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Chuck Graham

Three Days in the Channel

Exploring Santa Cruz Island’s Southeast End


Dewy fog ascended the steep canyon walls near Coche Point, on the southeast end of Santa Cruz Island. Aided by perpetual northwest winds howling across the Santa Barbara Channel, the dense overcast swirled upward, banking off weathered crags and the nameless ridge we scrambled toward to reach Montanon ridgeline.

Montanon’s serpentine spine is arguably the best hike across the most bio-diverse island off the coast of Santa Barbara; it possesses stellar views, offers close encounters with native wildlife, and reveals the unique island flora on the volcanic islet. We began at Prisoners Harbor and finished at Scorpion Anchorage, 15 miles of trail dust in our wake and solitude throughout. The epic scenery never wavered on the mountainous islet.

We hiked through groves of spindly, native island oaks, manzanita, and the most southerly stands of Bishop Pines in the U.S. We shared the narrow single-track trails and historic ranch roads with raucous island scrub jays foraging between canyons and mischievous island foxes running amok the entire route. There aren’t many campsites at Del Norte, the only designated campsite on the route, so we were a mere few sleeping beneath clusters of brilliant stars, surrounded in a grove of island oaks. We awoke at dawn to barking sea lions and stunning views of the north side of the island.

From above, we marveled at the tranquility of Chinese Harbor, its shimmering waters lapping on its cobbled shores. Next we were straddling Santa Cruz Island, its narrow isthmus exposing sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean.

A hiker makes his way across Montanon Ridge on the southeast end of Santa Cruz Island.
Click to enlarge photo

Chuck Graham

A hiker makes his way across Montanon Ridge on the southeast end of Santa Cruz Island.

Soon after, the ranch roads came to a halt and a lichen-covered, brittle rib of black ashy-colored volcanic rock offered the only access to the Montanon Ridgeline. The fog raced us to Montanon, waves of mist engulfing the west end of Santa Cruz, visibility vanishing in a blink. Life sprouts out of the rocks and fissures of these volcanic crags, persistent overcast enabling a “second spring” for certain island flora. Some of the island’s many endemic plants were well represented here, a true botanical garden while hiking toward Montanon. We treaded lightly around Santa Cruz Island liveforevers, silver lotus, sticky monkey flower, and large clusters of buckwheat.

Standing approximately 1,500 feet above sea level on Montanon Ridge, only croaking ravens reached loftier heights. The rest of Santa Cruz fingers its way east, reaching out to narrow Anacapa Island, three miles from its tip. Our pace quickened on the four-mile descent weaving downward to Scorpion Canyon and its stream of cobble spilling into the mouth of Scorpion Anchorage.

We washed off the trail dust while kayaking three miles to Coche Point and the Mediterranean-like Potato Harbor. While paddling beneath honeycombed cliffs, we went spelunking in the many sea caves along the way. We kept an eye out for black oystercatchers, wandering tattlers, Brandt’s cormorants, and soaring peregrine falcons. Eventually the cacophony of bellowing California sea lions increased with each stroke of the paddle, signifying our arrival to the dreamy natural anchorage.

Only an hour’s ferry ride from Santa Barbara, a backpacking trip awaits across one of the least-traveled regions of Santa Cruz Island, close to the mainland, yet worlds apart.

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Channel Islands Outfitters offers guided three-day Black Rock backpacking and kayaking trips exploring the southeast end of Santa Cruz Island. For more information, call (805) 899-4925 or visit channelislandso.com.

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