Channel Islands 2b: Hiking Santa Cruz Island

By Charleen - November 29, 2023

Just off the coast of southern California lies a series of 8 small islands, five of which form the Channel Islands National Park. Santa Cruz Island is the largest of the northern volcanic chain, a partially submerged tail-like extension of the Santa Monica Mountains. For our afternoon excursion, we selected the long hike up to a scenic viewpoint near Prisoners Harbor. Although the giant coreopsis was in a dormant, moribund state, we were greeted by the vibrant cobalt blue-colored Island Scrub Jay, while a Santa Cruz Island fox bid us adieu. Both species are only found on Santa Cruz Island.

The Santa Cruz Island subspecies of Channel Islands Fox
View from Del Norte Trail
The National Geographic Venture in Prisoners Harbor with Santa Barbara in distance.
Wild buckwheat

Click here to read about short (<3 miles) Southern California Hikes with Santa Catalina Views

Click here for Channel Islands Cruise Day 1. Embarkation, Dolphins & Moonrise

Click here for Channel Islands Cruise Day 2a. Anacapa Cliffs & Wildlife via Zodiac

Click here for Channel Islands Cruise Day 3. Santa Rosa Torrey Pines Hike

Click here for Channel Islands Cruise Day 4. Santa Catalina Two Harbors & Avalon

Santa Cruz Island Excursions

With excitement, we listened to our options for venturing ashore. When I visited the Channel Islands four decades ago, the National Park Service did not yet manage Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands although arrangements had been made for eventual transfer of Santa Rosa and part of Santa Cruz. Both of these islands have sources of fresh water and were inhabited by the Chumash, followed by cattle and sheep ranchers. 

The options for activities included zodiac raft trips, two short to medium hikes focused on the beach, continuing on to visit the restored wetlands, or a long hike up the hills to a scenic viewpoint. After all of the delicious food we had been consuming, we opted for the long hike. Another option was more Zodiac rafting, and those that selected the shorter hikes could do both.

As we approached the dock at Prisoners Harbot, we were glad of calm seas, and the staff made sure we all transitioned safely up the ladder. 
We walked past the National Park sign, and onto some buildings that contained restrooms. I was disappointed to discover that the only National Park Service Passport Cancellation Stamp station on the island was located miles away near the Scorpion Anchorage. 

Scrub Jays and Vegetation

As soon as we approached an old fence, we saw one of the endemic species of birds. The Santa Cruz scrub jay is a more brilliant blue than other related birds, and boasts the most restricted range of all birds.  It only lives on this 96 square mile (249 square kilometer) island.
Santa Cruz Scrub Jay
As we set out along the dusty Navy Road, we had high hopes of viewing the Santa Cruz Island Fox, another subspecies that only lives on Santa Cruz Island. While we saw plenty of deposits containing berries and possibly deer mouse fur along the sides of the road, the elusive fox was not to be seen.
Island Oak
Instead, we saw native vegetation such as the Santa Cruz Island Oak with hanging beards of Spanish moss, and berry laden Toyan bushes. The Chumash dry these berries and then grind them up to make pancakes. 
Toyan bush
I asked about the Giant Coreopsis and our naturalist pointed out some dead-appearing leafless grey silhouettes, some bearing dried blooms. At this time of year, the coreopsis is still in a dormant stage, awaiting the winter rains. 
Dormant Giant Coreopsis
The air was fragrant with the scent of anise, one of the non-native plants that flourished on the hillsides. Indeed, it seemed these taller and denser stalks were choking out the much more widely scattered coreopsis that I remembered as forming fields of yellow and green (See photo from 1982 here). 
Fragrant, but invasive anise
As the trail wound up, we came across numerous beautiful views of the bay and the Santa Barbara coast in the distance. 
Navy Road

The Del Norte Trail

After a bit of climbing, we turned left onto the Del Norte Trail, a narrow path lined by grass that took on rainbow hues against the green trees and blue bay beyond.
Rippling rainbow-hued grasses and bay on Del Norte Trail
After we reached a viewpoint with a picnic table, part of the group started back and part of the group kept going as the path led more steeply downhill. Vegetation also encroached the trail more closely in this less traveled section and I wished I had not zipped off the legs of my hiking pants. 
Narrowing downhill track on Del Norte Trail
I decided to turn back with another couple to wait at the picnic table and enjoy the view out to the mainland, while my husband continued onwards down the hill.  They reached a lovely gully leading to the sea lined by tiny yellow blooms before turning around.

