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

Sitton Peak

I started just after 7:30 under the typical “June Gloom”, with my good friends Susie Kara and Gail Welch joined me on what was to be my 6th summit toward the Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge (however, I am continuing on toward summiting the rest of them). The trail gently worked its way from the busy highway into the San Mateo Canyon Wilderness. Wildflowers still dotted the sides of the trail. The grey skies provided some nice relief, as there was not a lot of shade to be found while we worked our way to the peak. The entire route is now nicely marked with white signs at each of the junctions. 

We came to the turn-off for the final push to the summit. This last portion is where you earn your peak-bagging merit badge, as the trail now becomes very steep and slippery. In fact, I actually fell while ascending one particularly tough section. Brushing myself off, I continued making my way up to the summit.

Once there, we had a well-earned break.  Although the clouds had burned off near us, and the marine layer still socked in the coast, Santiago Peak stood out clearly to the north of us. After snapping a few photos with the summit sign, we started to gather our gear and prepared to tackle the tricky descent that awaited us. Just then a group of four ladies arrived at the summit, making it the perfect time for us to depart.

We made it down the steep section with no issues and then began cruising back to the trailhead. While we had only passed about 5 hikers on our way up, during our descent we passed about double that. Before we knew it we were back at the cars. 

Wild Horse Peak

While I only have one more peak to summit to complete the Six-Pack of Peaks Challenge, fighting the crowds on the ones that are open was something I did not care to do. So, instead, I turned to summiting one of the mountains on the Sierra Club Lower Peaks Committee. This is a collection of peaks whose summit is below 5,000 feet. Some of these I have done while completing the 100 Peak Challenge. However, there was still one remaining to be climbed in San Diego, Wild Horse Peak in the Agua Tina Wilderness.

I drove up to Dripping Springs Campground, with Ted following in his own car. The three free spots were already full at 7:30. I put up my Adventure Pass and Ted grabbed one of the Self Pay slips. The skies were still overcast, but we knew this should burn off as we rubbed on the sunscreen.

We passed through the campground, where breakfasts were being made over the campfires. The smell reminded me of so many mornings at my parents’ cabin. I signed the register and we set off. This is the same trailhead for Agua Tibia and for the very adventurous Eagle Crag. After crossing the dry creek bed, we turned onto Wild Horse trail and began our climb.

The trail was a nice shape. Wildflowers still dotted the side of the trail. At times, some growth did extend onto the trail, but nothing bothersome. We did spy some poison oak at times, so know your plants! We kept on cruising up the trail, enjoying the views spread out before us. Off to the east, was one impressive orchard. 

After a while, we spotted the cairn that denoted the use trail to the summit. The pleasant grade we had for the last 4.5 miles was to be replaced with a steep climb on loose decomposed granite. Descending this was not going to be fun. We made our way slowly up to the Ridgeline. The trail was fairly easy to follow, thanks in part to Kelly Laxamana who routinely hikes these trails and maintains them.

Now on the ridgeline, the grade eased and the summit was clearly in view. Before long, the familiar red register can stood nestled amongst a pile of rocks. We shed our packs and took in the sweeping views; Vail Lake to the north, with San Gorgonio far beyond that, to the northeast San Jacinto stood, calling for our return. Off to the south was Palomar High Point. To the Southwest, Agua Tibia.

I signed the register and saw that the last person to add their name was our good friend Susie Kara. There really isn’t a good place to sit down on this summit, so after a snack and some fluids, we headed back down the mountain.

Thankfully, the descent we worried about was not too bad. Slow and careful, as this was not a race. Once back on the main trail, we could return to a nice steady pace. The sun had broken through earlier, but we still had sections of shade and a light breeze to keep us comfortable.

Finally, with about two miles to go, we encountered our first set of hikers. I SO wanted to check the “Only Party On The Mountain” checkbox on peakbagger.com, but it was not to be. It was a large group, but they quickly passed as we turned our faces away. By the time we reached the end of the trail, we met four other groups working their way up the trail.

As we passed back through the campground, it had become mostly empty, although the day-use lot was completely full. With that, I had completed my 8th Lower Peaks Committee mountain! I logged the hike at 10.1 miles in 5 hours with an elevation gain of 2,200 feet. 

Mt. Woodson

Since I am again working on the Six-Pack of Peaks challenge, I figured I would summit Mt. Woodson in the early evening to avoid most of the crowds. There were some cars along the side of the 67, but nothing like I have seen on the weekends. I grabbed my gear and set off up the service road.

As I made my way to the summit, I passed a few hikers heading back down. Since the route uses the service road, there is plenty of room to safely pass. Nearing the summit, I watched two climbers tackle an impressive crack.

Cresting the summit, I headed the short distance to the famous Potato Chip. I had no interest in scrambling out on it again. What I wanted to try was ascending the real summit block.

