LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Santa Cruz Island Scrub Jay & Other Desert Musings

Every few years, my husband and I embark upon an adventure outside of our beloved Bad Lands and North Dakota, seeking to fulfill our mutual goal of visiting all of the national parks. Thus, my blog has been on hiatus since the end of January. Because we garden, we find it necessary (for the most part) to travel in the months of January and February. Hence, we decided to travel to the warmer areas of the U.S., the Southwestern states. We had a plan, but feared the government shutdown would in turn shut down our plan.

The moment we got the word of the end of the shutdown, we snapped into action, retrieved our passports from the safety deposit box, arranged for a house-sitter and loaded much of our camping gear and a bunch of books into our SUV (we have an abundance of camping gear and books). From our closets, we dug out our short pants, T-shirts and flip-flops.

Departing on a day when the wind-chill was 33 below zero, I overheard my husband, Jim, tell many of his friends that in a few days we would be where the temperature was in the 70s. Best laid plans. Although we did camp some, we didn’t rough it as much as we had hoped.

National parks and monuments visited. At each one, Jim takes great delight in securing a stamp for his Passport Book.

  • Exhibition Island National Historic Park (Wyoming) — sorta, a driveby as we crossed the Green River.
  • Great Basin National Park (NV) — first for both of us.
  • Zion National Park (Utah) — we’ve been there before but never can resist its breathtaking allure.
  • Cabrillo National Monument (California) — first for both of us.
  • Channel Islands National Park, Santa Cruz Island (California) – first for both of us.
  • Joshua Tree National Park (California) — another first and kudos to the people who had cleaned up the govt shutdown mess before we arrive.
  • Organ Pipe National Monument (Arizona) — long-awaited first for both of us, a wonderful place of solitude and beauty on the border.
  • Saguaro National Park (Arizona) — first for Jim.
  • Tumacacori National Historic Park (Arizona) — first for Jim.
  • Coronado National Monument (Arizona) — first for both.
  • Chiricahua National Monument (Arizona) — first for Jim (I went there as a child living in El Paso).
  • Pecos National Historical Park (New Mexico).
  • Fort Union National Monument (New Mexico).
The view from our deck.
The view from our deck.

When we arrived in our oceanside hotel room in La Jolla, Calif., the surf on the Pacific was pounding as a result of the howling winds generated by the big weather fronts hitting the coastline. I opened the deck door and settled in to ponder the horizon as long as I was able, thus avoiding the “state of the union” speech in my own Zen way. We took a walk along the beach, and I reflected upon the fact that very few things put our lives in perspective as time spent near an ocean.

The weather was rotten all across the country, including Southern California and Arizona. Because of the cold and rainy weather, we added a visit to the Nixon and Reagan Presidential libraries and to the gobsmacking Getty Museum.

Making plans on the fly, we booked the ferry to Channel Islands National Park, another first for us, located across the Santa Barbara Channel from Ventura, Calif. We chose Santa Cruz Island because there is water available for campers and it is a relatively short ferry ride (I am prone to seasickness). This decision was a wonderful fluke I realized when we visited the Channel Islands Visitors Center to prepare for the expedition and discovered that the Santa Cruz Island is the only place in the world where the Santa Cruz Island Scrub Jay is found, a distinctly different bird from the ordinary Scrub Jay, bigger and bluer. I bought a birding checklist for the Islands and we packed up what we could carry the one-half mile from the pier to the campground.

Santa Cruz Island is one of five of the eight Channel Islands that make up the national park, located across the Santa Barbara Channel from Ventura. It was a majestic and windswept place, inhabited by only a few National Park Service staff, a handful of fellow campers and dozens of day-trippers. We hiked to a vista on the first day and hunkered down for a very cold night. It didn’t take long until we saw numerous Santa Cruz Island Foxes, which are not at all shy, trotting through our campsite and alongside us on the trails. In the night, a very loud pair of Northern Saw-whet Owls called above the tent for quite a long time. The next morning, we took our coffee down to the beach to watch the sunrise where a California Sea Lion popped his head up once or twice and Gray Whales spouted in the Channel. In spite of the cold wind, the day’s sea kayakers were gearing up for their foray into the world’s largest collection of sea caves.

After we had packed our gear and deposited it by the pier for the late afternoon return ferry, we set off on the Scorpion Canyon hike, determined to see the Santa Cruz Island Scrub Jay, if nothing else (better picture at the link here than anything I took with my phone). About two miles up the trail, to my great delight, I spotted one, a new life bird for me. We spent quite a bit of time watching several of the jays and then Jim headed back for a swim and a relaxing afternoon on the beach while I continued upward from sea level to the highest point on the island, determined to be able to see the wide Pacific ocean from that vantage point (the developed area of the Island faces the Santa Barbara Channel). I powered through a 12-mile hike to El Montanon Peak, gaining more than 1,800 feet in elevation, saw only one other hiker until I got close to the pier, and it was sweet. I took as many photos as I could with my waning phone battery and I made it back to the pier just in the nick of time.

On the return ferry ride, the boat was surrounded by hundreds of bottle-nosed dolphins. Channel Islands National Park is an enchanting place to which we hope to return — perhaps when the NPS list is complete. It was bittersweet to leave the Pacific Coast, and I was not impressed with our last night that we spent on the Santa Monica Pier — too raucous for my taste. I’ll take wild beaches and islands any time.

The highlight of next-up Joshua Tree National Park was the campground neighbors we befriended, a trio of young men from Los Angeles, first-generation Americans of Armenian descent who insisted we join them for tequila shots and Armenian kabobs. They visit national parks to escape the craziness of LA — sound familiar? Forty mph wind gusts on Day 2 drove us off to seek shelter in Palm Desert having sustained some damage to our tent’s wind fly.

Other highlights were Organ Pipe National Monument, visits with Tucson, Ariz., friends, a day at The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and several days in Santa Fe, N.M., where we stayed at The Inn of the Turquoise Bear, in the Ansel Adams Suite, a place we learned of from one of our favorite travel guides, “Literary Destinations.”

We can never get enough of Santa Fe and all of its charms. Our arrival there was pushed up because of another huge storm that brought snow to Tucson and Nogales, N.M., and closed Petrified Forest National Park. We will have to try to get to Petrified Forest on another expedition. New Mexico and Arizona have a lot of national monuments and the like, but we pretty thoroughly explored southern Arizona this time. We finally had to accept that we couldn’t get to all of these on this trip.

Southern Arizona has many traces of Gen. George Crook’s time there. Naturally, I wanted to track these down, including visits to the Cochise County Courthouse in Tombstone and Chiricahua National Monument.

We squeezed in a Rosanne Cash concert in Tucson at the stunningly restored Fox Theatre.

We awoke to snow in Santa Fe, threw our stuff into the car and powered through in two days to our nice, warm Red Oak House, never having worn flip-flops, T-shirts or shorts but rather most all of our fleece garments and Sorel boots over and over, with far more trips to the laundromat than we had scheduled. Oh, and my valiant attempts to see a Green Kingfisher at Patagonia Lake State Park were to no avail. Guess it is not meant to be. I also didn’t eat nearly enough tamales (even had tamales for breakfast one day), but I did score several new life birds. Next time. Driveway to driveway, 5,391 miles was enough. All along the way, we made a point to tell federal employees how grateful we were that they were back at work, and, to a person, they were delighted to be doing their work.

What a gorgeous and diverse country is the U.S. and we’ve only begun to explore it in our two lifetimes. We intend to continue!

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