Posted by: James Wapotich | March 11, 2020

Smugglers Canyon Falls

Smugglers Canyon waterfall Santa Cruz Island Channel Islands National Park

Smugglers Canyon Falls

Two years ago, in 2017, I visited Santa Cruz Island over Christmas break with my girlfriend Sierra, my sister Lorene, and her boyfriend Todd. We were there for three days, and on the second day I hiked over to Yellow Banks. The plan was Lorene and Sierra would hike with me over to Smugglers Cove, and I would continue from there on my own to Yellow Banks. I later turned the hike into an article.

Unfortunately, on the day of the hike, we get a late start, leaving camp around 11am. We follow the trail through Scorpion Canyon as it climbs towards Montañon Trail, and then cut over to join the road from Scorpion Anchorage that leads to Smugglers Cove. The weather is relatively warm for December.

Roughly halfway to Smugglers Cove, the road crests its high point along the hike. From this vantage one can see the majority of the hike down towards Smugglers Cove. Upon seeing the trail laid out before her and the uphill hike back out, my Sister decides to turn back, followed shortly thereafter by Sierra, and so I continue on my own towards Smugglers Cove and Yellow Banks.

Having not slept well the night before and already feeling the tedium of the long road walk, I decide to cut off trail and head down into Smugglers Canyon to mix it up. I clamber down the slightly steep hillside, through mostly wild grasses, feeling enlivened to be traveling cross-country. The creek is dry, but engaging, and I am inspired to follow it downstream all the way to Smugglers Cove. I continue rock-hopping and exploring, pleased with my decision, but within 10 minutes the creek “cliffs” out and I arrive at the top of a 50-foot drop off. I double back up the creek and find a way to climb out of it, and then contour my way along the eastern side of the canyon, staying high enough to avoid the edge of the deepening canyon, until I’m past the 50-foot drop off.

From this vantage, looking back up the canyon, the drop-off has all the features of a potentially impressive waterfall. Imagining such cascades on the islands are short-Iived, I say to myself I should come back sometime after it rains. The idea of course slips off my radar completely since there is no easy way to just run out to the islands and check on a waterfall. It’s not like hopping in your car and busting it out to Nojoqui or Tangerine Falls to see if anything interesting is happening.

Fast forward to two years later, 2019. I return to Santa Cruz Island, now with a bigger crew. Inspired by the great time we had in 2017, the four of us decide to up the ante and bring kids with us and introduce them to the island. This time there are eight of us. Sierra and her three daughters, Maria, Elizabeth, and Anna Grace, my sister and her now fiancé Todd, and his daughter Raven.

Santa Cruz Island fox Channel Island National Park Scorpion Campground


Prepared for adventure, we have brought two kayaks and four wetsuits, as well as masks and snorkels. We take turns hiking, kayaking, and snorkeling. We discover the best snorkeling is found by kayaking out from Scorpion Anchorage and heading south to some of the rocks and cliffs where the water is clearest. There we dive in and explore the kelp forests and sea life below. On one of the forays, I find myself marveling at wavy turban snails grazing on the kelp. I have occasionally found their shells on the beach, but never really thought about what they did in the water.

Fox Dance

When we visited the island two years ago, I had just started getting into wildlife cameras. I had two in my backyard, and brought them with me to try out on the island, and was able to capture some fun interplay between a fox and mouse. For this trip, because I was already loaded down with gear and food, I opted to leave my wildlife cameras at home. However, unbeknownst to me, my sister brought the one I’d given her for her birthday.

I had given her one because she had a similar interest in tracking wildlife, for example there’s a particular spot along a creek near her home in Colorado where she regularly sees coyotes. Nevertheless, life being life, she hadn’t gotten around to setting it up and brought the camera with her to the island for a crash course on how to use it.

Our first task is to find a place to set it up. Two years ago, I was lucky enough to spot a fox that had climbed up into a toyon bush and was eating the berries, and suggest we start over there. However, at the site we come up empty since there’s no easy way to attach the camera to something that will provide the view we want, and so we decide instead to follow the nearby fox trail and see where it takes us.

