Backpacking Santa Cruz Island: Prisoners Harbor to Scorpion Harbor

  • Updated: January 05, 2020
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

January 3rd to 5th, 2020
El Montanon Peak (1,808')
Day 1: 3.2 miles, 1,250' (+4.3 miles, 750' oops)
Day 2: 11.5 miles, 2,200'
Day 3: 0 miles, 0'

After two months spent out in Thailand diving my butt off I'd spent a week in Texas visiting family and now I was back in Southern California.

While plans have changed a bit from the initial plans Jen and I have been working under the assumption I would spend the next few months doing contract work until we start the Pacific Crest Trail. Initially I was going to be available for work on the 1st of January

We'd been eyeing backpacking across Santa Cruz Island ever since we did the Trans-Catalina Trail in 2018 but the timing and weather hadn't ever been right. And then it turned out they were closing the main anchorage Scorpion Harbor in late 2019 due to the construction of a new pier.

But they reopened the harbor for a brief period and we managed to snag campsites right before it closed again on January 5th.

Santa Cruz Island Backpacking Planning Details

As always with any of the islands off the southern california coast your going to have to pay more than usual for a backpacking trip. To get out to Santa Cruz you can buy passage on a boat by Island Packers here. They let you bring 50 pounds of gear and they can drop you at either Scorpion or Prisoners.

There are only two campsites on the island. Scorpion is the one most people go to on account of the fact it's the biggest. There are group and individual sites and they provide water, fox boxes (bear boxes with a cuter name), and pit toilets.

The other campground is called Del Norte. It's walk in only and there are only 4 sites. There is no water though they do have fox boxes and a small pit toilet.

We chose to start at Prisoners, hike in to Del Norte, spend one night there, and then do the 12-15 mile hike over to Scorpion the next day. I liked this plan since it starts you out on the more remote part of the island and you have spectacular views as your coming down to Scorpion.

This did mean we had to carry two days of water but the hike in to Del Norte was only about 3.2 miles and 1,250' so it was manageable.

Looking at the map you might have noticed we only crossed the eastern third of the island which is a bit out of character. For better or worse everything west of Prisoners Harbor is controlled by the conservancy and you're not allowed to go in there. So this trip basically covers all the terrain you're allowed to hike except for a few out and back excursions to coves.

Day 1: Boat to Prisoners Harbor and Hike to Del Norte

3.2 miles, 1,250' gain (+4.3 miles, 750' gain oops)

The boat out to Santa Cruz does depart from Ventura Harbor which is a foor 2-3 hour drive from south Orange County. So we had an early morning. We arrived and checked in by 8, had our bags weighed and loaded, and then were on our way by 9 am.

They do ask that you pack your water and stove fuel separately. They also had us remove any lithium batteries from our packs and bring them in our carry ons.

The crossing to the island took about an hour. They had a snack bar in the boat and we did have the occasional dolphin encounter to keep up entertained.

Most everyone on the boat got off at the first stop at Scorpion Harbor. We saw a lot of people carrying coolers and such obviously just out there to relax.

After another short ride the boat dropped us off at Prisoners Harbor where we had to climb a short ladder to get up on the dock. There were only two other groups backpacking and a few day trippers getting off here to do a day hike with a naturalist.

The backpackers had a briefing from a park ranger on the dock and then we were turned loose.

We were the only ones venturing over to Scorpion Harbor so our water situation was a little more delicate. So we had a snack and drank as much as we could before setting off.

There is a bathroom at Prisoners and some buildings utilized by the park or conservancy. Heading along the road we passed the well signed junction to the conservancy lands climbed a hill, and turned off on a single track trail.

The nice thing about Santa Cruz was that unlike Catalina you constantly have views of the ocean making it clear your on an island.

Due to our early lunch we'd set out later than the other two groups and we passed one of them sunning on the trail. Other than that we were alone.

We were having a grand time talking and catching up after I'd been away for so long and somehow we both managed to see the trail sign where were supposed to turn off but not the campground sign attached to it. And so we did a bonus few miles with all of our gear and water before we realized our mistake.

