Point Mugu, Ventura CA, and the Channel Islands National Park

As alluded to in our route planning for this year, one of our general goals is to visit the places we missed in 2015 due to our mechanical challenges that first year of full-timing.  Specifically, we cut short most of our southern and central California plans in order to get The Big Kahuna into a shop in northern CA, so this year we wanted to spend a good amount of time in the lower half of CA, and especially in the various National Parks throughout the state.

First on that list by virtue of its southern-most location: Channel Islands National Park, off the coast of Ventura, a short hop north of Los Angeles.  The big challenge is getting there, by which I mean braving the… intense southern California traffic through San Diego, San Clemente, and Los Angeles as well as the twisty turny roads along the Pacific Coast Highway through Malibu.  We spent a lot of time travelling 20 to 30 mph along the I-5 in clobbered 12 lane traffic despite our Sunday morning departure, but we eventually made it safely to the Point Mugu Naval Air Station.

This is, as are many Navy owned campgrounds, prime real estate with spectacular views.  It is also, like many Navy owned campgrounds, questionably maintained.  For $30 a night we got a full hook up site (#151) that, though a little tight, was pretty nice, located within a stone’s throw of Mugu Lagoon and the Pacific Ocean.  We loved the location and the amenities (free laundry and a small commissary) but would have like to have seen a better maintained park; the power junction boxes, for example, looked like an electrical fire waiting to happen.  Likewise, the “rules” for the park residents were more like general recommendations.  E.g., a neighbor pulled in behind us and didn’t bat an eye, much less discuss with us, his encroachment on our assigned area to position his satellite TV antenna.

But all things considered, we loved it and would come back again, especially considering how convenient the location was to the Channel Islands National Park ferry harbor in Ventura.  The park consists of five islands, and after a bit of research and rate comparison, we chose to lock in a day trip to Santa Cruz, the largest and second closest to Ventura option.  This would allow a short one hour ferry crossing and nearly six hours of exploration and day hiking.

We did not regret this choice.  We made the 25 minute drive up to Island Packer’s parking lot to catch our 9:00 am ferry departure.  We had half an hour to explore the official National Park visitor center, and then off we went, plowing through notably rough, six to seven foot seas.  I have never in my life gotten seasick, but have great sympathy for those that do: so damn it parents of teens that obviously look ill, follow the repeated guidance from the crew and get your kid to the back railing so we don’t have to watch him lose it all over the tables and benches inside the ferry!

We had an unexpected bonus during the transit as we pulled up half way there to watch the repeated breaching of a hump back whale!  Fantastic.  Rosemarie and I have taken whale watching tours in San Diego, Hawaii, and Maine, and this was the closest we have gotten to one of the behemoths, and it was not even part of the expected experience!

We docked at Scorpion Bay, listened to the very brief orientation from the park ranger, and headed out for a 5 mile hike to Potato Harbor with a side trip to Cavern Point on the return leg.  Having done our research, we were first on the trail and encountered not a single other person until the turn around point of the hike.  But along the way we had such glorious experiences, starting with the family of three Island Foxes cavorting in the lower tent campground unconcerned with us human interlopers.

The various subspecies of Island Foxes (Urocyon littoralis) are related to mainland grey foxes, but significantly smaller due to insular dwarfism, essentially an environmental outcome of limited food, range, and resources.  An Island Fox usually weighs less than five pounds.  To put that in perspective, our cat is three times as big as one of these things!

During our six hours on the island we observed about seven foxes, one of which led us along the trail to Potato Harbor for nearly a mile and a half.  When it paused to hunt, we paused to watch, usually within 30 feet of our location.  During one exciting event, it successfully chomped on a few large insects in the bushes while we stood and took picture less than five feet away!

The views along this day hike were spectacular, especially the rugged coastline that recalled images of Hawaii and the Galapagos islands.  The sheer number of pelicans, which we would later learn were most likely breed and raise on nearby Anacapa island, along with the large and aggressive crows were a wonder to watch.  At one point, as we collapsed on the rocky beach after our hike, a crow passed but 20 feet over head with a nearly 2 foot snake in its beak!  I have know idea whether the bird killed it or found it dead; either way, very entertaining.

We boarded the ferry for the far less rough crossing back to Ventura; smaller waves and following seas made for a gentler transit.  Along the way the captain and naturalist tried to find us another whale, but were confounded by what we suspect was a very shy Minke.  Ah well, it had been a great day, so what more could we expect?

And then lightening struck: much closer to shore than you normally find them, a hump back was engaged in cooperative feeding with a large pod of common dolphins, sea lions, and opportunistically feeding pelicans, shearwaters, and gulls.  Alerted by the multitude of aggressive diving birds, the captain steered towards the activity.  There we observed in awe as the whale and dolphins herded the schools of sardines and anchovies into tight bait balls, culminating in repeated open mouthed breaches of the whale as he swallowed untold number of the fish.

It was extraordinary, especially as we were able to observe it within a couple of hundred yards.   I can’t believe our greatest whale watching event occurred on a trip where we had no expectations of even seeing a whale.  We forgot to even try to take still photos, having only captured the moments on video.  Check out a very short clip on our instagram page.

Upon arrival back at the Ventura harbor, we were met by dad and Marcia, who had completely altered their central California national park exploration due to collapsing weather in the Saguaro and Kings Canyon area.  With late snows interfering with their plans, they left the fifth wheel inland and drove to the coast with the intention of camping for a couple of nights in the Channel Islands.  We hosted them for a night at Point Mugu before they rose early for their ferry crossing.  We look forward to hearing about their experience there and seeing their pictures as well.

5 thoughts on “Point Mugu, Ventura CA, and the Channel Islands National Park

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