Posted by: James Wapotich | December 13, 2018

Trail Quest: Pelican Bay, Santa Cruz Island

Pelican Bay Trail Western Santa Cruz Island hiking Nature Conservancy

Scenery along the trail to Pelican Bay

During the last ice age, southern California was wetter and cooler, with a climate more akin to what northern California is like today. The Channel Islands were more forested and featured a diverse understory. As the climate became warmer, oaks and chaparral became more dominant, however relict plants from those cooler and wetter times can still be found on the islands.

The hike to Pelican Bay on western Santa Cruz Island leads through one of the more forested areas on the island and includes some of these relict plants. The route traces the island’s northern coast and also offers a chance to see both the Santa Cruz Island fox and island scrub jay.

The docent led hike starts from Prisoners Harbor and is about 4.5 miles roundtrip. The hike can be done during a day trip to the island, or included as part of a backpacking trip to Del Norte Camp. No water is available on this part of the island, and so visitors must bring what they’ll need.

The easiest way to reach the island is through Island Packers,, which offers boat rides to all five of the islands within Channel Islands National Park. The boat ride is about an hour and a half, and typically stops at Scorpion Anchorage before continuing west to Prisoners Harbor.

The eastern quarter of Santa Cruz Island is part of Channel Islands National Park and is open to the public. The western three-quarters of the island is owned by The Nature Conservancy.

Pelican Bay, which is west of Prisoners Harbor, is on Nature Conservancy land. Island Packers through an agreement with The Nature Conservancy is able to offer hikes to Pelican Bay, provided an Island Packers docent accompanies the visitors. The docents are knowledgable about the island and accommodating to the interests and pace of the group, and visitors can turn back at anytime.

From the landing pier, the hike follows the unpaved access road that leads past the estuary of Cañada del Puerto and the Magazine or warehouse used during the ranching era, before then branching. The road to the left leads out towards the eastern part of the island, while the road to the right quickly arrives at a gate leading into The Nature Conservancy’s land. Just before the gate is the beginning of the single-track trail to Pelican Bay.

From here, the trail makes its way up to the bluff overlooking the harbor, and then continues west, tracing the coastline. The trail traverses no less than five separate side canyons and offers a variety of scenery at each turn in the landscape.

The trail passes through a mix of chaparral and coast live oak, including familiar backcountry plants such as toyon, manzanita, chamise, and lemonade berry, with giant coreopsis mixed in.

The diversity of plants and trees also provides cover and habitat for a variety of animals including the Santa Cruz Island fox.

Descended from grey foxes, it’s believed the foxes were either swept out to sea during different storms and rafted to the northern Channel Islands on debris, or were brought there by the Chumash. Archeological evidence suggests the Chumash later brought the foxes with them to the southern Channel Islands to trade with the Tongva, their neighbors to the south.

Today, the island fox can be found on Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, Santa Catalina, San Nicholas, and San Clemente Islands, with each island population representing its own subspecies.

With less available space and resources, the island foxes became smaller, about the size of a house cat; and without mainland predators competing with or preying on them, the fox became the top predator on the islands.

This continued until the late 1990s, when their population saw an alarming decline, precipitated by an unfortunate set of circumstances.

By the early 1960s, bald eagles had disappeared from the islands due to reproductive failure similar to the California brown pelican. DDT pollution in the water and their food chain, caused thinning of the birds eggshells, which lead to the eggs being crushed during incubation.

The absence of bald eagles, which are highly territorial and eat mostly fish, allowed golden eagles from the mainland to venture out to the islands more freely.

What the golden eagles discovered was a rich food source created by the ranching era. As early as the 1850s, feral pigs began roaming Santa Cruz Island. With an abundant amount of piglets to dine on, golden eagles began nesting and breeding on the islands.

Unfortunately for the island fox, they are about the same size as piglets and just as edible. With less cover on the islands from years of grazing, and having forgotten what it’s like to be the prey, the foxes became an easy target and their population declined by more than 95 percent.

In 1999, with roughly 100 foxes left on the northern islands, a captive breeding program was started. The next year, a similar program was started on Santa Catalina Island, which lost 90 percent of its fox population to canine distemper, introduced to the island by a stowaway raccoon.

In 2004, four of the six subspecies of foxes were listed as endangered; not listed were the foxes on San Nicholas and San Clemente Islands.

To support the foxes’ recovery on the northern islands, from 2002-2006, 44 golden eagles were captured and relocated to the eastern Sierra Nevada, while 61 bald eagles were reintroduced to Santa Cruz Island. From 2005-2006, over 5,000 feral pigs were eradicated on Santa Cruz Island.

Captive breeding was phased out in 2007. In 2016, the foxes on the northern islands were delisted, with a total population of over 4,000 foxes, marking one of the fastest recoveries of an endangered species.

At about the one-mile mark, the trail arrives at a large canyon where a stand of Santa Cruz Island ironwood trees can be found. Part of the rose family, ironwood with its fernlike leaves and tiny white flowers, once covered a much wider range.

23 million years ago, ironwood could be found along the Pacific Coast up to what is now Oregon and inland as far as western Nevada, until about six million years ago when the climate became drier overall and ironwood became extinct on the mainland. Around this same time, roughly 7-4 million years ago, the modern California current became established. The current is one of the main drivers of our Mediterranean climate, which is marked by predominantly dry summers.

Today, ironwood is found just on the Channel Islands, in the cooler, north-facing slopes and canyons of Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, Santa Catalina, and San Clemente Islands.

Island Bishop pine is another relict plant found on the island. During previous ice ages, when California was wetter and cooler, Bishop pines likely covered a wider area along the coast, but are now found in only a handful of locations.

Another rare species on Santa Cruz Island, is the Island scrub jay, which is found nowhere else in the world. The jay is descended from the scrub jay found on the mainland, but with fewer competitors on the island has grown to be a third larger than its mainland counterpart, as well as brighter in color.

Fossil remains of the bird have been found on both Santa Rosa and San Miguel Islands, suggesting that it was present during the last ice age when the four northern islands were connected together; and likely died out on those islands as the ensuing warmer and drier conditions reduced the amount of available woodland habitat.

The trail then rounds a corner in the landscape and Pelican Bay comes into view. As the trail makes its way towards the bay, it passes through one last canyon. At the mouth of the canyon is Tinker’s Cove, which features a small cobblestone beach. The cove was named after Tinker Bell, when Peter Pan was filmed there during the silent movie era.

From here, the trail clambers over one last rise dotted with non-native century plants, and arrives at Pelican Bay. The curved bay is a popular boating destination and makes for a satisfying turnaround point for the hike.

Private boaters can anchor off western Santa Cruz Island, and with a landing permit from The Nature Conservancy come ashore during the day and explore the beaches and coastal canyons. No camping is allowed. An annual permit is $70 and a 30-day permit is $30. Proceeds support the work of The Nature Conservancy, for more information go to

Island Packers, through an arrangement with The Natural Conservancy, occasionally offers day trips to a handful of other destinations on western Santa Cruz Island, including Cueva Valdez on the north shore and Willows Anchorage on the south shore.

Their trips to the outer islands of Santa Rosa and San Miguel generally follow the south shore of Santa Cruz Island on the ride out and the north shore of the island on the ride back, which when combined is almost like circumnavigating the island. The ride along the north shore, often includes a visit to Painted Cave, which is one of the largest sea caves in the world.

Article originally appeared in section A of the December 10th, 2018 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press

Tinker's Cove Pelican Bay hike trail western Santa Cruz Island Nature Conservancy

Tinker’s Cove

Island scrub jay Santa Cruz island

Island scrub jay

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