This was my very first trip as a solo backpacker: three days, two nights, a ferry ride, and 20-ish miles along Santa Cruz Island. I took this trip during Thanksgiving break, thinking there wouldn’t be any crowds. Yeah, right. Every bird watcher, young nature-lovin’ couple, and first-time camper were enjoying the island that long weekend. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds, and I honestly didn’t meet a soul while backpacking on the trail.
The trip began with a ferry ride from Ventura to Scorpion Bay Campground. Whether you plan on camping on any of the islands or not, I highly recommend a trip on one of Island Packers’ ferries. The staff is cheerful & informative, they have indoor & outdoor seating, and a very tempting snack bar with hot food and beverages for grown-ups and kids alike. The ferry captain made sure to point out wildlife and even steered off course to catch a glimpse of a whale!
My first night was spent at Scorpion Campground, which is fixed up with outhouses, running tap water, and a ranger station. I spent the late afternoon mucking about the old ranch machines left by the island’s previous owners, and checking out a short trail along the beach and cliffs. To my delight, an off duty ranger was presenting a slide show that evening on the geological history of the islands. I’m such a nerd for stuff like that, I sat front row with all the 9 year olds.
The trail began with a long ascent up Scorpion Canyon to the Montañon. I began hiking at 5:30am because I just couldn’t sleep. I forced down a Cliff Bar, packed up, and headed out. Fifteen minutes later, I realized I was on the wrong trail. Made a u-turn and tried again, this time looking at the map!
There’s no water at the Del Norte Campground and no water sources between Scorpion and Prisoners, so I carried 5 liters, maybe 6!?!, up the mountain with me. Despite the heavy pack, I had a great time watching the sunrise over Anacapa Island. It was absolutely glorious and I stopped to cook Ramen noodles for breakfast while taking it all in.
It’s not often you get to hike with ocean views on either side of you. Since the trail eventually joins with a dusty, old service road meandering along the backbone of the island, you get spectacular views of the sparkling blue ocean, the mainland, and Anacapa Island. If you look really hard on a clear day, you can even see Santa Barbara Island or San Nicolas Island. A small group of crows became my companions for the day, as they followed me all the way from Montañon to Del Norte, probably hoping for bits of fig newtons!.
A few fun facts about Santa Cruz Island:
It’s believed to have first been settled by humans 9,000-13,000 years ago.
In 1972, the Brown Berets, a Chicano activist group, seized and reclaimed several of the Channel Islands for Mexico.
Santa Cruz Island has 12 species which cannot be found anywhere else on the planet.
Here’s a great article by Michael Redmon on the NPS website about the island: http://www.nps.gov/chis/historyculture/prisoners.htm
I reached the Del Norte Backcountry Campground so much earlier than I expected. It was 1:00 when I flopped into the 4-site, waterless campground and the first thing I did was nap on my sleeping pad under a bush. After setting up my tent, there was nothing to do: there was no way I was hiking another 5 miles just to hang out at the beach, and it was so bushy, walking along the cliffs was out of the question. I settled for more napping, staring at my map, and reading.
Santa Cruz Island has one predator: the Island Fox, and this little 3-6 lb. creature is one of the reasons I chose Santa Cruz for my first solo trip. I’d like to see one of these cuties stalk and attack me to the death! Well, they will stalk you. They’re smart little stinkers and know most hikers can’t resist their adorableness when it comes to begging for Snickers bars. I snapped this photo of a fox poking around my Del Norte neighbor’s campsite, and you can see his cutie-wootie self is only the size of a house cat.
There was some idle chit chat with the other Del Norte campers (a couple of couples and a single guy). Mostly everyone wanted to keep to their romantic little selves, so it was a quiet night. For a while that evening, I laid out my sleeping pad on the picnic table and watched shooting stars & satellites float by. The only thing that really bugged me that entire day were the horrifying amounts of spiders I kept finding in my tent. [Fear, yuck, and more fear.]
The hike out required a meandering 3.8 mile hike down to Prisoners’ Harbor for the ferry pick-up. Seeing this sign & the posted mileage made me completely give up on trying to determine how many miles I actually walked this trip. I had two maps plus had seen two different posted mileage signs, and not one agreed with another on the mileage between Scorpion & Del Norte. Thus began my habit of adding “-ish” to all my trip mileages.
While waiting for the ferry with a few other hikers, I poked around the beach and was startled to find pieces of skeleton that looked human! I thought for sure this was a human han— images of drug crimes and Natalie Wood raced through my head. A Nature Conservancy volunteer assured us it was a seal flipper. Whew…
As luck would have it, the Nature Conservancy volunteer offered to take us on an eight mile hike on the N.C. side of the island. Since the Nature Conservancy side is always closed to hikers and campers, this was a great treat! It was incredible to see the difference in vegetation between the National Parks property & the Conservancy property. The Nature Conservancy has clearly devoted a tremendous amount of money and man power to rehabilitating their side of the island. With so many more trees, flowers, and even flowing water, it looked like a completely different habitat!
The campsites at Scorpion Bay and Del Norte Backcountry were $15 per night. Just register through the National Parks website or phone line. Island Packers ferry costs vary by season, so check their website.