Devils Peak P2K

Wed, May 8, 2013

With: Tom Becht
Keith Christensen
Paul Garry

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPXs: 1 2 Profile

Devils Peak stands as the highpoint of Santa Cruz Island, about 25 miles off the Santa Barbara coastline. The island is part of Channel Islands National Park though the western half, of which Devils Peak is a part, is owned and administered by the Nature Conservancy. It's charter is to preserve nature for nature, not so much for human benefit, unlike the National Park Service. To that end, they don't encourage visits at all, in fact they would rather people stay away and have some restrictive policies to ensure this. On the other hand they need donations which come from people, not nature, so they can't shut folks out completely. One method of soliciting donations and educating people in their work is to provide short nature walks out of Prisoners Harbor, one of the two commercial landing spots on the island. These hikes go nowhere near Devils Peak, however. A second method is to charge a $30 landing fee for those with private boats, allowing hiking, but not camping on portions of their property. This route does allow one to hike to Devils Peak. The trick is finding a suitable landing spot and then a route to the summit. Fortunately, most of the island has fairly easy cross-country. Though much of the terrain is rugged and steep, there is little bushwhacking necessary.

Keith had contacted me months earlier about the prospect of going to Devils Peak. It had been on my radar for years as a P2K. I had visited the island a year earlier for the LPC summit, El Montanon, which resides on the NPS eastern half. Originally I was thinking of a stealth moonlight hike out of Prisoners Harbor in line with what others had reported doing. But Keith had a friend with a boat that might allow the all-legal route to work, and we made plans accordingly. The boat was not large, as it turned out, and marine conditions would dictate whether our launch would be successful or not - wind and large swells would make it unsafe. Though the water was far from ideal, it was sufficient to allow us to make the 30 mile crossing of the channel and back again without too much trouble. There were six of us on the boat all told, four hikers plus the captain and his son. They planned to stay with the boat and go scuba diving or fishing, as conditions permitted. We planned to land at Ladys Harbor and hike about 2.5 miles to the summit and back, about 3-4 hours all told. Frys Harbor would be our backup route if the landing at Ladys proved difficult.

I drove down from San Jose the night before, sleeping off the side of Victoria Ave near the Channel Island Harbor in Oxnard. Tom met Keith and Paul in Santa Monica and carpooled to Oxnard early in the morning. All six of us convened at the harbor around the annointed start time of 7a. Our captain Jeff was eager to get started as the forecast had changed for more significant wind conditions in the afternoon. We started motoring out of the harbor shortly before 7:30a. The 30 mile boat ride would take more than two hours. In fact we would spend more time on the boat than we did on the actual hike. Going out, the ride was a bit rough due to swells, but the wind was light and only a few whitecaps developed. Our route took us near one of a half dozen oil platforms found in the Santa Barbara Channel, past Annacapa Island, past Scorpion Harbor on the eastern end of Santa Cruz Island and the summit of El Montanon. Eventually we entered Ladys Harbor where calm waters prevailed. Finding it was a snap thanks to the route that was entered in the GPS. Good thing I had it too, because the captain had the wrong coordinates on the boat's GPS.

The harbor proved to be an excellent choice. The rocky beach dropped off quickly enough into the water to allow us to motor almost to shore. Two of us jumped out up to our knees in the water, then held the boat for the other two to disembark. Afterwards we gave a heave to push the boat back out where Jeff started the motor back up and anchored the boat further out in the harbor. A seal came by to see what we were about, close enough to get a good look at us before moving back away from the shore. We went about drying our feet and putting our boots on, and ten minutes after we landed we were ready to start off on the hike. I may have been a little too quick to get started. There are three ridges that convene at Ladys Harbor, any one of which would lead to the summit of Devils Peak. I had in mind that we would take the middle one, the shortest, also the one I had entered in my GPS. The other two routes, on the left and right sides of the harbor, would have been more straightforward. The middle ridge route required some bushwhacking that very quickly became a nasty mess of tangled vines on steep terrain. In the lead, Paul called out that there was poison oak. A very bad start indeed. I was ready to pull out and try another way at the first sign of the stuff, but I never did spot any. I think Paul was mistaken. But the going was terribly rough. Eventually I led us left up another steep, but clearer slope to get around the tangled mess below, but this did not lend itself to getting us to that middle ridge. So be it - we ended up on the left ridge after all.

Things quickly got better. The jungle growth is almost exclusively confined to the few canyons that have water for a good portion of the year. Elsewhere, the flora is chaparral, not the thick stuff that covers large portions of the state's coast ranges, but a drier, friendlier landscape with grasses, rocky terrain and more open cross-country travel. There were a few unusual plants found, including an abundance of one particular succulent, but for the most part the vegetation was similar to that found on the continent side of the channel. One slope, appearing white from a distance, turned out to be one littered with a profusion of broken shells. I didn't spend the time to see if these were from an uplifted seafloor or the result of eons of birds feasting on crustaceans fished from the shore and eaten at this locale.

