Backpacking Channel Islands: Santa Cruz Island


Trip Date: April 23-27, 2018

Santa Cruz Island is the largest of seven that make up the Channel Islands. Located 20 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara county, this national park is a backpacker’s dream! We spent four days on the island hiking, camping and one big backpacking trip towards the end of our journey on Santa Cruz Island.


I’ll admit, four days on Santa Cruz Island was a little much. There is only so many activities you can do and while we had a full itinerary planned out, still found ourselves with a lot of down time.Super excited for a kayak rental, unfortunately, due to high winds, we had to cancel. We spent the next two days day hiking, sometimes even hiking the same trail twice.

On our second day, we hiked to Smugglers Cove and really took our time there for it was our last full day at Scorpion Anchorage. On day three, we woke up early, packed up camp and began our 12-mile trek to Del Norte Campground. There is no accessible water on that side of the island, so we had to trek in a gallon of water, plus whatever water we carried in our packs. It was a long hike and made for a very long day. We eventually made it to camp, exhausted and hungry- we set up camp and attempted to make dinner. The winds picked up that evening, knocking down over and spilling out our dried Mountain House Turkey dinner. Luckily, we had extra. Too tired to even witness the sunset from camp, we knocked out just as soon as the sun started to set.

Ambitious plans were to actually hike back to Scorpion Anchorage the next day. Silly me. What was I even thinking?! So when we woke the next morning, we planned to hike to Prisoners Harbor in hopes of getting cell service to contact a ranger to see if we can switch our boat tickets, to be picked up from Prisoners Harbor instead. Word from our neighbors, that the next days boat was actually being cancelled due to the high winds!

We left our things at camp, hiked 3.5 miles into Prisoners Harbor and luckily ran into Ranger Earl. He was a life saver! He allowed us to use his phone to contact the ranger station to change our boat tickets and explained to us that we were better off catching the next boat out, rather than wait to see if the winds died down the next day. Which meant, having to hike back 3.5 miles to camp, pack up, hike 3.5 miles back to the harbor all within 2 hours when the next boat arrived! Earl gave us a ride back to camp to pack up and even a ride back to the harbor, so we wouldn’t miss our boat.

Even though we had to cut our trip a day short, it was still quite an adventure for our first time on Santa Cruz Island!

Day Hikes

Potato Harbor (5 mi RT) : One of the more popular day hikes on Santa Cruz Island will bring you to Potato Harbor Overlook. A 5 mile round-trip hike with an elevation gain of just under 500 ft. Perfect for a quick afternoon hike to catch sunset. This was such an easy hike with pretty views, that we actually hiked this twice, once in the morning and once to catch the sunset.

Cavern Point Loop  (2 mi RT) : Coastal views from Cavern Point are the best, in my opinion! This hike is a 2-mile loop and connects with the Potato Harbor trail. We completed this hike early morning and impressed with the views from above. I mean, look at that water! This was also one of the very first hikes we did when we arrived to Santa Cruz Island.

Smugglers Cove  (7.7 mi RT) : The hike to Smugglers Cove is probably the longest day hiking trail on Santa Cruz Island. With 7.7 miles round trip and an elevation gain of 1,400 ft, this hike is totally worth the trek in! Having done this hike in April, wildflowers colored the trail and made for a beautiful hike. When we arrived to Smugglers Cove, we were happy to find that we were the only ones on the beach that day! We had lunch on the beach, lounged for about an hour before heading back to camp.

Del Norte Trail to Prisoners Harbor  (7 mi RT) : This trail is located on the opposite side of Scorpion Anchorage and begins at Prisoners Harbor. It is 7-mile round trip to hike to the only back country campground on Santa Cruz Island, Del Norte. Many people start at Prisoners Harbor to backpack on Santa Cruz, however- we had time and wanted a little more adventure, so we decided to hike it from the opposite side, some 12.5 miles away. I didn’t get many photos from this trail & don’t remember anything special about it. At the time we were hiking this trail, we were actually racing down to the harbor to see if we can catch the last boat off the island, due to high winds.


Montanon Trail/ Navy Road to Del Norte Camp (12.5 mi one-way) :  Hiking from Scorpion Anchorage to Del Norte back country camp is quite an adventure itself. The trail spans just a little over 12.5 miles with an elevation gain of ~2,660 ft. There are parts of the Montanon Trail that are not maintained and very rugged. It is important to note that there is NO accesible water at Del Norte campground or Prisoner’s Harbor; which meant, having to carry extra water on this rugged trail. I have never seen so many caterpillars in my life! We stopped a few times to catch our breath, take in the views and really soak it all in. Eventually the trail breaks off and you’ll continue hiking to camp via Navy Road, which is still a dirt road.


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Vanessa is an outdoors enthusiast, hiker at heart, and the storyteller behind Forever She Wanders; a women's lifestyle + travel blog inspiring all to get outdoors, seek adventure and live an active lifestyle. As an outdoors enthusiast, Vanessa has found passion in being outdoors while backpacking, camping, hiking and creating memories of a lifetime.

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