaros reaching as far back as the horizon.  We avoided Phoenix by catching up with small Highway 85.  

     At the junction of Gila Bend, we were 80 miles North of Mexico on the same highway.  Not long were we driving on the road when a plateless black car flew by us on the shoulder.  There wasn’t anything we could do until it passed us, and then we pulled off the road to watch several cop cars with lights blaring, chasing after it.  15 miles later and the black car had been run off the road, cops surrounding it and its trunk open to reveal what I can only assume was a big amount of some kind of drug wrapped up in burlap.  My doubts about missing Organ Pipe Cactus Monument were slightly quelled after witnessing this event.  

     We continued on through the rest of Arizona until the Colorado River appeared.  Wide and green, it separated Arizona from California.  Over the stretching concrete bridge and we were in the state that I love the most.  Immediately there was a change the in air, a balminess.  Palm trees began to sprout up a hundred feet tall.  The Colorado Desert opened up before us past the scrappy little town of Blythe.  

     We were well on our way to seeing the Joshua Trees.

     We entered Joshua Tree National Park from the South.  The roads were drying up quickly after a brief desert rain, and the temperatures were soaring.  The bottom half of the park had us slightly confused as there were no Joshua Trees to be found anywhere.  But we explored the other interesting plants that the park had to offer.  

     The Cholla Cactus Garden is a maze of these spiky yellow and orange cacti.  They are anywhere from a few inches to a few feet tall.  

     These little guys are referred to as the Teddy Bear Cactus.  But don’t be fooled by their cuteness.  They are lethal.  They make it a purpose to drop off and latch onto whichever unsuspecting person or animal walks by.  Their barbs will sink into your skin and form something like a fishhook from within.  They can be incredibly painful to remove.  Luckily this hasn’t happened to me, but just thinking about it makes me shudder.

     Their color is so lovely.  Almost makes you want to reach down and... nope.  Don’t do it!!!

     The monsoon rain was clearing away completely, making way for a blue sky.  It looked especially vibrant against the colorful Chollas.

     Joshua Tree National Park is made up of two entirely different desert regions, which explains why you will not see any of the famed trees in the bottom half of the park.  But not to worry, the Colorado Desert melts right into the Mojave, and you will not be disappointed. 

     Of course I had to pull over the inspect the first one I saw by the side of the road.

     Joshua Tree!

     These trees are incredible.  You’ll never see anything else like them anywhere else in the world as they only grow in the Mojave Desert.  They can reach 70 feet tall and can live to be 150 years old.  

     They enjoy mesas and grow well in groves.  We saw many growing in pairs.

     Inside this National Park there is more room than you could ever dream of, room to walk among the Joshua Trees to your heart’s content.  Perhaps it was because of the hot season, but it felt like we had the park’s astounding 800,000 acres to ourselves.  

     Key’s View is one of the lesser known parts of the park, and nothing had prepared me for it.  The road takes you 20 minutes off of Park Boulevard up to an elevation of 5,000 feet.  

     Key’s View sits on the crest of the San Bernadino Mountains.  From there you can see Coachella Valley, the San Andreas Fault, and the shining surface of the Salton Sea which lies 230 feet below sea level.  Once in a while if the air quality is especially fine, you can even see Mexico.

     Key’s View would be an excellent place to watch the sunset, but I had something else in mind.  I had my heart set on some Joshua Tree silhouettes.  I took one last look from Key’s View and then headed back down the mountain.

     The only difficult part about my sunset and silhouette idea was choosing which Joshuas I wanted to photograph.  As darkness neared, the park was more quiet than ever.  

     The sky began to fall in subtle, colorful layers.  I walked out into the field of trees and looked up.

     A crescent moon and Venus was rising in the sky, mingling with the sunset.  A pair of Joshua Trees caught my eye.

     I will never forget the time I spent under these trees.  Their stillness, their mystery, and their unique shapes against the California desert sky  all add to their beauty.  

     The sunset, the moon, and a pair of Joshua Trees: