Explore the history and natural beauty of SCI
This is a combination of two popular, more challenging day hikes from Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park. Once you've checked out Cavern Point and Potato Cove, you will inevitably have the itch to explore more of the island - particularly the rolling, grassy hills and steep walled canyons toward the center of the island. If you're a trail hiker, like I am, then it's tough to decide between the NPS descriptions of the "Scorpion Canyon Loop" and the hike out to "Smugglers Cove". So - in true adventurer spirit - we combined them!
The NPS brochure recommends that you start the Scorpion Canyon in a clockwise direction "to avoid a steep climb". However, I prefer a steep climb to a steep descent (and I started in the wrong direction unknowingly), so we headed up Scorpion Canyon trail from the Upper Campground. Most of the trails on this part of the island were at one point roads used by the sheep ranching operations that were centered here. This means the trails are generally wide and easy to follow, and also that many of them are quite steep compared to standard trail designs, which typically use switchbacks and lower grades to control erosion. Scorpion Canyon begins as a wide, rocky bottomed canyon, but quickly past the campgrounds it becomes narrower. The canyon is lined with both native and non-native vegetation, including some very beautiful Island Buckwheat, small outposts of the endangered Dudleyas and the non-native Star Thistle, which would make the Terminator recoil in fear.
The trail begins as a easy walk, with a little elevation thrown in to make it interesting. However, once you reach the "back" of the canyon, the walls close in, and the trail heads up above them. And up. And up. You're only a touch below sea level, but between the back of the canyon and the decrepit oil derrick on the ridge approaching Montanon, you will gain a very quickly paced 600' in elevation. At this point, the trail joins up with the Smugglers Road, which is a good route back to the campground at Scorpions. Continuing south on the road, however, takes you on a bit of a roller coaster ride up and down along the ridgline to a spot above Smuggler's Cove. Beginning to the left of the trail is what remains of a rather large olive grove that have been planted here since the early 1900's. Although the plant is invasive, the primary means of its spread were the feral pigs on the island, and they have since (thankfully) been eradicated. It's hard to be too angry at these beautiful, sculptural old trees, however. They stand in silent rows, and can be quite eerie when a fog rolls through them.
Descending back to the shore along the road is fast, and before you know it, you're at the cobble beach. This landing is not as sheltered as the harbor at Scorpion Anchorage - in fact, the waves here can be quite powerful. When we arrived, there were a number of groups on the beach, some had arrived as we had from inland, but others had anchored their sailboats just off shore and ridden zodiac-style rafts into the beach to enjoy lunch and explore the island.
According to a non-NPS hiking guide that I purchased at the Island Packers' gift shop, it is possible at low tide to negotiate the beach all of the way around the point to the west, then catch the next canyon over and head up the Montanon Ridge. It also says that you can return via a bushwhack up Smuggler's Canyon - which consists of three main tributaries to get you back to elevation at various points on the eastern portion of the Island. Make sure to visit the old ranch house located back in the nut orchard at a wide spot in the canyon. The building is dated 1887, and is very similar to the structure at Scorpion Ranch.
The return along the road climbs steeply back the way it came, and again you get to climb to that oil derrick at just over 600'. At that point, rather than taking the trail back through Smuggler's Canyon, take the first right turn and continue along the Smuggler's Road. This dips and falls along the hills, past a myriad of mysterious stone piles and fence lines (there is a simple explanation for all of it, but what would be the fun there?) Views open up to the ocean, to Anacapa Island, and across the Santa Barbara Channel to the mainland. During certain seasons, it's reported that you have a good chance of seeing a whale in this area.
Finally, the trail begins to descend one last time, and it dumps you just above the wash bed of Scorpion Canyon, about a quarter of a mile from the campground, and very near the pier and ranger station. If you've got to catch your boat back to the mainland, you're golden. If you're ready for a quick trip out on the kayaks, you're really set, and if you're lucky enough to spend the night at Scorpion Campground, well, you are one lucky hiker!
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.