The late afternoon sun reflected off the undulating hills beyond as they returned to the viewpoint, while ravens called and something potentially the size of a small fox or large rodent scampered through the bushes near the picnic table. 
Undulating sunlit hills beyond the Del Norte Trail
There were more flowers out than I would have expected for November, even in California. We saw lots of small white blooms across the ground.
In shady bends of the trail, there were waving fronds of yellow soft-leaved paintbrushes.
Soft-leaved paintbrushes
We spotted another Island Scrub Jay, perched up high on bush lupines.  I lingered to photograph the rich purple blooms against a backdrop of silvery-green leaves and to chat with our naturalist Chelsea.

The Santa Cruz Island Fox

Then she got a message on her walkie talkie that our lead hikers had spotted an Island Fox!

The two of us hurried along and were rewarded with a nice view of a little fox sitting under arching shrub branches. Of course, like our kids, the fox has its eyes shut in most of the telephoto pictures taken by my husband.
The fox cooperated by sitting there lazily watching us with its ears in a very relaxed position for at least 4-5 minutes judging by the time stamps on the photos, before running off beyond the eucalyptus trees in the landing picnic area.

What a delight! The Channel Island foxes represent yet another example of the lasting impact made by Rachel Carson when she alerted the nation to the hazards of DTT. It turns out that the loss of the bald eagle, which is endemic to these islands and pescatarian, allowed the larger carnivorous golden eagle to move in.

And the golden eagles delighted in their ability to carry off full grown Channel Island foxes. Like the Galapagos, each island has its own subspecies of fox. Descended from the grey fox, these foxes have evolved to a smaller size due to limited resouces. And the Santa Cruz Island fox is the smallest of them.

The Channel Island foxes were nearly extinct at the beginning of this millenium. But due to efforts enabled by the Endangered Species Act, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, they have recovered and are now considered as "near threatened". Their recovery was facilitated by relocation of golden eagles to the mainland (Utah according to the naturalist), elimination of feral pigs, and restoration of bald eagle numbers after DTT was banned.  


Again, we enjoyed a cocktail hour with a featured mixed drink and nonalcoholic beverage, a meat, cheese and fruit platter, and grilled vegetables. Waiters brought trays of this tasty quinoa-black bean ball with a zesty sauce. 

And we enjoyed dinner with another set of red and white wines, including a salad, braised short rib or roasted halibut over truffle whipped potatoes and roasted asparagus. 
For dessert, a caramelized apple tart tatin a la mode, which we enjoyed with an extra side of chocolate ice cream.

After dinner, we learned about other conservation efforts on Anacapa Island. How do you trap and remove invasive rats without harming the population  of an endemic type of deer mouse that is only seen on Anacapa Island? The solution was to trap the deer mice and house them in a special building near the lighthouse, releasing them only after the rats had been eliminated.  

Photo Sharing

The cruise ship had a computer to which people could upload 4-5 of their favorite photos to share with the group.  Mike, our photo instructor collected these submissions from both guests and naturalists at lunch time on our last full day, and produced the official Slide Show for our cruise. 

Looking through these photos, it was evident that every group was rewarded with cool experiences, from mother-of-pearl mollusk shells on a round rock beach, more scrub jays and  a western side-blotched lizard for the hikers to closeup views of brown pelicans, spotted harbor seals, caves and cormorants silhouetted on points of land, along the Nature Conservancy side of the island to the west.

Click here to read about short (<3 miles) Southern California Hikes with Santa Catalina Views

Click here for Channel Islands Cruise Day 1. Embarkation, Dolphins & Moonrise

Click here for Channel Islands Cruise Day 2a. Anacapa Cliffs & Wildlife via Zodiac

Click here for Channel Islands Cruise Day 3. Santa Rosa Torrey Pines Hike

Click here for Channel Islands Cruise Day 4. Santa Catalina Two Harbors & Avalon

🐾 If you email with the dates and the names of the islands  visited, they will send you the NPS passport cancellation stamps by mail.


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