Black Rock: Backpack across the volcanic spine of Santa Cruz Island
Ducking out from under the canopy of island oaks I headed southeast swapping out between old ranching roads and steep single track trails winding toward the ominous ridgeline of Montanon on Santa Cruz Island.
The Channel Islands National Park owns only 24 percent of the largest island off the California coast, and this is arguably the best way to experience its relatively lush flora surrounding Prisoners Harbor, in contrast to the more arid southeast end beyond Chinese Harbor to Smugglers Cove and Sandstone Point.
At the border of the Park Service and The Nature Conservancy it’s a 3.5 mile hike southeast to Del Norte Campground, the only other campground besides the lower and upper campsites inside Scorpion Canyon. There are few sites at Del Norte, but the scenery is stunning on the north-side of the most topographically diverse isle off the coast. Amongst the spindly island oaks endemic island scrub jays “shreep” it up at first light, while rambunctious island foxes run amok around dewy-covered tents.
From here I lit out across rolling hills overlooking Chinese Harbor to the north where groves of the most southerly stands of Bishop Pines in North America shade the isthmus of the 96-square-mile island. From here there are many steep, rocky, serpentine canyons that weave their way to the shimmering Pacific Ocean on either side of Santa Cruz.
Eventually the ranch roads ran dry, and a rib of dark, ashy-colored rock was all there was to ascend to Montanon Ridge. This portion of the hike offered some of the best examples of island flora on the southeast end of the island, a true botanical garden fed by prevalent overcast soaking into crags of volcanic rock. Bush and sticky monkey flower, deer weed, Santa Cruz Island natives like live forever, silver lotus and bushels of buckwheat landscaped the brittle route to the ridgeline where stunning views of the southeast end of Santa Cruz and Anacapa Island awaited.
It’s one of the best spots on the windswept island to take in 360 degree views 1500 feet above sea level. I shared this perch with raucous, brazen ravens soaring in swirling updrafts before they swooped downward to the bottom of Scorpion Canyon. After converging with a narrow single track trail, the pace quickened while following the flight of the ravens to the parched arroyo that spills dry cobble into the rippling waters at Scorpion Anchorage. But the journey didn’t end here. There are many places surrounding Santa Cruz that are best experienced by kayak. One of those is paddling out to Coche Point to enjoy the Mediterranean-like Potato Harbor, three miles west of Scorpion Anchorage.
Along this stretch of 300-foot-tall cliff faces there are many sea caves honeycombed into the volcanic island. The dark, dank grottos always await exploration. Wave-battered over millennia, they’re still evolving today.
Perched on witches’ hats, knobby pinnacles and brittle ledges were western gulls, wandering tattlers, black oystercatchers, Brandt’s cormorants and posturing California brown pelicans. From the cliff tops I heard a pair of peregrine falcons. The world’s fastest fliers stirred the pot and sent legions of seabirds into utter confusion, a cacophony of seabird distress calls until the raptors were satiated by the bounty.
On the final approach to Potato Harbor the bellowing chorus of California sea lions grew with each stroke of my paddle while closing in on the natural anchorage. From the seat of my kayak the ragged ridgeline of Montanon was visible, the perpetual tranquility of Potato always inviting to those wanting to trade in their hiking shoes for a paddle.
At the far depths of the harbor it’s easy to get swept away in a dreamlike state. The emerald green waters were too inviting to pass up. A Chumash midden tucked away in a side cove gave testament that Potato Harbor was a popular pit stop even hundreds of years prior, a peaceful escape from howling northwest winds pressing on the portside of a creaky tomol. The sea lions enjoy it too, hauled out comfortably on angular crags and torpedoing through the shallows.
There’s much to take in surrounding Coche Point, the perfect complement after an epic trek across the spine of Santa Cruz Island.