Backpacking across Santa Cruz Island

One of my goals for this year was to take more backpacking trips. In fact, I hope to do many of the Six-Pack of Peaks as overnights. But another adventure I wanted to take was a backpacking trip out on Santa Cruz Island. After doing some research, I settled on arriving at Prisoner’s Harbor and hiking up to Del Norte Primitive Campground. After spending the night there, I would hike across the island to Scorpion Cove and camp there and then depart back to the mainland the next day. The first challenge was to find permits for both of these sites. Del Norte can be tough to get as there are only 4 sites available. Once I had secured my Del Norte site, I selected a site at Scorpion. The next requirement was book passage with Island Packers to be ferried over to the island. But when I tried to book my trip I was unable to arrive at Prisoner’s Harbor and depart from Scorpion. I gave up and called them directly, and learned that you can not book a trip like that on the website, but it was no problem to book over the phone.

I then extended the invitation to the trip to Ted Markus and my college buddy, Ted Hoelter, both quickly said yes. What was going to be nice about this trip is all three of us will be vaccinated, making the trip far less stressful. Ted M. and I drove up to Ventura the night before and shared a hotel room, as neither of us wanted to wake up that early to drive up to Ventura Harbor. It was like pre-Covid.

Probably one of the biggest challenges of this hike was going to be the fact that Del Norte does not have any potable water, meaning we would have to carry enough water for the 3+ mile climb to the campsite, two meals, and the 10+ mile hike over to Scorpion Cove. By our calculations, we each needed to have about 6 liters of fluids. That is a lot of water weight.

Ted M. and I grabbed breakfast at a café at the harbor before heading over to Island Packers’ dock. Our packs were weighed as there is a weight limit. In addition, our fuel had to be removed and stored separately, as did our water/fluids. I opted to put my fluids in my slack pack and keep it with me. Once on-board, we set off for the 1 ½ hour ride. The seas weren’t too bad, with just some light swell. We spotted some bottle-nose dolphins and a minke whale on the way over. Once we docked, we climbed the ladder up onto the pier and headed onto the island. The ranger was giving a briefing to the day visitors, most of whom were taking a guided hike onto the Nature Conservancy portion of the island. It seems the three of us were the only backpackers on this day. We found a picnic table and began to repack our packs. The ranger came over to us and gave us a short briefing and checked that we were properly prepared. With that we set off!

Ted M. and I had brought sandwiches for lunch. Neither of us was ready, so we kept them in our packs, figuring once we reached camp we would enjoy them. To get to the campsite, we followed the Navy Road for about 1.25 miles until it intersected with the Del Norte Trail. This first section was a fairly steady grade, but soon we would lose some of the 600 feet of gain, as the Del Norte trail would dip down into a ravine and back up. The skies were overcast and we would feel the humidity as we made our way up. From a recent YouTube video of this hike, I knew there was another picnic bench that would make a perfect rest stop. We slipped off our packs and took a nice break, enjoying the sweeping views. We debated having lunch here, but we only had one mile to camp, so we pushed on. Our climb continued until we reached the turn off to the campsite. We again slipped off our packs and surveyed the campsite. Not soon after, one of the island’s kit foxes trotted by. We decided to wait a bit to set up our tents as while currently we had the entire campsite to ourselves, in case someone was hiking over from Scorpion we did not want to have taken their site. We had our lunch and then enjoyed a nice nap for a bit. Around 5, we deemed that no one was coming, and we each took a site and set up our tents. I stayed in site 3, while Ted M. picked site 2, and Ted H. opted for site 1. 

With our tents set up, we went for a short stroll up to the ranger’s house. While Gaia showed a loop, once we reached the residence, it was clear that the trail was no longer there. We returned to our camp and made dinner. I enjoyed one of the beers I had hauled in my pack as I ate my dinner. We watched the sun slip out from the cloud layer for a brief moment before sliding behind the island. We chatted around the table for a while, before storing our food in the bear boxes. I hung my pack from a nearby oak to keep some of the island’s animals from getting into it. I crawled into my tent and listened to some podcasts before drifting off to sleep. My only disappointment so far was, due to the cloudy skies, I was not going to get to enjoy the stars. 

Thankfully, we had little wind throughout the night. We had read that it can get a bit windy here since it is an exposed campsite. As expected we all woke around 6. To conserve our water, we all had low-water breakfasts. I opted for oatmeal and one cup of coffee. We packed up fairly soon, as we figured we might as well start hiking while it was cooler. 

