California’s largest offshore island, Santa Cruz Island boasts the most varied coastline and topography, the highest peak, (2,434 feet) and most hiking trails. I know of no better way of celebrating the 40th anniversary of Channel Islands National Park than by taking a island hike!

Hiking coastal prairie on Santa Cruz Island.
Hiking coastal prairie on Santa Cruz Island.

When viewed from Ventura or Santa Barbara shores, Santa Cruz Island doesn’t look that big. However, hike a trail up to one of the commanding east isle promontories and the island appears massive: row upon row of mountains alternating with deep canyons, as well as a seemingly endless series of stark bluffs extending to the horizon.

The first time I took in this view I figured I was looking at a neighboring island but no, it was all Santa Cruz, all 96 square miles and 62,000 acres of it. For you city-slickers, the isle measures about four times the size of Manhattan.

Santa Cruz definitely offers hikers plenty of room to roam, as well as a far-reaching trail system composed mainly of old ranch roads. The only limitation on the hiker seems to be time: day-trippers are allowed about five hours on the island before it’s necessary to catch the boat back to Ventura Harbor.

For first-timers to the isle, I recommend the hiker from Scorpion Anchorage to Cavern Point which is a bit less than 2 miles round trip with 300-foot elevation gain. The hike to Potato Harbor is 5 miles round trip with 300-foot elevation gain.

For more time on the island, consider camping near the anchorage in Scorpion Canyon. Many campers contend that the eucalyptus-shaded campground is the national park’s best because it’s the only one with shade, and because it’s a convenient base for so many excellent hikes.

A short walk from the Scorpion Anchorage leads to picnic tables, restrooms and a historic two-story ranch house. In the 1880s, a colony of French and Italian immigrants led by Justinian Caire began a Mediterranean-style ranch here, raising sheep and cattle, growing olives and almonds, and even making wine. The Gherini family, descendants of Caire, owned the east end of the isle until 1997, when the property was added to the national park.

The old ranch house, transformed into a visitor center, has some fascinating displays about the island’s natural attractions and colorful history.

Combo Adventure: Hike and Paddle Santa Cruz.
Combo Adventure: Hike and Paddle Santa Cruz.

Directions: Getting to the island can be half the fun with Island Packers, the Channel Islands National Park primary concessionaire. The ride from Ventura Harbor to Scorpion Anchorage on the eastern end of Santa Cruz Island takes about an hour non-stop, 15 minutes or so longer if the captain pauses for a bit of whale-watching or to observe the many dolphins, seals and other marine life.

Day-trippers who board an Island Packers boat from Ventura Harbor and land at Scorpion Anchorage will typically have about five hours on the isle. For more information contact Channel Islands National Park at 805-687-5700.

The climb to Cavern Point on Santa Cruz Island.
The climb to Cavern Point on Santa Cruz Island.

The hike: The short, but steep, climb on Cavern Point Trail leads the hiker to a stunning viewpoint. Look for seals and sea lions bobbing in the waters around the point, as well as cormorants, pigeon guillemots and black oystercatchers swooping along the rugged volcanic cliffs.

To continue to Potato Harbor, follow the clifftop path until it meets a fire road. Continue to a spur trail that leads oceanward to an overlook of the distinctly tater-shaped cove backed by rugged cliffs.

To complete the loop, follow Potato Harbor Road down to the campground and back to Scorpion Anchorage.