Prisoners to Pelican Trail, Santa Cruz Island

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I thought I’d start this page with a look at where the trail ends: a viewpoint overlooking Pelican Bay.  This is the reward for a moderately challenging, 2 mile (one way) hike along the coast of Santa Cruz Island.  More accurately, it’s just one of the rewards, since the entire hike is filled with great views of the Pacific Ocean, as well as this unique island.

Let’s go back to the beginning:

The boat ride from Ventura, operated by Island Packers, ends at the pier at Prisoners Harbor.  It’s the second stop for the boat — the first is at Scorpion Anchorage, where you could choose to get off and hike at your own pace.  I chose to stay aboard, because I had heard such good things about the Prisoners to Pelican trail, which begins near the pier. (You can read more about the boat trip to and from Santa Cruz Island on the previous page.)

I was very happy to set foot on this beach.  The nearly two hour boat ride from the mainland was stomach-turning.  Fortunately, I had a few minutes to get my land legs, eat a snack, and regain some energy, before the guided hike to Pelican Bay began.

If you want to hike from Prisoners to Pelican, you’ll need an escort.  While the pier and the beach (and the eastern quarter of Santa Cruz Island) are owned by the National Park Service, the rest of the island is owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy.  The organization requires you sign a waiver before hiking on its property.  Island Packers provided a volunteer guide, Andrea, to escort us out to Pelican Bay and back.  Constant supervision isn’t required — Andrea merely needed to be the first one on the trail, and the last one off of it.  Everyone in our group could explore at their own pace, so long as she led the group out, and brought up the rear on the way back.

A lot of effort has gone into restoring Santa Cruz and the other Channel Islands to their natural state, but there are still plenty of reminders that this used to be ranchland.  Near the end of the pier, there’s an old garage…

… and a corral.  An old dirt road leads inland, to the old ranch in the island’s central valley (where the old buildings are now used by the University of California).

The trail to Pelican Bay splits off from the road, and heads uphill.  From this point on, we were on The Nature Conservancy land.

On the way up the hill, Andrea pointed out the huge, fragrant bushes that were blooming at the side of the trail.  On the mainland, these California Lilac bushes remain small, but here on the island, they towered overhead.  It was just one of many differences in the local flora and fauna that she would show us.

At the top of the first hill, there’s a beautiful view of the pier…

… from a small building used as a lookout, a century ago.  Ranchers would send someone up to the lookout, to watch for approaching supply ships (which at the time were wind-powered).  Once a boat was spotted, the ranch hand would have plenty of time to run back to the valley and gather his co-workers, since the boats could take hours more to finally arrive (or even days, if the wind was calm).

After leaving the first viewpoint behind, the trail dropped and climbed several more times.  At times it would pass through some tiny forests of contorted trees…

… and at other times, we had great views of the ocean, as we navigated a hillside.

Our group came to a screeching halt when one of us nearly stepped on this Potato Bug (also known as a Jerusalem Cricket, even though it’s not a cricket and it’s never been to Jerusalem).  The Potato Bug isn’t unique to the Channel Islands; it can be found elsewhere along the California coast.  Andrea explained  that the Potato Bug contains a parasite (a Horsehair Worm) inside. Eventually, like a scene from Alien, the worm will burst out, killing its host. As it so happens, the Jerusalem Cricket provided the inspiration for that horrifying Alien scene. .

In late February, these huge bushes burst forth with yellow flowers.  The rest of the year, Andrea told us, the bushes are quite ugly.

I brought up the rear of our group on the way out to Pelican Bay, so that I would have time to stop and take pictures.

About an hour into the hike, we reached this viewpoint of Pelican Bay.  It’s a little less spectacular than our final stop, but from here on, Andrea told us the trail becomes more difficult.  Anyone who wanted to turn around could do so, she told us, but everyone wanted to continue.

The trail wasn’t especially difficult, just a bit steeper as we once again dropped down into a valley, and up the other side.  Andrea also warned us to watch out for poison ivy, which grows along this part of the trail.

After emerging from the valley, we crossed a wide-open field, that provided non-stop views of Pelican Bay…

… as we continued to hike the trail.

Looking back, there were also good views to the southeast, back towards Prisoners Harbor.

When we reached this point, Andrea told us this was as far as we could go.  I realized how nice it was to have her watching the clock, so that I didn’t have to.  Also, it’s a good feeling to know the boat wouldn’t leave without her, and since I was with her, it wouldn’t leave without me, either.

Our total hiking time from the trailhead to the viewpoint was about 90 minutes.  After stopping for a snack and admiring the view, we headed back to the pier.  The return trip took about 75 minutes.

Santa Cruz Island is home to some creatures that aren’t found anywhere else on earth. Among them: the Island Scrub Jay.

It’s bigger and more brightly-colored than other scrub-jays, and there are only about 9,000 of them in existence.

While I spotted a Scrub Jay, I wasn’t as lucky to see the island’s top predator. The Santa Cruz Island Fox is tiny – no bigger than a small house cat – but they are often easy to spot. The foxes have a laid-back attitude, and often lounge around near the trail, in plain view.  Not long ago, the pesticide DDT wiped out the islands’ bald eagle population. That gave golden eagles a chance to move in. While bald eagles left the foxes alone, golden eagles saw the foxes as an easy meal, especially once the number of feral pigs on the island began to dwindle. During the 1990’s, 95 percent of the foxes were picked off from above. Getting rid of DDT allowed the bald eagles to make a comeback, and a successful breeding program allowed the foxes to rebound, too. There are now about 700 Santa Cruz Island Foxes, up from only about 100 just a few years ago.  Even if you don’t see a fox, you’ll see their droppings, which tend to end up in the middle of every big, flat rock along the trail.

There were far more people waiting to get on the boat, than had gotten off earlier in the day  Most of them had camped on the island, and were ready to head home, along with all their gear.  (For details on the boat ride back to Ventura, jump back to the previous page).

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