The fox trail leads away from the creek and towards an old fence leftover from the island’s ranching era. Lorene suggests we follow the fence line until there’s a break in it, noting animals will often follow fences looking for just such a break so they can easily pass through and continue across the landscape unobstructed. Sure enough we arrive at an opening in the fence. Here, two different fox trails converge, making it a promising location to set up the camera.

We strap the camera to one of the fence posts, and I walk her through the different aspects of setting up the camera, such as angling it to capture the most amount of activity and placing it at the appropriate height above the ground for foxes. Followed by the equally important test shots to confirm and adjust the placement of the camera. Crucial to this, in my mind, is to trot down the trail like a fox to confirm the action will be in frame and trigger the camera. And while our camera didn’t capture any compelling wildlife photos on this trip, the exercise did yield a couple shots of me imitating a fox. In fact, it’s unfortunate there were no test shots of my sister as her fox “dance” was much better than mine.

santa cruz island fox wildlife camera tracking

Fox dancing

santa cruz island fox channel islands national park

An unimpressed Santa Cruz Island fox pauses in Scorpion Canyon

The Storm

Our time on the island seemed to go by quickly, at least for me. The scenery of course was epic. The weather a tad colder than our previous visit. But the big difference was the prediction for rain on the second night.

Sierra and her crew had opted to stay three days, while Lorene and her crew would stay for four days. Since I was giving Lorene and her crew a ride home, I opted to stay four days as well. I was also drawn to the idea of having the better part of a day for solo hiking. One idea I had was to hike up to Montañon Peak, making a loop back via Smugglers Cove, which seemed a bit ambitious given the amount of daylight one is afforded in December. My alternate plan was to hike over to Little Scorpion Anchorage and follow the eastern coast of Santa Cruz Island south to San Pedro Point, turn west and continue along the coast to Smugglers Cove, and return back along the road. This would allow me to see some new parts of the island.

As predicted, the night before Sierra and girls are scheduled to leave the rain arrives. It starts just after everyone settles in for the night, and fortunately plays out before breakfast, sparing us the misery of cooking and cleaning up in the rain, as well as packing and waiting for the boat in the rain. However, coming in behind the rain are gale force winds, and while it’s just gusty where we are on the island, I start to wonder if the boat will be able to make it to pick them up.

snow topatopa mountains santa cruz island

Snow on the Topatopa Mountains is seen from Santa Cruz Island

On the mainland one can just call Island Packers in the morning and hear a recorded update as to whether or not the boats are running. Recalling Sierra’s two teenage daughters had discovered there was cell service at the beach by the pier, I decide to head down there. They had been making regular trips to the beach in order to stay in touch with civilization, and so I thought I might be able to get through.

On my way to the pier, I run into the park ranger and ask him if he’s heard anything. He says Island Packers is hoping to be able to make a 3 o’clock pickup; they’re monitoring the weather closely and will make a go/no go decision in the next hour or so. I return to camp and relay the news to everyone. We decide to focus on breakfast, and afterwards I go and look for the ranger to get an update. Successful, I return to camp with goods news: the boat is coming!

Sierra and her crew pack up their gear, and we all head down to the pier with them to see them off. From there my plan is to hike over towards Little Scorpion Anchorage and make my trek along the coast to Smugglers Cove. I invite Lorene, Todd, and Raven to join me for the first part of the hike, since it includes some great views and a couple pocket coves to explore.

Since we still have several hours before their boat actually arrives, Sierra and Maria decide to join us for part of the hike. While we are climbing out of Scorpion Canyon along the road that leads off towards Smugglers Cove, Maria and Raven start excitedly exploring the side washes along the road, which are now flush with runoff and producing little elfin cascades.

