Posted by: James Wapotich | March 2, 2012

Trail Quest: Eastern Santa Cruz Island

If you’re looking for a place to backpack that sees few visitors; that qualifies as a world unto itself; and lets you explore the largest island off the coast of California, then the hike across Eastern Santa Cruz Island from Prisoner’s Harbor to Scorpion Anchorage may be the answer.

Often referred to as the Galapagos of North America, the Channel Islands are home to over one hundred and forty plants and animals found nowhere else in the world, including the rare island foxes and jays. And yet Channel Islands National Park remains one of the least visited National Parks in the country, with fewer still backpacking there.

Santa Cruz Island Channel Island National Park Backpacking

The Montanon Ridge is seen from China Pines Rd.

Santa Cruz Island is the largest of the Channel Islands, roughly 96 square miles, and while the western three-quarters of Santa Cruz Island is owned by the Nature Conservancy, the eastern quarter, along with Santa Rosa, San Miguel, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara Islands are all part of the Channel Islands National Park. The park was created in 1980, and a substantial amount of restoration work has been done to undo the damage from cattle and sheep grazing and to return the islands to their natural state.

All five of the islands within the National Park offer camping and hiking, but only Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands have opportunities for backpacking. The are several ways to get to Santa Cruz Island, probably the easiest is with Island Packers out of Ventura. Island Packers makes two stops on Santa Cruz Island, Scorpion Anchorage and Prisoner’s Harbor, and this hike lets you traverse the island between them. Interestingly both stops are also where Chumash villages were once located and so this route may even follow one taken by the Chumash when they traveled overland between villages.

Del Norte Trail Santa Cruz Island Prisoner's Harbor Channel Island National Park Backpacking Trip

Scenery along the Del Norte Trail

Because backcountry camping on Santa Cruz Island is limited to Del Norte Campground it essentially defines the logistics for the trip. There is no water at Del Norte and so all water must be carried in. There is water however at the main campground at Scorpion Anchorage and so the simplest way to set up the hike is as a 3-day trip, starting at Prisoner’s Harbor, backpacking four miles to Del Norte Campground on the first day, backpacking 11 miles from Del Norte Campground to Scorpion Anchorage on the second day and relaxing on the third day before departing from Scorpion Anchorage back to the mainland, for a total hike of 15 miles.

If you are an experienced backpacker this trip will be fairly accessible. If you are a beginning you will want to assess your comfort level around carrying all of your water and your ability to complete the 11-mile hike on the second day. You will need to reserve a campsite for each night by going to

Santa Cruz Island Jay

Santa Cruz Island Jay

The boat ride across the channel with Island Packers is about an hour and stops first at Scorpion Anchorage and then continues on to Prisoner’s Harbor, and so part of the first day is spent getting there. From the pier at Prisoner’s Harbor the trail continues inland along the estuary of Cañada del Puerto which is currently undergoing wetland restoration. This is also near where the Chumash village of Xaxas was located and was once a major stop in the trade routes used by the Chumash in their wooden plank canoes, or tomols.

The trail is well marked and follows ranch roads part of the way. Just past the magazine, or warehouse used during the ranching days, the trail branches with the road to the right continuing onto the Nature Conservancy property, which can only be visited as part of the docent led hike to Pelican Bay. The road to the left climbs away from the harbor and heads east towards Del Norte Campground.

This time of year many of the native flowers are in bloom including lupine and giant coreopsis. The trail climbs up and down several times as it moves from one small canyon to the next. Along the way you may be fortunate to spot the Santa Cruz Island jay as well as the Santa Cruz Island fox.


At the 4-mile mark the trail arrives at Del Norte Campground which has four sites, each with a picnic table. There are no fires allowed on any of the islands, only cook stoves. Each campsite includes an animal proof container for all of your food, so that both you, and the foxes and ravens can have a positive experience.

Nighttime on the island is also quite magical as the stars are a little brighter, and when the island is wrapped in fog it adds to the sense of being in a different world, with only the sound of barking seals in the distance.

From Del Norte Campground the trail continues east and at about the 6-mile mark arrives at the turnoff for Chinese Harbor. One alternative trip is to stay at Del Norte Campground for two nights and make a day hike to Chinese Harbor on the second day and depart from Prisoner’s Harbor. Chinese Harbor is near where the Chumash village of Lu’upsh was located and it is here that the Chumash made their shell bead money or ‘achum from olivella shells, in fact, the word Chumash is derived from michumash, which means “makers of shell bead money”

Chinese Harbor Santa Cruz Island Channel Islands National Park

Chinese Harbor

From this intersection stay to the right as the trail begins to climb toward the midline ridge of the island. Along much of the coast you can see the impact of non-native plants, the most rampant being fennel which grows even thicker here than on the mainland. Fortunately the fennel is being slowly eradicated and as the trail moves inland one starts to see a wider variety of plants including manzanita, scrub oak, and pine.

The trail continues east along the main ridge or spine of Santa Cruz Island and offers views of the ocean on both sides, and in the distance the Montañon Ridge. The Montañon Ridge more or less bisects the island north to south and as one approaches the ridge one can see where the trail climbs right over it, the hike appearing much more formidable than it actually is. And although the section over the ridge is the steepest, it can also be most satisfying.

At the 11-mile mark, the trail crests the Montañon Ridge and one is rewarded with expansive views of Eastern Santa Cruz Island, Smuggler’s Cove, and West Anacapa Island. From here the remaining four miles are all generously downhill, with the trail at last arriving at Scorpion Campground, where one can find water and enjoy some much deserved rest.

Scorpion Anchorage Hike Channel Island National Park Santa Cruz Island

Montanon Ridge

If you’re in the mood for more hiking on the last day the Cavern Point Loop and North Bluff Trail to Potato Harbor offer some nice views along the coast, about five miles for the full loop. Near the harbor one can also see the old ranch house and blacksmith shop, along with interpretative signs on both the ranching history as well as the Chumash heritage of the island. Swaxil, the largest of the 11 Chumash villages on Santa Cruz Island, was located along the estuary where Scorpion Canyon meets the ocean.

Eastern Santa Cruz Island is also a great destination for just the day or for overnight camping at Scorpion Campground which is only a quarter mile from the pier at Scorpion Anchorage. For a map of the trails on Eastern Santa Cruz Island go to

This article originally appeared in Section A of the March 2nd, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


  1. […] the spring of 2012 I backpacked across Eastern Santa Cruz Island and must’ve seen about a dozen foxes over the course of 3 days. Admittedly one would have to work […]

  2. […] hike to Del Norte was easier than I’d remembered it from last time, probably because I knew I wasn’t backpacking to the other side of the island this […]

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