Southern California has a lot of places to hike. From the desert; to the beach; to the mountains; to the high country chaparral; to the seasonal rivers and waterfalls and beyond, there are a lot of places to hike. One of the best hikes in Southern California, however, is in a park that is off the beaten path. It’s so off the beaten path, you need to take a boat to get to it. That park is Channel Islands National Park, and the hike is the Smugglers Cove hike. The Channel Islands are a group of islands off the coast of California, and as of 1980, five of the eight islands are part of the National Park. Smugglers Cove is located on Santa Cruz Island, which is the largest of the Channel Islands in the National Park. All of the Channel Islands, including Santa Cruz are amazing, and perhaps one of the most amazing things about the Channel Islands is that they are little time capsules as to how California used to look before it was developed by man.
Channel Islands National Park Ferry
One of the unique things about this hike is that in order to do it, you will have to take a boat to the island as Santa Cruz Island is thirty five miles from the mainland of California. The main company that travels to the Channel Islands is Island Packers, and their schedule of boats to the Channel Islands and Santa Cruz Island varies depending on the season. The one hour boat ride from Ventura, however, provides a great start to the adventure of this hike. During the crossing, there are great views of the coast of California, the remaining oil rigs in the channel, and if you are lucky, dolphins, sea-birds, sea lions, seals, and potentially a whale or two. The boat ride also provides great views of the Channel Islands and of Santa Cruz Island as you approach the Scorpion Landing. It is worth noting that while there are multiple landing spots on Santa Cruz Island, the place that you will want to land to do the hike is the Scorpion Landing.
From the dock at Scorpion Landing, it may appear that the Smugglers Cove hike is going to be a popular – and packed experience, as you will be lined up with everyone that you crossed the channel with. However, this is not the case – once you come ashore, the crowd will quickly disappear to the various portions of the island. Remember, this is a large island, with plenty of things to explore, from the coastline at Scorpion, to the farm buildings, the oil well, olive grove, and various other things as well. Once you leave the dock, if you are feeling adventurous, you can check out the beach at the Scorpion Landing, which if it is summertime, will likely be busy with campers, and kayakers heading out for a paddle.
Irrespective of whether you stop at Scorpion Beach, or leave the dock directly, you will pass through the remains of the Scorpion Ranch, and its various outbuildings. Some of these buildings have been converted by the National Park Service into interpretive displays; and are definitely worth a quick visit. At the .2 mile mark, after you pass the old ranch buildings the main trail turns left (South). The trail junction to Smugglers Cove is well marked, and the trail is a service access road that is graded and mostly maintained.
For the next mile, you will encounter the “steepest” terrain of the hike, with the hill coming out of Smugglers Cove coming in a close second. The trail winds up out of the valley and from this point on, you will have great views of the mainland, the other Channel Islands, and the island itself. After this first mile, the trail will level out, and then head downhill, through a grove of historic olive trees at Smugglers Ranch. Once you arrive at the beach, you will be halfway done with the hike, as you will have hiked four miles. I would highly recommend you take some time to enjoy the beach. Do take care to mind the time of your boat departure, as you will be stuck on the island for an extra day if you miss your return trip back to the mainland! When you are done at the beach, follow the road back to Scorpion for an excellent and scenic eight mile roundtrip hike.