Posted by: James Wapotich | November 19, 2018

Trail Quest: Del Norte Camp, Santa Cruz Island

Eastern Santa Cruz Island Red Mountain Diablo Peak hiking backpacking Channel Islands national park

Looking west, Red Mountain and Diablo Peak are seen in the distance from the trail

During the last ice age, when the sea level was 300-400 feet lower, the four islands off our coast – Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel, were all part of a single, larger island called Santarosae. 20,000 years ago, this super island covered 790 square miles and at its closest point was just four to five miles from the mainland.

Southern California was also wetter and cooler with a climate more akin to Northern California today, with the islands more forested than they are now.

It would’ve been interesting to visit this relatively massive island off our coast, and traverse it to east to west, starting from its closest point to the mainland, east of modern Anacapa Island, to its other end, west of modern San Miguel Island.

However, it is still possible to visit all four of the islands today, and traverse the portions of Santarosae that remain above the water, which together cover roughly 195 square miles, about a fourth of the size of Santarosae.

Santa Cruz Island is the largest of these islands, accounting for almost half of that area, covering 96 square miles. The western three-quarters of the island is owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, while the eastern quarter is part of Channel Islands National Park and is open to the public.

A traverse of eastern Santa Cruz Island can be made as part of a 15-mile backpacking trip.

The more common approach is to start from Prisoners Harbor and hike to Scorpion Anchorage, camping at Del Norte Camp the first night and Scorpion Campground the second night as part of a three-day trip. However, in the spirit of an east to west traverse, I decided to hike it in reverse.

The easiest way to reach the island is through Island Packers, www.Islandpackers.com, which offers boats rides to all four of the islands, as well as Santa Barbara Island, which together comprise Channel Islands National Park.

From the landing pier, I follow the unpaved access road that leads past the Visitor Center and historic ranch buildings to Scorpion Campground for the first night. The campground has 25 campsites, each with a picnic table and food storage box; reservations are made through Recreation.gov. No fires are allowed on the island, only cook stoves.

The campground, which is broken into an upper and lower section, each with a restroom, has two particularly compelling features, eucalyptus trees, which provide much needed shade, and potable water.

There is no easy to locate, drinkable water on eastern Santa Cruz Island for backpacking and so all water for the trip needs to be carried. Hiking west to east has the benefit of only needing enough water to make it to Scorpion Campground. Hiking east to west, means carrying enough water for the entire trip. To overcome this, I persuaded my girlfriend to meet me at Prisoners Harbor on the last day with extra water and join me for a day hike to Pelican Bay.

After a leisurely first day exploring the nearby trails, I get an early start for the full day of hiking that awaits me. I make my way to the upper end of Scorpion Campground, and continue along Scorpion Canyon Trail. The trail follows an old ranch road up the canyon for another quarter of a mile before climbing out of the canyon.

At about the two-mile mark, the trail arrives at the beginning of Montañon Trail, which leads to the top of Montañon Ridge. I am already feeling the heat of the day as there is little shade along the hike.

Montañon Trail follows the ridgeline between Scorpion and Smugglers Canyons, and offers some great views of Montañon Ridge. In the canyons and on the northeast face of the ridge I can see a mix of trees and chaparral, remnants of what the island looked like before the ranching era, which brought with it more than 100 years of grazing activity.

At about the 3.5-mile mark, the trail crests the ridge, offering views across the western part of the island towards Mount Diablo, the highest point on the island. To the east, the views extend towards Anacapa Island. From this vantage, I can easily imagine that a traverse across Santarosae might’ve either followed the now inundated lowlands or the ridgeline connecting the highest summits.

Anacapa Island was the first to separate from Santarosae between 10,900 and 10,300 years ago, while the other three islands remained connected together. Today, the sea between Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands is just 4.5 miles across, with its deepest point roughly 180 feet.

From Montañon Ridge, a side hike of 1.5 miles roundtrip can be made to Montañon Peak, the highest point on eastern Santa Cruz Island. At the turnoff, Montañon Trail continues down the backside of the ridge.

Between 1991 and 1996, various portions of Santa Cruz Island east of Montañon Ridge became part of Channel Islands National Park. In 2000, the Nature Conservancy generously donated the land west of Montañon Ridge out to Prisoners Harbor, referred to as the Isthmus, for inclusion in the national park.

Continuing west, the trail levels out and arrives at the beginning of East End Road. The unpaved access road follows the main ridgeline west along the isthmus. The road passes through several stands of Bishop pines mixed with manzanita, scrub oak, and chamise, and offers views of the ocean both to the north and south.

At about the eight-mile mark, the trail arrives at the intersection with Navy Road, which continues along the ridgeline. From here, East End Road descends down the north side of the ridge passing through coastal sage scrub. The road ends at the beginning of Del Norte Trail, which leads to Del Norte Camp.

At this intersection is also the beginning of the trail that leads down to Chinese Harbor. The hike to Chinese Harbor is about 3.5 miles round trip and involves a fair amount of uphill on the hike back out. The harbor was named for the Chinese fishing industry that flourished on the islands during the later half of the 19th century. The harbor features a long cobblestone beach.

Continuing along Del Norte Trail, the trail traverses a long coastal bluff, crossing down through several side canyons, before rounding a corner in the landscape at which point Mount Diablo returns into view.

The trail then arrives at the signed turnoff for Del Norte Camp; from here, it’s a short distance to the campground. Del Norte Camp features fours sites, each with a picnic table and food storage box, as well as sand pads for tents. Two of the sites are shaded by island oaks, while the other two are more exposed and offer views out towards Prisoners Harbor and Red Mountain. Just up the road is the outhouse.

From Del Norte Camp it’s roughly four miles to Prisoners Harbor. Del Norte Trail continues west and narrows to essentially a single-track trail. The trail wraps its way down into Cañada del Muro, which features coastal sage scrub mixed with island oak and toyon, as well as willow in the creek corridor.

The trail then climbs out of the canyon and wraps over the next little ridge and descends down into Cañada del Agua. True to its name, the creek does a have a trickle of water in its rust-stained watercourse, however it is not recommended for drinking. Here, too the creek is lined with willow.

The trail then climbs out of Cañada del Agua, and continues west arriving at a picnic table along the trail, likely intended for day hikers. However, from the table, the views east include Montañon Ridge, providing a perspective on the ground covered so far, or yet to be covered depending on one’s direction of travel.

Del Norte Trail then arrives at Navy Road, and continues towards Prisoners Harbor. The road passes through Eagle Canyon and rounds a corner at which point Prisoners Harbor comes into view.

The harbor is near the mouth of Cañada del Puerto, which is one of the larger creek drainages on the island. In the canyon are coast live oak, and along the creek are willow, mule fat, and other riparian plants.

Across the creek, continuing towards the landing pier, a short side trail leads to a shaded bench tucked in under the willows. Past the side trail, the road arrives at the magazine or warehouse building used as part of the former ranching operations. Next to the building are restrooms, but no potable water.

With the distance from Del Norte Camp to Prisoners Harbor just four miles, and the timing of the arrival and departure of the Island Packers boat, it is relatively easy to include the docent led hike that leads west to Pelican Bay as part of the three-day backpacking trip.

This article originally appeared in section A of the November 19th, 2018 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press


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