We made our way back onto the Del Norte Trail and began heading east until we reached the junction with the trail down to Chinese Harbor. From there we would connect with the East End Road and continue on. While we mostly were gaining elevation along the way, we did have a couple of ravines that dropped through. Although we each were lighter by 2 liters, our packs were still a bit heavy. The fog and clouds were all around us as we made good time.

After about 4.5 miles or so, we came to another picnic bench. This one had seen better days, but it served as a welcome rest stop. We had a bit of uncertainty about the correct route, as Gaia showed a fork in the road, which we did not see. Ted H. and I scouted around and determined that the remaining road that we saw before us was the correct route. After a few minutes of traveling, we spied the overgrown road that we did not want to have taken. The Montanon Ridge stood before us. We debated which of the bumps was El Montanon, the peak I had hoped to summit. The road ended and our route returned to single track. We would now make the climb up the ridge. The Teds were a bit uncertain, but I knew that we would be fine.

We carefully made our way up the steep slope, given we did have backpacks on and our center of gravity was shifted. Once past the ‘hard’ part, we stopped and surveyed our ascent. Off to the side, a short use trail leads up to a viewpoint. Sadly, the fog and clouds hid the view, but it still made for a great photo op.

From there we continued on until we met up with the main trail. Looking off the east, we could see Anacapa Island in the distance. To our left, the main trail would take us down to the campsite for the evening. Off to the right was the use trail up to El Montanon. Looking at the map, this would be about .6 miles to the summit without too much gain. The reason I wanted to climb this summit as it is part of the Lower Peaks Committee list. This is one of the peak lists that I am now turning my attention to. In fact, it is known as the most expensive peak on the list. We followed the ridgeline, drawing close to a research station and its tower. However, the actual peak was one bum further. We were rewarded with some incredible views. Once at the real peak, we did not find a good spot for lunch, so we returned to the research station. After a nice break, we heard some day hikers making their way toward us. We greeted them and pointed out the location of the benchmark. 

Once back at the junction, we opted to head toward another peak listed on Peakbagger — High Mount. This was an even shorter jaunt. While the main trail was just below us, the slope on the use trail was a bit too much, so we backtracked slightly. Now we had about 4 miles to descend to our campsite, where we’d find water. As we continued on, we would pass more hikers that had ventured up from Scorpion. It was quite the difference between the three of us with full backpacks and those just with some water. 

The remaining miles went fairly quickly. We did have to decide if we wanted to enter via Upper Scorpion or via the route near the ocean. Upper Scorpion won. We passed various group sites, and there were a few solo campers as well. One camper inquired if we had come from Del Norte, and we said yes. She asked about the trail and its difficulty, as she was planning to hike over to it tomorrow. After giving her some details of the day’s hike, we wished her luck and continued on. We all thought about all the water she would be lugging.

We found our site and set up camp. We also enjoyed the fresh cool water from the nearby spout. I pulled out my water bladder from the pack, and found it still had a liter left. After a rest, we went for a stroll down to the shore and actually had some cell signal. We checked in with our wives and did some other online things before heading back to our camp and a well-earned dinner. We again sat around the table chatting for some time. Since two of the nearby sites were open, we borrowed one of the “bear” boxes to store our packs, as Ted H. and I have smaller tents.

Anyone who has camped knows that when the first light comes, you tend to wake up. Our last morning was no exception. Our ferry was not slated to arrive until 4, so we had almost a full day to explore. After a leisurely breakfast, we grabbed our slack packs and headed off toward Potato Harbor and Cavern Point.

We climbed up a draw near the edge of Lower Scorpion toward the bluffs. From there we followed it out to the Potato Harbor overlook. Although the skies were still overcast, we had some incredible views. We met a few fellow day hikers along the way. Upon our return, we went out to Cavern Point for some more of the incredible coastline. We then made our way off the bluffs and back to camp. We realized we had technically missed our check-out time, so we hustled back and broke camp. While someone had set up, we never saw them to apologize for not leaving on time. The nice thing about Scorpion is it has a lot of room for tents, so hopefully, they were not too impacted. We walked down to one of the other picnic tables near the pier and had lunch. We poked around the area, wandering through the visitor center and the other kiosks scattered around. 

The ferry arrived on time and we walked down the new pier to board. In fact, this pier had only been open since January. On our return, we encountered more dolphins. The captain said we had a pod of about 200 around us, jumping and playing in our wakes. Shortly thereafter, we spotted two humpback whales — a mother and her calf. We watched them for some time before returning to our course and the harbor. 

Once back at our cars, we changed into clean clothes and set off for dinner. It was a fantastic three days. Now to plan for my next backpacking trip!

