The largest of the Channel Islands, Santa Cruz Island has a diverse terrain with mountains, cliffs, and canyons, as well as many endemic plant and animal species. While the island previously had an active ranch, under the current ownership of the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy it is being returned to its prior, natural state. Depending on the part of the island and time of year that you visit, you may traverse long stretches of trail without seeing other hikers.
With two campsites within the National Park, a one-way hike can be done from the middle of the island to the eastern end. Island Packers Cruises offers boat trips to both Prisoner’s Harbor and Scorpion Anchorage for transportation to and from the mainland for a hiking shuttle. The hike can be done in either direction; however, because there is potable water at Scorpion Anchorage, hiking eastbound will allow you to refill your water at the end of the hike. Additionally, you can do the hike over one or two days depending on your preference, although the boat schedule will affect which days you will be able to travel to and from the mainland. Because the trail does not cross any year-round streams, you need to pack all the water you will need for the hike to Scorpion.
The trail begins on a fire road leaving Prisoner’s Harbor and rises above sea level, overlooking the northern coast of the island. After just over a mile of hiking, a trail to Del Norte campground breaks off from this road, which is only 3.5 miles from Prisoner’s. The trail descends into several canyons before climbing back up to 700 feet to the campground. Del Norte camp provides spectacular views of the coastline back toward Prisoner’s Harbor, and it is located within a copse of oak trees. This backcountry campground has four campsites. Each site is equipped with a picnic table and metal food storage box. All food should be kept in these boxes as island foxes have become habituated to human food and frequent campgrounds. An outdoor pit toilet is available for the campground, though you will need to bring your own toilet paper.
The next day the trail gradually ascends to 1,550 feet over the first 6.5 miles. Initially the trail passes through chaparral including sage, and invasive fennel that has been slated for future removal. A side trip to the beach at Chinese Harbor adds 3 miles extra hiking distance (round trip). The Del Norte Trail soon joins with Navy Road, a fire road traveling along the central ridge of the island. Along this road lie island manzanita, lichen-covered oaks, and the endemic Santa Cruz Island pine. The final portion of trail to the crest of Montañon ridge is steeper up a rocky route but does not require use of your hands. From the top of Montañon you will be able to see both the eastern and western ends of the island, Anacapa Island, and the mainland on a clear day. For even better views you can take a short detour to the highest point on the NPS-owned side of the island, which sits at 1,808 feet. From this point, the remainder of the hike is downhill. Scattered along the trail are remnants of the ranching operation that ended in the 1980s. The trail soon descends into Scorpion Canyon, where the upper and lower campground loops of Scorpion Ranch are located. Here you will be able to refill your water, and if your boat is not coming until the following day, you can take your time on the eastern side of the island doing one of the many day hikes nearby. A ranger station is also located at Scorpion Ranch. Be sure to pay close attention to when your boat departs, but the campground is a mere half mile away from the dock.