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Trip of the Week

Going Back in Time to the Islands of California

January 12, 1986|MICHELE GRIMM and TOM GRIMM | The Grimms are writers/photographers based in Laguna Beach.

You can still get a look at primeval America. It's a broken line of rocky outcroppings called the Channel Islands, just off the Southland shore.

Five of them--San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Barbara--are part of the nation's 40th national park. (Not included are three others in the island chain: well-known Santa Catalina and two under Navy control, San Clemente and San Nicolas.)

Private ownership and the Pacific Ocean have long acted as natural barriers to an invasion of the Channel Islands by mankind. And now the National Park Service and nature groups are helping to protect the isolated terrain for future generations.

On a limited basis, visitors are welcome to explore these sanctuaries of natural history. Anacapa is the closest and most accessible, with an excursion boat departing daily from park headquarters in Ventura Harbor.

Year-Round Program

In addition to scheduled summer trips to Santa Barbara Island, a year-round program of outings to Santa Cruz Island has been organized.

Santa Cruz is the largest of the eight Channel Islands. Breaking the ocean's surface for a distance of 24 miles, it ranges in width from two to seven miles.

Geologists are intrigued by the island's rock varieties--metamorphic, igneous, sedimentary--as well as its earthquake faults, freshwater springs, two mountain ranges and pastoral valleys.

In addition, the biological diversity of Santa Cruz makes it a treasure of flora and fauna. Eight of the island's more than 600 plant species, including Santa Cruz Island ironwood and island oak, grow nowhere else in the world.

Also endemic is the Santa Cruz Island scrub jay, one of 130 species of land birds that have been counted there. And you may see the docile island fox during its daytime forages.

Seals and Sea Lions

Besides hosting 13 species of land mammals, the island offers refuge to scores of seals and sea lions in protected coves. Colonies of nesting sea birds have their breeding grounds along the shore cliffs and beaches.

A bonus this season when crossing by boat to Santa Cruz Island is the opportunity to see gray whales during their annual migration to Baja.

For historians there are relics of the Chumash Indians at hundreds of archeological sites. When the European discoverer of California, Cabrillo, first sighted Santa Cruz in 1542, an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 Chumash inhabited the island.

By the early 1800s the Indians had been removed to missions on the mainland, and later the island became the property of Andres Castillero in a Mexican land grant. The next owner, an Englishman, sold it to some San Francisco businessmen who formed the Santa Cruz Island Co.

The company took French and Italian immigrants there in the 1880s to raise sheep, cattle and honeybees and grow walnuts, almonds and olives. They also produced grapes that were made into Santa Cruz Island wines.

Protective Control

Ranching has continued into this century, with Dr. Carey Stanton owning 90% of the island and still raising cattle. Arrangements have been made, however, for that land to come under the protective control of the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving wildlife environments.

The Gherini family of Santa Barbara owns the remaining eastern part of the island, which the park service eventually will acquire. Meanwhile, you can visit the Gherini ranch property.

From the Island Packers Co. pier in Ventura Harbor, a 35-passenger boat leaves two weekends a month for the century-old Scorpion Ranch at the east end of Santa Cruz Island. It's 23 miles off the coast and the crossing takes 1 3/4 hours.

After landing by skiff on the pebbles-and-sand beach, visitors are given a guided tour of the old ranch buildings, then hike past abandoned farm implements into a scenic valley to look for sheep and wild pigs.

Bring Water to Drink

Passengers take their own lunch; a charcoal fire is started at the ranch for those who want to barbecue. Also, dress warmly, carry drinking water and wear shoes for hiking.

Although the trip isn't strenuous, you must be agile and in good health. The boat departs Ventura Harbor at 8 a.m. and returns at 6 p.m. Adults pay $36.50, children 12 and under $24.

If you go on the Saturday trip, arrangements can be made for two to eight persons to spend the night in the old bunkhouse and return with the Sunday boat. Take your own sleeping bag and food. The cost including round-trip boat fare is $90, children $75.

For more details and reservations, call Island Packers Co., (805) 642-1393, or write them at 1867 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura 93001.

Island Packers also can arrange for longer stays on the east end of Santa Cruz Island at Smuggler's Cove Ranch. You'll bed down in a historic adobe recently refurbished. Solar panels provide electricity and hot water for showers.

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