As you ascend the steep, rough switchbacks, holding tightly to a hand-built bench in the rear of a flatbed pickup truck, water wells in your eyes. Not from fear, but from sheer disbelief.
What you see: A rugged landscape of every hue, undeveloped, untouched. Wild. What you hear: Nothing. Not a single thing but your own breathing. You inhale and the air catches in your throat. What words apply?
Insert your preferred superlative here. Magnificent. Spectacular. Glorious. Grab a thesaurus and take your pick. The adjectives will come fast and furious, but the perfect word eludes in the face of beauty indescribable.
This is California at its ecological and unrivaled finest. This is Santa Cruz Island Reserve, part of the seven-site UC Santa Barbara Natural Reserve System (UCSB NRS). It’s about 25 miles off the Santa Barbara shoreline — and a whole world away from modern, metropolitan reality.
“Being out here, in one sense you can almost think you’re a time traveler, and that you’ve gone back in history,” said Lyndal Laughrin, the reserve’s director for nearly 50 years. “This is the way California used to be. This island definitely could have gone the way of Catalina, full of people. But it didn’t happen here, and it’s just been an amazing opportunity and a privilege to have been able to be part of it.
“There are days you can go someplace and you’re virtually the only person for tens of square miles,” he added. “I can’t argue with how awesome this place is. It speaks for itself.”
Does it ever.
The biggest island off California’s storied coast, Santa Cruz is home to the world’s largest recorded sea cave, the tallest peak on the Channel Islands and the greatest number of plant and animal species across the entire chain. At 24 miles long and six miles wide, with 62,000 acres in sum, it is nearly three times the size of Manhattan.
Legend holds that it was named for a priest’s staff, inadvertently left behind during the 1769 Portola expedition. A native Chumash Indian is said to have found the staff and eventually returned it to the priest, leading the Spaniards to thereafter refer to the place as “La Isla de Santa Cruz,” or Island of the Sacred Cross.
Archaeology from Santa Rosa Island, a few miles west, suggests humans lived on the Channel Islands more than 13,000 years ago. At one point, as many as 2,000 Chumash spread across 10 villages on Santa Cruz, where evidence of humans so far dates back 9,000 years. That’s according to Laughrin, an island historian by virtue of his tenure here, half a century and counting.
“Sometimes, you’ll be walking along and find a blade or an arrowhead or some beads,” he said, coming upon a fairly common sight — “worked rocks.” To the untrained eye they look simply like, well, busted rocks. But in fact, said Laughrin, any rock here with one hard-broken edge and a smoothed-out opposing side is almost certainly a former Chumash hand tool.
Animal skulls and skeletons are scattered in abundance across the island. An impressive collection of this biological ephemera — curated ad hoc over the years by visitors who find, then leave them behind — surrounds a tree fronting the UCSB field station. Weeds grow through those that have been there the longest.
Two rugged mountain ranges, deep canyons, perennial springs and streams, plus a full 77 miles of coastline cliffs, expansive beaches, pristine tidepools and sea caves. Landforms on Santa Cruz are as numerous as they are diverse.
The island’s central valley, a faultline running right through, is like an ecological wayback machine. From an elevated vantage point — a mere 20-minute, treacherous drive west from the UCSB field station — you can gaze across a Jurassic-era ridge some 140 to 160 million years old. The volcanic formations date to the Miocene, some 14 to 15 million years ago.
“You could put your feet across two different ecological eras right here,” Laughrin said, surveying the valley below. “The views are different at different times of day, during different seasons or weather, and from different angles. It’s like looking through a kaleidoscope. You turn it and things shift themselves around. And you never tire of what comes next.”
With unrivaled diversity in geology and ecology alike, and microclimates to go along with them, a drive across the island is like traveling from Baja California to Santa Barbara to coastal Northern California — all in three hours’ time. In a single bumpy ride, you’ll move from a cool forest to a stretch so hot, dry and rugged it feels like a desert. You’ll come upon areas impossibly lush and green, and end at an expansive cliff — blanketed in spring by coreopsis and other wildflowers — where the ocean stretches out to the sky.
The UCSB NRS is part of the larger UC Natural Reserve System, founded in 1965 to provide undisturbed environments for research, education and public service. With 750,000 acres of protected natural land across 39 sites, representing most of the state’s major ecosystems, it is the largest network of its kind in the world.
UCSB has seven properties in its care, the most of any UC campus. Among them are the two-site Valentine Eastern Sierra Reserve in Mammoth Lakes; Kenneth S. Norris Rancho Marino Reserve in Cambria; Sedgwick Reserve in Santa Barbara’s wine country; Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve just south of Santa Barbara; and Coal Oil Point Reserve in Goleta, adjacent to the campus.
Santa Cruz Island Reserve was one of the system’s early additions. The island was used for commercial ranching from the mid-1800s to the late 1980s; its final private owner, Dr. Carey Stanton, initiated a relationship with the UC by welcoming scientists to conduct research. A field station was established in 1966. The facility, along with Stanton’s 54,520 acres, officially became part of the UCNRS in 1973.
Seeking to protect and conserve the island in perpetuity, Stanton sold his property itself to The Nature Conservancy, which still holds and manages it today, licensing the university to run the reserve for research and teaching. The National Park Service owns and operates the eastern 25 percent of the island.
