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Santa Cruz Island - Channel Island National Park, California

Resting 22 miles off the coast, Santa Cruz Island is a bastion of biodiversity just a short drive and ferry ride from the overbuilt cities and smog of Southern California. Originally inhabited solely by its native species and, later, the Chumash Native Americans, Santa Cruz Island existed largely untouched by mankind until the 1800s, when settlers from California began a ranching operation on the island. The evidence of that ranching period still exists in the form of preserved adobe houses and rusting equipment, but along side it lives an incredible array of animal and plant life, such as the Island Scrub Jay, a corvid found nowhere else on the planet, and the endemic Santa Cruz Island Fox.

Hiking up Montañon Ridge, you'll find that the traces of humanity, both new and old, gradually fade away as you leave the campgrounds behind and enter the rugged heart of the island. You could glimpse an Island Fox (one of the 3,000 who now inhabit the island, after their brush with extinction in the early 2000s) or perhaps a Peregrine Falcon or Bald Eagle, which have both returned to their historic numbers thanks to the same management tactics which saved the Island Fox. They may eye you warily, but you'll have more luck getting a good view here than nearly anywhere on the mainland-- generations of near-solitude have resulted in a curious and confident style of living.

Maybe you were lucky enough to snag a campsite at Scorpion Landing (or Prisoner's Harbor if you're exceptionally bold), but if not, the setting sun will be your cue to turn around and head back toward the dock. The ferry is the only ride back, and it waits for no one. On your journey back home, you may spot a migrating gray whale on its journey from Baja to Alaska, but even if you don't, you'll still enjoy the ride. For many, it's a once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch the sun sink down behind the Channel Islands, while the mainland gradually grows larger and more defined, as you push on toward home.