Island Traverse

Backpacking and camping on Santa Cruz Island on Channel Islands National Park

As the largest of the Channel Islands, Santa Cruz also has bragging rights to two mountain ranges. And boy does this place pack a punch for adventure-seekers. For a grand (and grandly scenic) tour, lace up the boots and go on a 15-mile (one-way) backpacking trek that traverses the eastern side of the island. You’ll travel from Prisoners Harbor pier to Scorpion Anchorage over one or two nights. Most likely to greet you at the pier: the island fox, one of several endemic species. From there, a loping, thigh-busting 3.5-mile hike ascends grassy sea-hugging slopes and descends into two canyons. For those in no hurry, spend the night at Del Norte Camp, where four primitive sites are nestled amid oak trees. Next up, the long, vista-filled journey to Scorpion Anchorage.

You’ll venture along Del Norte Trail over great green hills swooning with tall grass and wildflowers: Yarrow, morning glory, and island nightshade bloom in abundance. The trail climbs to Navy Road, a dirt path running east-west along a ridge, lined by the local Santa Cruz Island pine. Montañon Ridge marks the apex, both in elevation (at roughly 1,800 feet) and in grandeur. Rather than switchbacks, this summit is approached straight on … and up a gradually rising upland that bridges deep ravines to reach the mountain’s craggy, cactus-filled peak. Soak in gorgeous views of the sea and the island’s earthiness. Scrub oak chaparral and woodlands of coast live oak and bishop pine dominate. It’s all downhill from here. Passing a rusted exploratory oil well from the 1960s, look for the turnoff for Scorpion Canyon Trail, which follows singletrack down to Scorpion campground, where you’ll spend the night.

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Bring plenty of water, at least a gallon per person. There are no poisonous snakes on the island, but watch for ticks, poison oak, “jumping” cholla cactus, and scorpions. Trashcans are nowhere to be found, so be prepared to haul out all of your refuse. Del Norte Camp is the only place to camp legally in the backcountry. Camp stoves are allowed, but no campfires.

Contact the park’s concessionaire Island Packers at (805) 642-1393 to arrange one-way boat passage to Prisoners Harbor, with a return from Scorpion Anchorage (note: you must specifically request the return/pick-up from Scorpion Anchorage).

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