For most of the nearly two hours we spent on the ascent, Tom was close behind me while the other two took a more leisurely pace. We could hear them behind us discussing avocado farming (one of our captain's hobbies) and other topics, making a far more social affair of the hike than I'm used to. They appeared to be having a grand time, so I'm not knocking it - maybe there's something to be said for slowing down. We reached the crest of the island about a quarter mile east of the summit. Here we were treated to views of the island's interior. The island geography is not as simple as one might imagine, like that found on Catalina. Instead of having a single main crest, the island is split lengthwise by the Central Valley (an unimaginative name, albeit accurate) that lies south of the higher crest we were on. A jeep road runs along the length of the southern crest and a vehicle could be seen on it. We wondered if they might see us or worse, pay us a visit atop Devils Peak. It was unlikely. As Keith pointed out later, it would take them more than an hour to reach us on the circuitous road network.

By 11:20a Tom and I had reached the summit towers atop Devils Peak, the other two about ten minutes behind. The towers made for a bit of a letdown after the fine cross-country travel from the beach, but we weren't complaining too loudly. The service building at least provided some welcome shade on its north side. We found the benchmark on the east side of the shack and spent a good half hour at the top, taking in the views and eating our lunch. We were fairly lucky with the weather in that we didn't have fog and there wasn't an overcast. Typical ocean haze couldn't be avoided, but the views were still pretty good. We could see west to Santa Rosa Island where another P1K is found (yet another future visit), and just barely see the Santa Barbara coast 25 miles to the north.

There was a short discussion as we were getting ready to leave as to whether to take the same route back or a different one. The other three didn't seem to express a definite opinion one way or the other so I was happy to suggest we take an alternate route down, following a ridgeline further west. We left the summit on a trail that follows the crest to the west where it eventually meets up with the jeep road in a little more than a mile. We didn't go that far, dropping down off the trail after a hundred yards or so. Paul and Keith dropped down sooner while I was aiming for a more definitive ridge further west with Tom following. Our descent route proved better as it could be followed all the way back to Ladys Harbor. The smaller ridgeline that Keith and Paul followed ended prematurely at the junction of two dry creeks, forcing them to climb back up and onto an adjacent ridgeline, the middle one that we had originally planned for the ascent. Our ridge wasn't trouble-free however. The grass found there was thicker, higher, and loaded with stickers that found their way in large numbers into our boots and socks. My gaiters proved insufficient as I didn't have rope to tie them down. But they fared better than Tom who had none. We'd stop periodically to get out the most aggressive stickers, but there were many others that were mostly annoying. The other two, meanwhile, had gotten behind and could not be seen.

The final descent into Ladys Harbor proved steep, much of it over loose ground that had us moving slowly and cautiously. We ended up in the mass of vegetation found at the confluence of the merging dry creekbeds that took some effort to find a way through. Tom tumbled a short distance when he slipped on a steep traverse through some thickets. I was trying to lead us up and around the vegetation, but this proved unnecessary as there was a use trail of sorts leading through the worst of it that we had missed. Back on the beach by 1:25p, Tom and I sat down to take out all the stickers while we waited for the others. Our captain, meanwhile, had spotted us and started pulling the anchor and getting ready to return to shore to fetch us. Paul and Keith weren't 15 minutes behind us, likewise removing boots and socks in preparation for reboarding the vessel.

Just as with the initial landing, Captain Jeff expertly piloted the boat to the shore, careful not to let it touch bottom. Those on shore grabbed the railings to hold her steady while two of us boarded, the other two getting somewhat more wet because they had to do one last shove out to sea before clambering aboard. Jeff and his son reported no fish from their short diving expedition. Those on shoreleave likewise reported no fish. No large mammals, either. Come to think of it, I don't know if we saw any mammals. A few lizards perhaps and the random bird flitting about the countryside.

The ride back did not prove as difficult as we had thought. Though the whitecaps were large and plentiful, it helped tremendously that we were traveling with the wind and current and did not have to attack the swells head-on. Tom fell asleep for a portion of the ride, mimicking some of the sea mammals we passed by. The most interesting part of the voyage was when we spotted a huge flock of seabirds circling and diving for fish. The fish looked to be a large school of anchovies that a clever pod of porpoises had corraled in a tight spot before joining the feeding frenzy. There were two or three other places during the return where we saw large gatherings of porpoises and seabirds, but we didn't run through the middle of them as we did that first one.

It was almost 4p before we had pulled the boat from the water and called it a day. A highly successful one at that. We burned through some 30 gallons of fuel for which we compensated our captain and thanked him for being such a fine host. The two hour boat ride each way was undoubtedly the crux of the day, but it was well worth it in the end. The much longer ride out to Santa Rosa Island in the future may not pay similar dividends however...

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