Posted by: James Wapotich | October 17, 2011

Trail Quest: Pelican Bay

If you only have one day to visit the Channel Islands and want to see some of the best of what Santa Cruz Island has to offer then the hike to Pelican Bay may be the answer. Located on the northern side of Santa Cruz Island the trail to Pelican Bay leads through one of the more wooded areas on the island and offers a sense of what the island must’ve looked like when the Chumash lived there. Many of the plants and animals here are found nowhere else in the world, including the Santa Cruz Island Jay. The hike to Pelican Bay from the landing at Prisoner’s Harbor is about 4.5 miles roundtrip.

Prisoner's Harbor Santa Cruz Island Xaxas Channel Pelican Bay Barbara HIke

Prisoner's Harbor seen from the trail to Pelican Bay

There are several ways to get to Santa Cruz Island. Probably the easiest is with Island Packers out of Ventura as they offer regularly scheduled boat trips to all five of the islands within the Channel Islands National Park. The boat ride is about an hour and often includes dolphin and whale sightings depending on the time of year.

Santa Cruz Island is the largest of the Channel Islands and along with the rest of the Southern California was part of Spain’s holdings in the new world. Following the war for Mexican Independence, the island became part of a Mexican land grant and was then later purchased by an American, William Barron.

In the late 1880s Santa Cruz Island came under the ownership Justinian Caire and following his death the island was divided up amongst his heirs. The eastern quarter of the island remained with the Caire Family while the bulk of the island was sold to the Stanton Family. Roughly a hundred years later that same division defines Santa Cruz Island. In 1987 with the passing of Carey Stanton the western 76% of the island became part of the land managed by the Nature Conservancy and in 1997 the National Parks Service acquired the last of the land owned by Gherini family, descendants of Justinian Caire, and the eastern 24% of the island became part of the Channel Islands National Park.

Pelican Bay Santa Cruz Island Channel National Park Hike

Scenery along the trail to Pelican Bay

Because Pelican Bay is on land owned by the Nature Conservancy hikers must be accompanied by a docent from Island Packers. Private boat owners may also obtain a permit from the Nature Conservancy to land and hike. The docents from Island Packers are exceedingly knowledgable. The docent who lead our hike knew not only a great deal about the the natural flora and fauna, but the Chumash and island history as well.

If you’re there for the day you’ll have about about 4-5 hours of time on the island, which depending on the size and pace of the group is generally enough time to hike to Pelican Bay and back. And although it is a docent lead hike no one is required to hike the whole way as you can turn back at any time and return to the harbor where there are shaded picnic tables and restrooms. You can also hike around the part of the island that is within the National Park without a guide at any time. There is no water available on this part of the island so you will need to bring enough for the day. You will also want to bring a lunch.

Pelican Bay Santa Cruz Island Channel National Park Hike

Pelican Bay

The hike to Pelican Bay starts from the boat landing at Prisoner’s Harbor and continues along the estuary of Canada del Puerto, passing the Magazine or warehouse that was built as part of the ranching operation and used to store goods. This site is also near where the Chumash village of Xaxas was located, which was one of the main Chumash population centers on the island.

The trail then passes onto Nature Conservancy land and climbs to a small lookout before continuing west along the coast. It is here that scenery really starts to open up. While much of eastern Santa Cruz Island is grassy and has sparser vegetation as a result of ranching and farming, this portion of the island remains much as it always has. Here you’ll find oaks, pine, toyon, manzanita and many of the plants that you’d find in the Santa Barbara backcountry. A number of these plants are now endemic, that is unique to just the Channel Islands. And while some of these plants were brought by the Chumash, most arrived on their own crossing the channel by one means or another.

Santa Cruz Island Jay Pelican Bay Channel National Park Hike

Santa Cruz Island Jay

Because of this variety and density of plants along this section of the island it is also an ideal place to see the Santa Cruz Island Jay. The Santa Cruz Island Jay is brighter in color and third larger in size than its ancestor, the scrub jay found on the mainland. Its size and success the result of the lack of predators and competition which has allowed it to exploit a much wider range of habitat.

The trail passes through no less than five canyons on its way to Pelican Bay, offering both striking views of the coast and a rich variety of scenery as one descends into and hikes out of each new canyon. Along the way you may also notice little signs with numbers on them dispersed along the trail. These were once part of a self-guided botanical tour highlighting the various the plants along the trail.

Ironwood Santa Cruz Island Channel Islands National Park Hike Pelican Bay

Canyon along Pelican Bay with a grove of Ironwood trees on the left

At about the 1-mile mark the trail arrives at one of the more impressive canyons and a sign marked #11. At first it’s difficult to tell what the sign is associated with, but as our docent pointed out, across the canyon is a grove of Ironwood trees. Ironwood trees at one time were found along much of the Pacific Coast, ranging as far north as Washington State and inland as far as Nevada. They thrived in a time when Western North America was a much wetter place than it is today. The Ironwood is now found only on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands and typically only in North facing canyons.

At the 2.25 mile mark the trail climbs out of the last of the canyons and overlooks Pelican Bay. The bay forms a natural harbor and is often filled with sailboats from the mainland. There is no beach at Pelican Bay, however right next door is a cute little cobblestone beach no more than 100 feet across called Tinker’s Cove. So named, as our docent shared, because Peter Pan was filmed there in the 1920s back when Santa Barbara was also known for its film studios.

Tinker's Cove Santa Cruz Island Channel Islands National Park Hike Pelican Bay

Tinker's Cove

Regardless how for you go you will have a chance to see some great scenery and sense some of the rich history that makes these islands a world of their own.

This article originally appeared in section A of the October 17th, 2011 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


  1. […] found on Santa Rosa, as well as neighboring Santa Cruz Island, is Fernleaf Ironwood, which is another rare tree found only on the Channel Islands. Fernleaf […]

  2. […] their plan was to get up early and hike to down Prisoners and tie in with the docent led hike to Pelican Bay, which of course got me to thinking. I had been toying with taking the high road back to Prisoners […]

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