“It is one of UCSB’s great privileges, and responsibilities, to operate a field station on Santa Cruz Island,” said Patricia Holden, director of the UCSB NRS and a professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. “Generously sited on The Nature Conservancy’s property, and loyally directed by Lyndal Laughrin for over 40 years, the SCIR has opened the eyes of countless schoolchildren, undergraduates and graduate students to this otherworldly sanctum of nature and history. The SCIR supports research the island-over, including on National Park Service lands, which — in this time of rapid environmental change — is unequivocally vital for managing not only fragile island ecosystems but also our own mainland futures.”
Crouched low among the crags and pools that comprise the rocky intertidal zone on the island’s west end, biologist and UCSB Valentine Eastern Sierra Reserves director Carol Blanchette, arm outstretched, points to a black abalone tucked under a ledge. The federally endangered species is among the marine organisms that are monitored as part of the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO), a research consortium focused on long-term, large-scale marine ecological inquiry. Before becoming a reserve director herself, Blanchette established PISCO on Santa Cruz Island, conducting work there for more than 20 years. Today, PISCO continues to track the abundance of abalone, sea stars, mussels and more.
“Santa Cruz Island is about the most incredible marine biology paradise you could dream of,” said Blanchette, whose experience as a UCSB research biologist on Santa Cruz Island is in part what inspired her to join the NRS. “Here, ideas about how the ocean environment influences marine organisms can be tested in one surreal place. The island is also a great laboratory for climate change work. The reserve is really the perfect place to enable scientists to explore what the future may hold.”
Surely the same is true for just about every island-frequenting researcher, of which there are many — from an array of disciplines. Botanists, zoologists, archaeologists, geologists, behavioral scientists. The list goes on. And on.
And no wonder. The island boasts a diversity of marine life “considered comparable to a coral reef,” noted Laughrin, as well as habitats including coastal sage scrub, chaparral, oak woodlands and bishop pine forests. Add to that breeding grounds for harbor seals, seabird nesting colonies and a sizable number of endemic plant and animal species, and it’s speaking modestly to say the research possibilities are, in a word, vast.
An ongoing archaeological research project, led by UCSB’s Lynn Gamble, is digging deep into the earth at several former Chumash village sites to estimate just how long ago Native Americans resided here. They’re doing so by dating the many “middens,” or shell heaps — discarded remains of Chumash meals — found here, similar to how a tree is dated by its rings. Jutting from cliffsides, sitting above ground and buried both not far and very far below, layer upon layer of shell debris contain whole and fragmented mussels, clams, abalone and more.
Research emanating from the NRS — much of it done by Laughrin himself — was a huge driver behind what is perhaps the signature conservation achievement at Santa Cruz so far: restoration of the Channel Islands fox. A once-thriving population of the endemic species, essentially a dwarf version of the gray fox, was pushed to the brink by ranching, golden eagle predation interactions and other environmental pressures.
Today, after a successful years-long project of The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service — in collaboration with scientists like Laughrin, who has worked with the animals since his doctoral days — the foxes are again abundant. From a low of a scant 300 foxes when the effort began, the population has steadily grown, Laughrin said, and in 2016 was estimated to be somewhere north of 1,800.
“It is a great example of recognizing the problem and then bringing a group together that was, and still is, invested in curing the problem and ensuring the future of this iconic species,” Laughrin said of the foxes’ much-applauded “de-listing” as an endangered species in 2016. “It’s wonderful to be a part of and to know that one has contributed to this success.”
Of course Laughrin has contributed to a lot more than that. Geologist and ecologist. Historian and archaeologist. Mechanic. Electrician. Plumber. Confident chauffeur on some seriously awful roads. He’s done and does it all as reserve director. Even acting. Laughrin once appeared in an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries” after an urn of unidentified human ashes was discovered in a storage shed at the old ranch. He played himself in a reenactment.
“It’s been an amazing ride to be able to live here and work here, to feel productive and feel like I’m contributing to something that’s worthwhile,” said Laughrin, whose own island experience actually predates that of the NRS.
Born in Big Sur and raised in Salinas, he entered UCSB as an undergraduate, eventually earning bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. Laughrin first visited Santa Cruz Island as part of a UCSB geology field program in the summer of 1965 — and essentially never left. Physically, sure. But his heart was hooked from day one.
Going on to assistant teach for a field biology course on the island, then devoting his doctoral research to the Channel Islands fox, he was “in the right place at the right time” when fate came calling. The original director of the UCSB station left abruptly in 1970; Laughrin stepped up to fill the void.
What began as a temporary position he quickly parlayed into permanent status — and a truly model career.
“There could be no better role model or mentor for a reserve director than Lyndal,” said Blanchette, the Valentine Reserves’ director since 2016. “He is incredibly knowledgeable, helpful and, most of all, patient with the wide variety of personalities that come and go at a reserve, including researchers, members of the public and university and government officials. I think it is Lyndal’s calm and down-to-earth nature that have made him someone that everyone likes and respects and have allowed him to survive for so long in what can be a ‘harrowing’ job at times. Now that I am also a reserve director, I have many of those times where I have to think, ‘What would Lyndal do?’”
For now, Laughrin intends to keep on keepin’ on, shuttling, aiding and advising research and student groups, giving unplanned talks and impromptu tours, fixing cars, clearing roads and enjoying the quiet — except when he’s on vacation, when he and his wife fancy large urban environments, as well as visiting islands worldwide. Go figure.
“As much as I like traveling the world and seeing interesting places I like having this as a base to come back to,” he said. “This is the place I like to be the most. The diversity, the complexity, the topography. And just to hear the rustling of the plants, the singing of the birds. It’s such a cool job. Why would I leave?”