I’d barely begun bushwhacking up a side canyon in Scorpion Canyon—located on the southeast end of Santa Cruz Island, the largest isle in the Channel Islands National Park—when I felt an annoyingly familiar pinch on my upper back. A dreaded something was burrowing in.

Ticks have become a heightened concern on the chain, especially on Santa Cruz because it receives the most traffic. With all the rain from last winter many of the trails are overgrown, and narrow, deluge-swollen side canyons are especially choked. Fortunately, I was able to reach around and pull the hardy pest out.

That wasn’t the only tick I found this spring. The island flora has been off the charts, some of the best I’ve ever seen, but getting to the best displays can require a bit of off-trail effort—so ticks be damned. There have been high concentrations of giant coreopsis, gold bush, silver lupine, island paintbrush, blue dicks, Santa Cruz Island liveforevers and Santa Cruz Island silver lotus, my favorite.

Anacapa Passage

It was a surprisingly calm spring afternoon, no perpetual northwest winds to foul things up. If there’s a wet winter the giant coreopsis is the first prominent wildflower to bloom on the islands. They look like miniature trees with clusters of vibrant yellow blooms and they were peaking.

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting them to be going off where I hiked that afternoon. I’d arranged for three kayakers to meet me at San Pedro Point so I could photograph them just off the southeast tip of Santa Cruz with the Anacapa Passage and Anacapa Island in the background.

While my three subjects paddled southeast to San Pedro, I would have to run/hike with camera gear to the tip and time their arrival. The road to Smugglers Cove was a muddy quagmire, a National Park Service backhoe was stuck and left in the mud. I ran past it and then made the descent toward Smugglers. Just before reaching the idyllic, shaded cove, I veered off trail, thrashing through grasses that were shoulder-high. I dipped down into three craggy canyons before finally feeling that convergence of currents swirling below me, my three kayakers exactly where I needed them to be.

The clusters of giant coreopsis were a surprise, a bonus in the foreground as the kayakers bobbed on shimmering cobalt seas. When I was finished, I waved them off and hiked off trail all the way back to the lonely backhoe. Along the way I navigated a route between miniature forests of spindly blue dicks and canopies of Saint Catherine’s lace, tapping into island fox trails wherever it was convenient.

Ridge runner

There wasn’t a whole lot of time to spare. I’d just finished leading a kayak tour at Scorpion Anchorage, but I also had Montanon Ridge on my mind all day. The 5-mile-long trail is steep and rocky, but I was anticipating wildflowers along the narrow, serpentine ridgetop to its island summit overlook.

Much of the trail appears moonscape-like, the red earth dominating the route before reaching a series of saddles and ridges leading to the summit of 1,808 feet, the highest accessible point in the entire national park. Along the way I passed blooming island bush poppy, deerweed, island buckwheat, blue dicks and healthy pockets of Santa Cruz Island liveforevers before reaching the Prisoners Harbor Trail junction.

Just beyond the junction, dense, spring fog was billowing up from the north side of the ridge, but thwarted from descending the southeast side. Winds do crazy things out on the islands. Northwest winds were doing what they normally do in the spring, blowing down island at no more than 15-20 knots. However, as I stood on the spine of Montanon Ridge, a light southeast wind was pushing upward and blocking the fog from spilling over, instead forcing it to billow and swirl upward.

I located my first small patch of Santa Cruz Island silver lotus just below the 1,808-foot summit, but then I was finding it all over the southwest side of the ridge. It was some of the biggest swaths of silver lotus I’ve ever seen. Its silver stems and leaves a fine contrast to its yellow and cinnamon-colored blooms that were clearly enjoying the wind-whipped, rocky, volcanic soil.

I stayed and photographed until 8 p.m. Reveling in the diffused light, larger patches of silver lotus filled in the gaps between silver lupine and island monkey flower, the island flora soaking in warmer, softer tones as sunset turned to night on the most biodiverse isle off the California coast.

Adventure and travel writer Chuck Graham lives in Carpinteria and contributes his writing and photography to publications far and wide. For more wildlife photos, visit chuckgrahamphoto.com or follow Graham on Instagram at @chuckgrahamphoto.

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