When you see Santa Cruz Island from the Ventura or Santa Barbara shore, it doesn’t look that big. But hike up a trail to one of the island’s eastern promontories and it appears massive: row upon row of mountains alternating with deep canyons. Stark bluffs extend to the horizon.
Santa Cruz is the largest (at 96 square miles), highest and most varied isle in Channel Islands National Park. Two years ago park concessionaire Island Packers launched a new boat that cut the cruising time from Ventura Harbor in half. The ride now takes about an hour nonstop, 15 minutes longer if the captain pauses so passengers can observe whales, dolphins, seals or other wildlife. Day-trippers have about five hours on the island before the boat returns to the mainland.
One way to extend the trip is to camp near Scorpion Anchorage, where Island Packers drops off passengers. Many campers contend that the eucalyptus-shaded campground is the national park’s best because it offers rare shade and is a convenient base for excellent hikes.
A short walk from Scorpion Anchorage leads to picnic tables, restrooms and a historic two-story ranch house. In the 1880s, a colony of French and Italian immigrants raised sheep and cattle, grew olives and almonds, even made wine. The Gherini family, descendants of the settlers’ leader, owned the east end of the island until 1997, when the property was added to the national park. Rangers intend to turn the old ranch house into a visitor center.
There are three hiking paths:
* Cavern Point Trail: A short, steep climb leads to a stunning view. 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.
* Potato Harbor Trail: The jaunt to Potato Harbor begins on a right-forking road beyond the upper end of the campground. After a heart-stirring half-mile climb, the road levels and heads west. This hike parallels the mainland coast, so it’s fun to look back at the civilization you left behind. Two miles from your start, a spur trail leads to an overlook of a potato-shaped cove backed by cliffs.
* Smugglers Cove Trail: The signed dirt road climbs east, then west, passing a cypress grove. At the two-mile mark, a spur trail leads to San Pedro Point. The road descends to an airstrip, then down to the beach. Note the century-old eucalyptus and olive trees near the cove.
An alternate return route is by way of Scorpion Canyon Trail, which travels through the habitat of the Santa Cruz scrub jay. The bird is about 30% bigger and much brighter in color than its mainland cousin, and it’s found nowhere else in the world.
Island Packers cruises to all five islands in the national park. The company’s trip to east Santa Cruz Island’s Scorpion Anchorage departs almost every day; call (805) 642-1393 for information. The fare is $42 for ages 14 and older, $25 for children younger than 13.
Channel Islands National Park has a visitor center near Ventura Harbor at 1901 Spinnaker Drive. It’s open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.