Final Stats

Day 1: 3.1 miles, 1,100 feet of gain, 1:43 hrs

Day 2: 11.6 miles, 2,000 feet of gain, 6:43 hrs

Day 3: 5.1 miles, 652 feet of gain, 3:11 hrs

Bayside Trail

My final hike of the day was going to be the Bayside Trail at Cabrillo National Monument. This hike had the added bonus of stopping off at Fathom Bistro for lunch and a beer. They are located on the Shelter Island pier and serve up some tasty hot dogs and have a wonderful tap list. I drove out to Point Loma, passing my old office along the way, showed my National Parks Annual Pass, and parked. I grabbed my gear and a jacket and set off toward the lighthouse. The trailhead to the Bayside trail is just before the lighthouse along the access road. The trail follows the cliffs down to a nice view of San Diego and Coronado with several information panels along the way. I reached the end of the trail, snapped a few photos, and began my ascent. Back at the access road, I stopped and chatted with one of the park volunteers for a while. Afterward, I thought to myself this is exactly what my dad would do all the time. With three hikes done for the day, some BBQ was in order for dinner.

Grasslands Loop

The second hike of the day was to do the Grassland Loop & Oak Canyon out in Mission Trails. The Oak Canyon portion was one of the hikes I recommended for my synagogue’s Stepping Into Israel hiking challenge. I decided to add in the Grasslands Loop for a change of scenery while doing it. The skies were still grey and a light mist was falling as I set off. Since almost all this hike has no shade, this was welcomed hiking weather. The trail was mostly empty, in part due to the weather. The stream was once again dry. Making my way back to the car, I passed a nice collection of morteros. Once back at the car, I headed off to grab lunch and then my third hike of the day.

Wooded Hill

Since I was the hiking consultant for my synagogue’s Stepping Into Israel hiking challenge, I figured I should hike some of my recommendations. One of the hikes I recommended was the Wooded Hill Nature Trail. I have hiked this 1.5-mile loop twice before but decided to do it once again. As I drove out to the trailhead, the marine layer was so thick that it was actually raining during my drive out. Just past Alpine, I broke through the clouds into a wonderfully sunny day. I pulled into the trailhead, grabbed my gear, and set off. Some remaining wildflowers still lined the edges of the trail. It was nice to hike this trail on fresh legs. The previous times I had done this hike was after a full day of hiking. As I made my way up the hill, I heard the sounds of a woodpecker. I was able to video of it pecking. After cresting the summit, I once again encountered mountain bikers on this trail. Wish they would enforce the rules sometimes. Once back at my car I headed back into town for my second hike of the day.

Roost Benchmark

It is hard to comprehend that this summit would mark my completion of the San Diego Sierra Club 100 Peak List. For this milestone hike, I invited several of my hiking companions to accompany me. We met at the Pacific Crest Trail – Sunrise Trailhead at 8am to condense down to fewer cars, as the actual parking area at the Lucky S Ranch is limited. After driving the couple of miles down the road, a group of mountain bikers had taken most of the available spots, but we were able to squeeze our cars into the area and still allow access to the ranch. We gathered in front of the gate to the old road that we would follow for a while. We discussed if we were going to add Oriflamme Mountain to the hike, and the consensus was to skip it. With that, Ted Markus, Greg Gerlach, Gina Norte, Matt Hanan, Larry Edmonds, Leslie Williams, Susie Kara, and Susie’s friend Jackie set off down the road.

This was an inverted (aka canyon) hike, so we dropped down from our start just off Sunrise Highway. Some lovely wildflowers dotted the sides of the trail as we cruised along. We chatted about recent hikes, and I reflected on what was next on my hiking agenda. Soon we found ourselves at the end of the road and began the cross-country portion of the hike. 

Roost Benchmark was the further of the two bumps. Since some of our group had hiked them before we followed their lead to loop around the first bump then approach the summit from the north/northwest. We could see Larry and Leslie on the summit already. They had taken a different route that we had avoided in part to reports of it being overgrown and tick infested. As we crossed over the saddle, the winds picked up. Just as I was thinking I needed to tighten the strap on my hat, Greg’s hat went sailing. Thankfully it did not go far and he was able to retrieve it.

Soon we found ourselves atop the summit. I had done it! I plan to write a proper reflection on this journey, but a tremendous sense of accomplishment filled my heart. We sat around the summit enjoying some snacks, soaking in the views, and proudly signing the register. After a nice break we began our descent. Along the way, we spotted a nice horn head lizard hanging out under some brush, and Ted got a great shot of it.