Eventually we returned and found Del Norta Campground. It's a beautiful site with green grass and oaks that shade sites 3 and 4.

Sites 1 and 2 are a bit more exposed but offer spectacular ocean views.

We were in site 4 at the end which was located under a protective oak. In addition to a picnic table there were two different styles of fox boxes to store our food in. We did so religiously though we didn't see much in the way of foxes until we reached Scorpion.

The single bathroom was a short distance up the hill behind us. Sadly despite the fact it was maybe 100 ft away people had gone on the far side of the oak on the way to the bloody bathroom and left toilet paper. It's enough to make you downright dislike people sometimes.

We made our dinner accompanied by red wine and fancy cheese which always seems to taste better when you have to carry it in.

Day 2: Del Norte Campground to Scorpion Harbor

11.5 miles, 2,200'

We didn't get moving until 10:30 figuring we had a relaxing day with only 12 or so miles to cover.

We had one trailrunner go past us obviously just out for the day and planning to meet the afternoon boat home but other than that it felt like we had the island to ourselves.

The route was a mix of single track trail and the occasional dirt road. There were signs at most junctions though they sometimes just indicated sometime generic like camp ground and an arrow.

The views along the spine were quite nice. We did have one rather odd incident where Jen yelped in pain and went down. There was the remains of a metal pole sticking up like spike in the middle of the trail.

The road eventually ended leaving us on an honest to god faint hiking trail involving the occasional bouldery bit.

Here we left the trail and ran out to El Montanon Peak and High Mount both of which were just quick diversions but my peakbagger ascent list has been looking rather sad lately and I wanted to get in a few new entries.

Once we hiked over High Mount and rejoined the trail it was basically all downhill. And rather beautiful.

We could see Anacapa rising prominently off to the west as we dropped.

The trail quickly turned into well established dirt roads and we started to come across the occasional dayhiker doing the Scorpion Canyon loop or heading up to the overlook behind us.

Thanks to our lackadaisical pace we didn't pull into the campsite until right around dark.

The campground was large but had a pleasant vibe to it with the exception of what sounded like a group of college guys a few sites over. Their constant use of the word broh led Jen to comment that they sounded like the Rick and Morty episode summaries but the bigger annoyance was the fact they started playing music which carried over the campground. Fortunately they stopped before too long and we had a mostly quiet night.

Day 3: In Which Nothing Was Done Except To Leave

We debated exploring but decided to just enjoy the morning and get in some quality fox watching.

After a few hours the campground had pretty much cleared out leaving just us and the foxes.

The foxes on Santa Cruz are interesting. The Island Fox is only about the size of a house cat and due to the fact they haven't traditionally had any predators they are active during the day.

They're also really mellow. To the extent that they make marmots look like ferocious beasts. They just wander around sniffing for bugs occasionally coming close but not really showing any intense interest. (Crows on the other hand are so aggressive on the island they've been known to open zippers!)

Sadly the fox population declined drastically prior to 2005. A population of invasive feral pigs ended up on the island which attracted golden eagles who in turn started to hunt the foxes. At one point there were less than 100 left on the island.

Thankfully they've since eliminated the pigs which cut back on the eagles and they've managed to recover the population through captive breeding.

At one point when we were lounging around in the tent we had a fox trot up and nearly come inside. He seemed to realize we were people about a foot away and nonchalauntly changed his course.

We had a docent come by twice to chat and make sure we knew to be at the dock by 3 pm since this was theoretically the last boat coming out here until the construction was done in 6 months or so.

We dutifully arrived on time and queued up to load our gear.

The boat was rather packed on the way back and space inside where it was warm was at a premium. We shared a table with two volunteers who were out there releasing harbor seal pups and who shared amusing videos of the reluctant pups being unceremoniously deposited into the ocean.

The boat got us back to the mainland a little before 5 pm and by 7 we were back in Orange County ready to do laundry and get ready for the next adventure! (Or in Jen's!)

You Might Also Like