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Return of the Natives: Paddling and Hiking Channel Islands’ Lost Gem

After nearly two centuries of ecological havoc wreaked by invasive species, the gem of Channel Islands National Park is becoming a paradise again. ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Watch a video and see two photo galleries from the island.

After paddling back to the anchorage, I head to camp at eucalyptus-scented Scorpion Ranch and find only two of 40 sites occupied. The camp is on the northeast corner of Santa Cruz, one of five isles in Channel Islands National Park. It’s day one on my journey, and the truth is I can’t help feeling a little piggish myself. Before the seven-mile paddle along the coast, my sea-kayaking guide, Andy Babcock, had wheeled a handcart full of falafel, pale ales, tuna steaks, and Peet’s coffee over to his favorite campsite. No suffer-fest this weekend. Babcock stashed the grub into steel lockers near the site’s picnic table. He said the lockers were called "pig boxes" because the park service installed them to keep the porkers from ravaging campers’ supplies back when they had the run of the place.

In the evening, we feast on the ferry-packed groceries, then turn in early to recharge for the next day. Come first light, I’ll walk 15 miles southeast to Del Norte Camp on the island’s isthmus. I’ll gain 1,200 feet, crossing the highest point on the National Park side of the island and pass through ten different biomes. It’s a traverse, Babcock tells me, that’s rarely done. But it’s the best way to see the island’s rugged interior.

Early the next day, just 50 steps down the Scorpion Canyon Trail, I spot two island foxes playing in a dry creek bed, and I pause to watch the cute, four-pound predators pounce on grasshoppers in the morning sun. A quarter-mile later, the route makes a sharp turn and I begin a steady climb, gaining 700 feet along grass-lined clay trails to a junction with an old ranch road and a barren, sepia-tone ridgeline. The views here are postcard perfect—bristly green grass giving way to cliffs and a deep blue ocean with islands that seem to hover above the white-capped waves. About four bazillion Southern Californians live within eyesight on the mainland, but I won’t see a soul here all day. Santa Cruz is popular with dayhikers and paddlers, but walk a couple hours in any direction and you’ll be the only human.

I cruise another five miles along Montañon Ridge, a craggy spine with patches of prickly pear and rooftop views into sandy coves. Campo Del Norte lies another six miles away in a small shaded grove, and I’m starting to think of dinner and the flask of scotch in my pack. But after a confusing trail junction (midisland trails are growing over without regular hoof traffic), I’m jarred back into the moment by the sight of a decomposed pig. It’s hairy, the size of a Labrador, and must have had some serious dental problems.

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