Since Larry said the overgrowth wasn’t too bad, we took the more direct route back up to the trailhead. Again, more wildflowers brightened our climb. While this road was a bit more overgrown, it was not too bad. We would stop to do a periodic tick check. Some of the group found some “hitchhikers” that were dealt with accordingly. As we waited next to where the PCT crosses the old jeep road, a thru-hiker passed by. Once we had regrouped, we climbed the last bit and back to the cars. Once back at the Sunrise Trailhead, my wife and daughter arrived with pies from Betty’s Pies in Encinitas to share. Susie had started this tradition with her completion of several summits, and I was happy to continue it. Since the summit did not lend itself to a group shot (plus the wind), we took a group shot there. After consuming our pies and enjoying a can of Peakbagger IPA from Kern River Brewery that I had been saving, we bid our farewells. Now on to the next adventure…

Gina, Ted, Me, Susie, Matt, Greg

The stats for the hike were 8.82 miles in 4:45 with a elevation gain of 1,764 feet.

Palm Mesa High Point

It is hard to imagine that this journey to complete all 100 peaks on the San Diego Sierra Club list is almost done. I have two more peaks to summit; Palm Mesa High Point and Roost Benchmark. I knew my window to climb them was coming to an end, as the desert was warming up, so I needed to try to get them in as soon as possible. The more challenging of the two was going to be Palm Mesa High Point. This peak can be summited in a number of ways; you can climb up from Sheep Canyon, approach it from Henderson Canyon, or use the Borrego Palm Canyon North Fork route. The first two options are difficult routes, while the last one is easier but has access issues. Thankfully, Gina Norte was able to grant a small group of us permission to start from within the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation. 

Our group met at 6 am at the guard shack at Los Coyotes, and waited for Gina to arrive and then escort us in. Once we were all there, we followed Gina up the road to the campground. Once there, we parked and got into two cars before continuing further back into the reservation. We parked near the cemetery and began our adventure. The hike is not extreme, but it is a canyon hike, so we have most of our elevation gain on our return from the summit. The seven of us (Susie Kara, Matt Bennett, Matt Hanan, Alberto Martinez, Laura Neuman, Gina and myself) continued down the road toward the wash that would take us up over the ridge. 

Passing under the tall oaks, we dropped down into a wide sandy wash and began working our way up toward a small saddle. Susie and I had hiked this portion last summer when we climbed Cody & Pike, so we knew the route (Gina also was very familiar with the region as well). The small fork that Susie and I missed last time got us again, but this time it was for just a brief moment. Once at the saddle our group split up. There are three Sierra Club peaks that can be accessed via this route; Cody, Pike and Palm Mesa High Point. Since I had climbed Cody & Pike already, I was only focused on Palm Mesa High Point. But Matt H. and Alberto were more interested in Cody & Pike, since it was much easier to get them via this route. Depending on their speed, they might try to catch us and also summit Palm Mesa High Point. Matt B. offered to go with them, so we said our goodbyes and down the North Fork we went. We knew from Greg Gerlach’s trip report that we should not have any major issues, sans a few dry waterfalls that we would need to bypass.

I realized that when we transferred cars, I forgot to grab my Gatorade and oranges from my cooler. Crud. I even told myself “Don’t forget to grab the stuff from the cooler”. I would just need to be a little cautious. I had 3 liters, plus my other food, so I should be ok. 

We passed Pike to our north and Cody to the south. There were some wildflowers scattered along the side of the wash, giving us some nice visuals. Finally, we started to encounter the first of our dry waterfalls. Susie had done some of this section when she, Matt B and Greg Gerlach had done this hike back in 2019 as a backpack trip. Some we were able to scale down, and a couple we bypassed. We took a short break and discovered we had several hitchhikers who had decided to attach themselves to our clothes. We picked off the ticks and checked each other, and would do so several more times during the hike.

Finally after about 4 miles, we reached the base of Palm Mesa High Point. Thankfully, the route up to the summit did not have any terrain challenges, other than gaining about 900 feet of elevation in about 0.6 miles. I took the climb at a steady and measured pace, taking a couple of mini-breaks along the way. Soon I had reached the summit! The four of us sat around soaking in the views. Familiar peaks surrounded us. To our north, we could see Collin, Palms, and Elder. To our south was the San Ysidro ridge. Off to the east, Anza-Borrego was spread out before us. We tried not looking to the west and our climb back up. I happily signed the register and took my photos. I enjoyed my PB&J and the Mandarin that Susie gave me. After a nice break, we set off back down. As we almost reached the base of the ridge, Matt B. was making his way up. He filled us in on the status of the rest of the group before heading up toward this summit. The four of us then began our climb back up toward the saddle.