Looking up at the summit block

Just to the east of the towers is the summit block. Old trip reports spoke of a ladder, but that aid is long gone. Instead, a small rock pile serves as the only help now. I tried several times, but could not quite get myself up. I looked to see if there might be other rocks I could add, but there were none to be found. Instead, I decided to rotate the main rock and it gave me just enough to hoist myself up. With that little extra help, I was scrambling up the summit block! There I snapped the three reference marks and the benchmark itself! I had truly summited Mt. Woodson.

I headed back down, watching the evening glow spread across Ramona and the hills beyond.

Hopefully, I will be climbing Hot Springs Mountain on Friday for #5!

Margarita Peak

Once back at the car, I headed off for the second summit, Margarita Peak. Just past the gate stood two crosses off to the side of the trail. Unlike the groomed road to the other peak, this hike was going to be more ‘natural’.

Initially, I trekked along an old firebreak until I came to a sign denoting the Margarita Peak Preserve. Now, the trail turned to a single track use trail and began its steep climb. The sun was warming up the day, and I was sweating as I pushed through the overgrowth.

Finally, the trail reached the ridgeline and the grade eased. A lone oak tree stood atop a false summit. I took a moment to catch my breath and cool off. Once I was ready, I set off for the final push. A cairn and ribbon helped guide me through the manzanita to the summit. 

The summit has an odd metal pole and two interesting metal squares. I didn’t find a register, even though it is listed on the lower peaks committee list. The views were even better of Pendleton than from Margarita Lookout.

As expected, the descent was tricky but I kept my footing. Once back at the car, I enjoyed some cool water and a dry shirt. Just then a quad-runner came screaming by. The passenger was helmetless. I could only shake my head and hope they didn’t crash. A couple more riders passed by, properly geared and riding at a reasonable speed. I knew I would need to keep my eyes open on the drive down in case I encountered any riders. These were two fun little adventures in a part of San Diego county I have never explored. Personally, I think one of these should have been the replacement for Rock Mountain instead on the 100 Peak Challenge list.

Ghost Mountain

Peak Name: Ghost Mountain
Distance: 2.24 miles
Date: November 30, 2019
Summit: 3,397 feet

The final summit of the day was to be Ghost Mountain. I had hoped to get this peak in after summiting Whale Peak, but that did not happen. I drove down the dirt road to the southern end of Little Blair Valley to the trailhead. As I pulled in, one couple was just finishing their hike, and another car was parked there as well. Given this was Thanksgiving Weekend, I expected some other folks on this trail, at least to the Marshall South Homestead.

Ghost Mountain is higher in the desert than my last two peaks and as the day was getting late, I tossed some of warmer gear back on. I also packed another layer and my cap into my pack. The trail to the homestead is easy to follow and I made good time to it. The other hikers were here mulling about. We chatted some before I headed east toward the summit. 

This portion of the hike is like the childhood game of ‘the floor is lava’, but with cacti replacing the lava and rocks in place of the living room furniture. The summit is denoted by a large boulder, so spotting it is relatively easy. While no benchmark is here, there is an old ammo box placed by the Lower Peaks Committee. Someone had moved it to the actual top of the rock, so a small scramble was required to sign the register.

The sun would be setting soon, so again I did not stay too long before working my way back down. The snow on the mountains was certainly a wonderful sight. Back at the car, I packed my gear away and headed toward the Scissors Crossing, stopping at the store in Shelter Valley for a soda and a candy bar. The road was open toward Warner Springs, as I did not want to deal with the insanity that Julian would likely be. I wished Ted was with me, as the snow-capped mountains around Ranchita were equally stunning, but since I was driving I could not get any photos. That was peak #94 of my #100PeakChallenge!

Eagle Peak

Peak Name: Eagle Peak
Distance: 4.8 miles
Date: August 24, 2019
Summit: 3,217 feet

Kept waffling on what peak I wanted to do. Settled on attempting a three-fer, but the temperatures I might be pushing it. I pulled into the parking lot for Three Sisters/Eagle Peak a bit before sunrise. To my surprise, the road down to the trailhead for Sunshine Mountain was closed. That was going to put a wrench in my plans. But one peak at a time…

I headed off down the trail, the air was already warm, the cooling effects of a marine layer were not there. I held a nice pace as I worked my way out to the peak. The trail was certainly more overgrown than last time. Toward the summit, it took a bit of poking around to find the trail.

I was amazed at the graffiti along the trail, and the trash. Since this is an out and back hike, I tried to remember where the empty water bottles were to pick them up on the return. Sadly I left the five Bud Light bottles behind.

The summit was quiet. I found the benchmark and reference mark with no trouble. I did not find the register.

I headed back down the trail. The overgrowth again was an issue near the top. Since the road to the trailhead for Sunshine Mountain was closed, I was looking to see if there was a connecting trail. Caltopo showed one, but as I got near where it was supposed to be, I could find no evidence.