Posted by: James Wapotich | November 5, 2018

Trail Quest: Montañon Peak, Santa Cruz Island

Montañon Ridge Peak hike eastern Santa Cruz Island trail Channel Islands National Park

Montañon Ridge is seen from the trail

Santa Cruz Island is the largest of the four islands seen right off our coast. The island covers 96 square miles, and contains the highest point on the islands, Mount Diablo which rises 2,450 feet above the sea.

The western three-quarters of Santa Cruz Island is managed by Nature Conservancy, and the eastern quarter is managed by National Parks Service as part of Channel Islands National Park, which is open to the public.

Montañon Peak, at 1,808’, is the highest point on eastern Santa Cruz Island and offers exceptional views of the island, as well as out towards Anacapa Island. The hike to the peak from the pier at Scorpion Anchorage is about eight miles roundtrip.

The easiest way to reach the island is through Island Packers, which offers transportation to all four of the islands, plus Santa Barbara Island, which together comprise Channel Islands National Park.

The boat ride is roughly an hour and can include sightings of dolphins and whales depending on the season.

As the boat nears the island, Montañon Ridge dominates the view, its reddish-orange coloring seeming almost out of place for southern California. Rising above the eastern end of the island and dotted with trees, the ridgeline forms a mountainous wall that separates eastern Santa Cruz from the rest of the island.

While Montañon Peak can be reached during a day visit, overnight camping provides the best of both worlds, allowing for a more relaxed pace and additional time to explore more of the island. Scorpion Campground has 25 campsites, each with a picnic table and food storage box. The campground is shaded by eucalyptus trees and broken into an upper and lower section, each with a restroom and potable water. Six group sites are also available in the upper campground. Reservations are made through

There are several ways to reach the peak, but perhaps the most scenic is by starting through Scorpion Canyon. From the landing pier, follow the main access road that leads up the canyon. The unpaved road follows the relatively broad flood plain of Scorpion Creek, passing the Visitor Center and old ranch buildings, before continuing through the upper and lower campgrounds.

Scorpion Canyon Trail starts just past the uppermost campsite. The trail continues up the canyon, and leads through a mix of non-native grasses and chaparral, passing through toyon, coyote brush, ceanothus, and island cherry.

The trail then climbs out of the canyon, following an old road cut, transitioning from Monterey shale into volcanic rock, and becoming steeper as it leaves the canyon. From the trail, the views extend out across Scorpion Canyon.

As the trail crests out of the canyon, it arrives at the intersection with Montañon Trail and the ranch road that connects over to Smugglers Road, which leads back to the landing pier and represents an alternate way to reach the peak.

Just south of the intersection are the remains of an old oil well. The exploratory well was drilled in 1966, by Atlantic Richfield, and yielded water instead of oil.

From here, Montañon Trail heads westward, making its way towards the top of the ridge. The trail passes through a sea of island buckwheat and offers some great views of the ridgeline. Wandering off-trail towards the south, the remains of an airplane wreck can be found scattered amongst the brush and wild grasses.

Montañon Trail follows the spur ridge separating the watersheds of Scorpion and Smugglers Creeks. Prior to the ranching era, 80-90 percent of the island was covered with trees and shrubs. With the last sheep removed in 1999, the island has steadily recovered from overgrazing, with native plants expanding out from the more inaccessible canyons. From the trail, oak, ironwood, and denser chaparral can be seen in the canyons and along the northeastern face of Montañon Ridge.

The trail then crests the top of Montañon Ridge and offers views out across western Santa Cruz Island. The trail joins the southeast-trending ridgeline and arrives at an informal trail juncture, marked with a sign that says “Prisoner’s Harbor 10 miles”. From here, Montañon Trial continues down the backside of the ridge towards Prisoner’s Harbor, while a spur trail leads southeast towards the peak.

The spur trail is in generally good condition, leading out to a radio tower, and follows the ridgeline over several rises and saddles before arriving at the tower. From the tower, the trail is less distinct leading down to the next saddle and up to the top of Montañon Peak.

From the peak, the views extend east towards Anacapa Island and, beyond that, the western end of the Santa Monica Mountains.

The four islands off our coast represent the western extension of the Santa Monica Mountains and were formed underwater, roughly 20 million years ago, through the interplay of tectonic plates. About 165 million years ago, the eastward moving Farallon Plate ran into the North American plate, with the denser Farallon Plate subducting under the North American Plate.

About 30 million years ago, the Farallon Plate ran out of material, bringing in behind it the Pacific Plate. However, instead of running directly into the North American Plate and subducting under it, the Pacific Plate met it at an angle and begin moving against it laterally, along what is now known as the San Andres Fault

As the Pacific Plate traveled northward, it grabbed pieces of the North American Plate, bringing them along with it. 20 million years ago the area that would become the Western Transverse Ranges was oriented north-south and located near where San Diego is now. As it was dragged northward, it was rotated clockwise 90 to 100 degrees arriving at the east-west orientation it has today.

As this block of land was dragged and rotated, it caused the sea floor to thin; the reduced pressure allowed molten magma to form and rise from the earth’s mantle, erupting as undersea lava. As the lava cooled it formed many of the features we see today, combined with the sedimentary layers of sand and silt that were deposited offshore which also make up parts of the islands.

Five million years ago, when the Pacific Plate captured what is now Baja California and jammed it into Southern California, the resulting compressional forces uplifted the islands, as well as the other mountains in our area.

From the peak, looking west, the views extend out across the Isthmus towards North Ridge, which includes Mount Diablo and Red Peak. Much of the isthmus is comprised of Monterey shale, a sedimentary rock, while North Ridge is made of volcanic rocks.

Ethnographic and archeological data suggests that Montañon Ridge was used by the Chumash during the winter solstice to call in and ask for a bountiful year. The Chumash would erect on the ridge, spirit poles made from toyon, redwood, or pine that were decorated with feathers, and make offerings of seeds, small incised stones, or other gifts representing their requests. Similar ceremonies were likely held on Mount Diablo, as well as on the mainland.

The earliest evidence of the Chumash on the Channel Islands dates back 13,000 years ago, on Santa Rosa Island, with sites on Santa Cruz Island stretching back at least 9,000 years.

There are 10 recorded village sites on Santa Cruz Island, including Swaxil, in Scorpion Valley, and Nanawani, near Smugglers Cove, both of which are east of Montañon Ridge. Routes from both Swaxil and Nanawani would’ve likely made their way from the coast, following spur ridges to reach the main Montañon Ridge, the highest point on the eastern end of the island.

In Chumash cosmology, there are three worlds. The middle world where we live, an upper world where supernatural beings exist, and a lower world where dangerous entities reside. It’s said that when death first arrived to the middle world, some of the animals moved to the upper world.

Every night, in the upper world, the Sun and Great Eagle play peon against Sky Coyote and the Morning Star, with the Moon as referee. In peon each member of one team has hidden in their hands one white and one black bone or stick, while the other team tries to guess which hand holds the white one. In the upper world, at the winter solstice, a tally is made for the year of the contest. If Sky Coyote wins, there will be good rain, plants will grow bountiful, and more game will be available. If the Sun wins, it will be a hard year, food will be more scarce, and more people will die because of the drought.

The outcome of the game and rooting for Sky Coyote, as well as asking for a good year, still seems relevant today, since the amount of rain we receive each year influences the well-being of the land and, by extension, our communities.

This article originally appeared in section A of the November 5th, 2018 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press

This article also represents the 300th Trail Quest article, since I first started writing the column, eight years ago. If you’d like to see that very first article, go to Trail Quest: Aliso Canyon.

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