Posted by: GeekHiker | August 5, 2008

HIKE: Santa Cruz Island, Isthmus Trek

I’m a bit hesitant to write this trail description up, even though it was the longest hike of the trip. Why? Basically because I didn’t see anything.

Sitting as it does in the Pacific Ocean, it’s not uncommon for fog and wind to regularly descend on the Channel Islands. During the late summer the fog will often burn off, leaving clear days and blue skies. Unfortunately, I wasn’t so lucky on this trip.

So the photos are a bit skimpy (not many scenic vistas here, sorry), and I will have to return sometime again to redo this hike and add better pictures. Darn. 😉

Starting at the dock at Scorpion Anchorage, follow the main road up Scorpion Canyon as on the Potato Harbor Loop. This time, continue through the upper campground, crossing the usually dry Scorpion Creek along the wide canyon floor.

Santa Cruz 12
Starting up the trail along the flat canyon bottom.

Just as the walls start to pinch in, revealing rugged, exposed volcanic rock beyond, the trail swings left and begins climbing steeply out of the canyon.

Santa Cruz 13
Looking back down Scorpion Canyon

After 700 feet of climbing, you’ll arrive at a three way junction. The trail to the left is a spur trail that will take you to the road that leads to Smugglers Cove. Our path, the Montañon Ridge Trail, goes to the right, passing the rusting remains of an old oil rig.

Santa Cruz 14
Old oil drilling operation, rusting away…

The trail climbs gradually but steadily, passing over expanses of red volcanic rock, wide spaces of grasslands, and lovely displays of blooming buckwheat.

Santa Cruz 15
Blooming buckwheat along the trail

Ordinarily, ascending Montañon Ridge would provide ever-expanding views of the island and surrounding ocean. Instead, fog limited my views to the trail and a few yards in either direction, giving these oaks growing along the path an eerie look.

Santa Cruz 16
Oaks in the thick fog near the top of the ridge

Santa Cruz 17
Spiderweb in the mist (looks better full-size on Flickr)

Despite the cloud cover, though, flowers were still open, showing off their bright colors.

Santa Cruz 18
Summer flowers

Santa Cruz 19
More summer flowers

Crossing the ridge, about four miles from your start, you’ll also be crossing geologic time. The northern half of the island on which you’ve been trekking is made up of volcanic rock. Near the top of the ridge, you’ll pass through an area of jumbled rock and enter the southern half of the island, which is composed of sedimentary rock. Note the first few hundred yards are steep, essentially off-trail travel. Rock cairns here and there mark the path.

Descending along the trail, you’ll connect up with the island’s main road system (none of the old roads cross the ridge between the eastern and western sections of the island). Continuing along the road, on a sunny day, you’ll see off towards the ocean on either side of the isthmus.

Island Road Photomerge
The clouds part briefly to reveal the road and distant ridges

Rising to a high point along the road, you’ll encounter a series of Santa Cruz Island pines, unique to the island. Another grouping of the pines, along with old-growth oak forest, can be found my taking the spur road at about 5.1 miles from your start.

Santa Cruz 22
Island pines in the mist

Santa Cruz 20
Island Pine pine cones

As the trail continues along, you’ll note miles of fencing, leftover from the ranching days, still criss-cross the island. In the distance you’ll see various structures from the island’s past and present: a naval installation (still active), a releasing building for the re-introduction of the bald eagle, etc. Various ranch roads take off in other directions, but the main road is easy to stay on.

Note: The “unmaintained trail” (marked on the Trails Illustrated topo as the eastern section of the Del Norte Trail) is gone. We found one end of the trail on the way to Chinese Harbor only by consulting the gps; the trail itself is completely overgrown.

Our path took us through high growths of fennel (an invasive, introduced plant) to the trail junction to China Harbor. From this junction, you can continue another 7 miles or so to Prisoners Harbor. A total hike from Prisoners to Scorpion, round trip, would clock in at 29 miles.