Something about waterfalls begins stirring in my mind, but I can’t quite recall what it is. Yes, it’s great there are all these cool little waterfalls for the girls to delight in, I mean that’s what happens when it rains, all the little watercourses come to life. As I make this observation, something deeper begins to surface, a forgotten memory of something I wanted to do. It honestly took me this long to put the pieces together, but it slowly came to me that the dry waterfall I’d seen in Smugglers Canyon two years ago would also likely be flowing and now would be the best time to check.

I break out my map and begin studying it. Could I continue on this hike over to Little Scorpion Anchorage, and from there cross-country up to the road that leads to Smugglers Cove, without losing too much time? The mileage seems about the same, I couldn’t be completely sure about the terrain, but the route itself would be mostly grassland.

As we continue towards Little Scorpion Anchorage, Sierra and Maria turn back so as not to miss their boat. I continue with Lorene and her crew to the first pocket cove, but start to feel anxious about my hike and beg off to go at my own pace. 

Little Scorpion Anchorage Santa Cruz Island Channel Island National Park

The view looking back from the bluff above Little Scorpion Anchorage

I quickly arrive at the bluff overlooking Little Scorpion Anchorage. From here, I can see my original plan of traversing the eastern coast of the island would’ve included some challenges. Little Scorpion Canyon is something of a chasm and would’ve required making a circuitous detour around in order to follow the coastline as closely as possible.

Looking at the map again, I see I will need to trace the northern edge of the canyon until I can reach a point where I can easily cross and then continue up the opposite side. I make good time following the edge of Little Scorpion Canyon uphill as the canyon slowly turns and starts to become more shallow.

Dipping down into the canyon, I cross the creek bed, and continue up one of the smaller side drainages, angling my way towards where I imagine the road to be. I eventually crest out of the drainage and intersect the road surprisingly close to where I was aiming. By now the wind has stopped.

Anacapa Island Smugglers Cove Santa Cruz island Channel Islands National Park

Anacapa Island, seen from the road to Smugglers Cove

I make quick time along the road and reach the point where I’d hiked cross-country down to the canyon before. The route starts out steep, but then levels out some, sort of like a bowl. Instead of going all the way down to the creek this time, I descend just far enough to be able to contour my way down the canyon.

I spot a convenient fox trail and follow it through the non-native grass, as it weaves its way around the occasional lemonade berry, island buckwheat, horehound, morning glory, and cactus. Further below, near the creek, I can see island oak and toyon adding to the variety of plants in the canyon.

Smugglers Canyon Santa Cruz Island Channel Islands National Park

Smugglers Canyon

My goal is to get past the waterfall so I can get a shot of it looking back up the canyon. Ideally, I would’ve preferred to have gone all the way to Smugglers Cove and hiked up the creek to the base of the falls, but I didn’t have enough time for that and so this would have to do.

Continuing along the fox trail, I arrive at a small flat with a good size Catalina Island cherry, where if I was a fox, I might sit and meditate on the meaning of life, while gazing out across the canyon.

Just past the cherry tree, sensing I may have cleared the falls, I make my way to an outcrop of rocks at the edge of the canyon and can see the falls upstream. They are flowing, activated by the rain from the night before; the surrounding rocks and plants are saturated with water, giving the scene a vaguely tropical feel.

Waterfall Smugglers Canyon Santa Cruz Island Channel Islands National Park

Smugglers Canyon Falls

From here, I continue further down the canyon, recalling another vista point nearby. I soon arrive at a much larger outcrop of rocks that extends out to a sort of point. I make my way onto this overlook where I’m treated to dramatic views of several converging canyons. Across the canyon from me, towards the falls, is a small side canyon that tumbles steeply into the main canyon forming its own small waterfall. Looking downstream, the main canyon extends towards the ocean, while to my right are two more deep side canyons that meet the main canyon in a three-way confluence. The view makes me want to come back someday and explore the canyon starting from Smugglers Cove. 


  1. James, great pix and dialog. Always enjoy ur articles. Best to you, RonW~


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