Smugglers Cove trail provides scenic views

CHANNEL ISLANDS, Calif., — Perhaps Robert Frost had just paid a visit to Santa Cruz before writing “The Road Not Taken.”

Hiking from Scorpion Ranch to Smugglers Cove is a pure example of ‘taking the road less traveled by.’ Untouched by modern industry, the trail is laden with uneven  rock and steep changes in altitude. The winding path guides hikers through the rolling “hills” of Santa Cruz Island, some of whose peaks exceed 1,400 feet.

Click on the video at right to view an audio slide show about Santa Cruz Island hiking narrated by writer Alicia Abalo and photographed by Alicia Abalo, Nicole List, and Zongchao Li.

The nine-mile, round-trip hike is difficult but rewarding, with panoramic views of the island and its surrounding waters.

Sabina Faulhaber is a volunteer for the Channel Islands National Park who offers Santa Cruz visitors a “more challenging” hiking experience. She knows the trail well and is a useful guide, having trekked it more than 10 times.

“You’ll definitely feel it in your legs the next day. It’s like you’ve run 100 miles on a treadmill,” she said. “The views are worth it, though.”

At left, Smugglers Cove, the destination of hikers on the Cove Trail hike, where the ocean and rocky beach meet. Below, a glimpse of Anacapa Island from Santa Cruz Island (Photos by Alicia Abalo).

The trail is only a few hundred yards away from Scorpion Harbor Pier, the drop-off point for visitors taking the Island Packers ferry. The main road leads directly to Scorpion Ranch, a well-preserved farmhouse shrouded by palm trees and lined by a wooden fence covered with red and yellow flowers. To the left is a clearly marked trail; a wide, old ranch road that climbs the side of the hike’s first hill.

Although smooth at first, the road narrows quickly. Within the first mile, it begins to coil more tightly around the hill. Loose rocks begin to crumble under the weight of each footstep.

Along the trail, large clusters of white stand out against the tan, grassy slopes. Faulhaber said they’re century-old relics, small boulders that farmers would throw aside into piles while planting crops.

Stories are as much a part of the trail as the wooden signs that guide it.

Halfway through the hike, a misplaced-looking grove of cypress trees grows in a patch of flat, desert-like land. Island folklore says that rancher Justinian Caire planted the trees for his daughter to read beneath, a piece of shade among sun-soaked acres.

Caire owned much of the island’s land in the late 1800s. According to one story, he was also a romantic.

The fennel that now grows freely up the curves of the hillside is said to have stemmed from a single gift given to his Italian wife, who had grown homesick.

Caire travelled to Italy and brought back a small fennel plant for his wife’s spice garden, so that a piece of her native country would always be near her.

The most interesting plants on the island need no legend. “That’s Island Deerweed,” Faulhaber said, pointing to a desolate cluster of brown, six-foot-tall stems too thick to be considered grass. “When they bloom, they’ll have bright red and yellow flowers all along their sides.”

Island Deerweed is one of 42 plants that are indigenous to the Channel Islands, nine of which grow only on Santa Cruz Island. The trail is alive with clusters of growing buckwheat, mustard seed, and morning glory, but none look like their mainland counterparts.

At right, tour guide Sabine Faulhaber walks with visitor Nicole List along a wide section of trail. Below, a trail marker helps visitors find their way.

“What’s interesting is that Santa Cruz has never been attached to the mainland,” said Tara Brown, a volunteer for Island Packers, “It actually rose out of the ocean five million years ago.” Isolated from the continent, the plants and wildlife evolved on the island with little outside influence.

As the trail reaches its summit, the Anacapa islands come into view, their ragged peaks piercing the pale blue sky. With nearly the entire east side of Santa Cruz visible, the trail suddenly takes a sharp descent. Reduced to baby-steps, the final leg of the journey is a slow crawl down a near-vertical slope.

Approaching Smugglers Cove, dozens of olive trees welcome hikers. Their dark, hunter-green leaves are a stark contrast to the surrounding palette of brown and gray. In the distance, there is only twinkling turquoise.

Set on the edge of the island, Smugglers Cove is a U-shaped bay that cups the rolling waves of the Pacific Ocean.

Although its beach is a rugged terrain of sharp rocks, it sits directly across from the three islands of Anacapa, separated only by miles of clear, blue ocean. The inlet is secluded and quiet; the winds of the Pacific lulled by the towering, jagged hills surrounding the cove.

Cloaked by hilltops and over 20 miles from the California mainland, Smugglers Cove was a perfect place for bootleggers during the 18th and 19th centuries. Any suspicious “merchandise,” could be stashed in the valley’s craggy hollows, earning the scenic strip of land its namesake.

The steep, down-hill descent to the cove is a brutal climb on the way back, but if you ask anyone who’s ever hiked the trail to Smuggler’s Cove, they’ll tell you the same thing: The views are worth it.


At right, the three islands of Anacapa are visible from this portion of the Smugglers Cove trail. Below, tan grass and barren plants create a desert-like impression.

If You Go

Where: Scorpion Ranch to Smugglers Cove, Santa Cruz Island, 4.5 miles each way.

When: The island is open to visitors year-round, but due to the difficulty of the trail, the heat of summer would not be recommended.

Early spring is ideal, the plants along the trail will be blossoming and there will still be a light breeze.

What to Bring: Lots of water and food that does not spoil! Hiking boots are ideal, and bring a backpack.

The climate fluctuates during the hike, so bring a light jacket that you can take off if you get hot. Don’t forget to bring a camera and binoculars, if you have them.

Visit or call 805-642-1393 for more information on boat tours, travel times, and pricing.

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