Santa Cruz 21
Overgrown, invasive fennel on the road to Chinese Harbor

The nice part of this hike is that you can vary the length to taste by turning around at any point, as the return to the trailhead is by the same route. We were lucky, receiving a little break in the clouds on the return, revealing the island surrounded by a sea of fog and, in the distance, the mainland.

Santa Cruz 23
The descending trail and distant mainland across a sea of fog

Finally, a mile or two after we’d descended the ridge, the fog broke away long enough to reveal the ridge itself:

Montañon Ridge Photomerge
Montañon Ridge

Although the park service has black & white maps available, I highly recommend a good topo map and/or gps for additional guidance. Note that some roads and trails shown on either maps or gps may not be maintained and, as with the east section of the Del Norte Trail, may no longer exist.

Total Distance: Varies. The hike described above was approx 16 Miles

Total Elevation Gain/Loss: 2,900’/2,900′

For directions and transit to Santa Cruz Island, see this post for more information.



  1. Oh well, the pictures are just skimpy. Yes, boring those…. NOT! I love the foggy ones specially… they have such a nostalgic feel. That place looks just too cool.

  2. Those are amazing pictures! The spiderweb one is absolutely beautiful! I would frame it and hang it if I thought it wouldn’t scare me to death every time I looked at it. But it is hauntingly beautiful!

  3. I’ll volunteer for a sunny day…

  4. Love the pictures. They look like a completely different world.

  5. I can’t explain it, but I LOVE the fog photos. Especially the one on the mountain where it appears as though you’re looking down on the sky ( The descending trail and distant mainland across a sea of fog).

    P.S. I am back from vacation and catching up on blogs so thank you for having a post with pictures! My brain was starting to hurt.

  6. Those are great shots, love the one to the chinese harbour as it looks like a road to nowhere. And of course, the spiderweb one is divine.

  7. These pics are amazing! I am having a hard time picking my favorite. I think I like the The descending trail and distant mainland across a sea of fog the best. No, no, I like Oaks in the thick fog near the top of the ridge best. Damn, see why it takes me so long to order in a restaurant?

  8. I’m a moron as well. I meant to make those italics and not strike-throughs.

  9. oh i know it sucks for you that i just want to harp on what a talented photographer you are but seriously – you should make a calendar of hiking pics… it would make a great christmas gift for friends and family

  10. Did the fennel smell like black licorice?

    The foggy pictures are very cool and totally reminded me of American Werewolf in London. I half expected a man-wolf to jump out of the side of the frame. 😀

    Glad it cleared up for you in the end!

    Oh – and I’m a bigger moron than Dingo because I don’t even know how to do strikethrough…

  11. Narami – Thanks! I’m still hoping to see it all on a sunny day, though.

    Lori – Well, if you change your mind and want the higher-rez image, just let me know…

    Just A Girl – You’re more than welcome to join!

    Rachel – Thanks. It sort of is.

    TheCoconutDiaries – I love fog photos too, actually. Glad you liked the picture post.

    BackPackerMomma – *blush* You’re too kind.

    Dingo – LOL – It’s okay.

    Dingo – Strike-throughs? What strike-throughs? 😉

    Charlotte – Oh, well, gosh, that’s okay. Hmmmmm…. Food for thought…

    Mel Heth – Yep, it does smell that way. LOL – well, it was actually warm and humid, which I think keeps the werewolves away!

  12. Werewolves?! Now we’re talking. Throw some zombies in there and you’ve got a great hike!

  13. Fog has resulted in some of the worst … and some of the best hikes I’ve ever done. It’s hit or miss.

  14. Get the boat to drop you off at Prisoners, spend the night at the Del Norte campsite, then hike to Scorpion in the morning. Makes a great hike!

    I had fog so thick the first time I did this hike that I needed my GPS for navigation, but the fog burned off mid morning and it turned into a sparkling day. Hiked the spine of the island with ocean views on both sides. Spectacular.

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