By: Gabriele Rau
Santa Cruz Island Wilderness Adventure Trip
Last weekend we took a Sierra Club Backpack Trip to Santa Cruz Island. The backpack part was only 1/4 mile on a flat road to the campground at Scorpion Anchorage, no problem here. The next day we climbed El Montanon. Several people in the group (16) wanted to come along, we were 7. Mark started out alone, an hour earlier. I was leading, Dave Coplen was the co-leader. We had topos, a local map, compass and plenty of water.
We started at 9:00 am at the campground, took the road and route as Charlie Knapke has described in the write-up. BUT we had very heavy fog. The road part was easy, there was even a sign to the oil well. From there on the trail was poor. Dave stayed with a slower hiker, and we had to wait frequently because I wanted to at least see them. In the thick fog visibility was about 10 yards. Dave and I checked our maps occasionally and made sure we were still on the correct trail. Then the trail turned slightly left and descended. Of course we did not see how much it descended, out came the maps again, and after checking we continued. The trail contoured around a higher area. Our goal was to get to High Mountain, which we could not see. Suddenly there was a voice from below. It was Mark. He said, we had to come down, we were on the wrong trail, he had been to High Mountain. But he was without trail, we refused, and finally he appeared out of the fog and joined us. The path led to a saddle with 2 ducks and two trails: one trail sharp right up a mountain, the other trail right contouring the mountain. As good peakbaggers we climbed the peak, found the USGS Mark and it was High Mountain. Now everybody wanted to continue in a different direction. This was the point where Mark had taken a wrong way. After consulting the maps with compass again, Dave persuaded everybody to take the trail to the Southeast, as I had suggested. The sharp right trail we were on and the contour trail met soon. Low and behold, shortly after we saw a wooden carved sign: Prisoner 10. Somebody took a picture of the sign with us. We knew what it meant: 10 miles to Prisoners Harbor, and we knew we were on the correct ridge. The ridge is quite pronounced and has an iron stake on each bump, indicating a former property line. Less than 1/2 mile more and a small transmitter station appeared out of the fog, and two people! There were here to fix the faulty transmitter that is used for an eagle project on the island. They had come up from the 'Prisoner' trail, but had used electric carts to get fairly close. By now it was 12:00 noon, we ate lunch, and slowly the fog lifted, we had at least a 180' view. Since we had wanted to do a loop trip, we asked the woman if this was possible. She told us the actual peak was the next bump with the larger building, by now we could see it. From there we should stay left, over the next bump, then take again the left ridge down. There would be very little trail, one has to find their own way down to the grasslands with a track, an overgrown road, down to the farmhouse at Smuggler's Cove. So we left at 12:30, deposited a register at the USGS Marker in a cairn at the actual peak (the one with the larger building and relays station). But the fog had lifted, we could see, and what a great view it was! The way down was slow, the terrain is very rocky, ball-bearing kind of downhill. So the going was slow. Mark, now our 8. Person, stayed with the slow hiker, we went ahead. After one dry creek crossing we were in the meadows. There, at a fence, I stepped on a snare and fell flat on my face. No harm done, but several people fell on the tricky slope, here I fall in the grass! Now it was a long trudge downhill to the farmhouse. One could clearly see it all the time, with an Olive Tree Grove behind it. On the overgrown road the going was easier. By now the full sun was out, clear views as far as Anacapa. Mark was still behind with one hiker, and I stayed with another moderate hiker, while the others went ahead. They waited at the farmhouse. I got there at 3:00 PM, the others maybe 10 min earlier. I suggested that they should go ahead, I would wait for Mark, the slow hiker and the moderate hiker. Dave was also the keeper of the group's 'Happy Hour', so it was important that he should be home earlier, everybody agreed. They left. The four of us left at 3:30 PM. The farmhouse was unlocked and there was water in containers inside, but we did not need it. There is also a lemon tree, fig tree and other mostly dead fruit trees and an Olive Tree grove. Smugglers Cove is a small cove/harbor. From here there exists a good road, but it is 3.5 miles with a 600' gain and loss to get across to Scorpion Anchorage, where the campgrounds are located. We arrived in time for Happy Hour at 5:30 PM. All 8 hikers had reached the summit.
Total Hike: 12 miles, 2500' gain, 7 1/2 - 8 1/2 hours as a loop hike.
Taking the same trail back: 9 miles, 1800' gain, without loop.
I would recommend to return the same way, without loop. It took us more time because of the heavy fog and the slow hiker. The boat arrives about 8:30 AM at Scorpion Anchorage, depending on the weather, then the ranger gives a short talk to the dayhikers (they disembark first), so one could start the hike at 9:00 AM. Normally one should be on the peak at 11:30 AM, leave the peak at 12:00 and then easily catch the 3:00 PM boat. There are no facilities on the island, only outhouses and water at the campgrounds. Check the boat times with Island Packers, as written up in the regular write-up. So the peak can be reached in one day, unless there is heavy fog and one gets disoriented. It is useful to have navigational skills. There is a local map of the East Island available from the ranger. The topo does not show the existing roads, this map shows the roads and somewhat the trails.
Joel Goldberg, the leader for the group, told us that a few years ago a group had climbed El Montanon and got lost. He had contacted the ranger, but they came back very late on their own. I talked to one person of that group, they had gotten off the wrong ridge, then had to climb up to the peak again and returned the way they came. David Coplen is an excellent I-rated leader and I was glad he was with us.
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