El Montanon P1K LPC

Sun, Nov 27, 2011
Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX Profile

Santa Cruz Island is the largest of the group composing Channel Islands National Park. I had eyed them countless times on my drives through Santa Barbara along US101 over the past 30 years, but had never paid them a visit. Santa Cruz has several peaks of interest including El Montanon, an LPC peak on the east end of the island, and Devils Peak, the island highpoint and a P2K summit located on the larger western side. The latter is located on land owned by the Nature Conservancy and not accessible to the public. There are $56 boat rides to the island run by Island Packers to two harbors with schedules that vary depending on the season and day of the week. I was trying to figure out a way to climb both summits in a long dayhike, but the logistics became a bit complicated. Trying to work out the boat schedule with a full moon for night hiking and ensuring good weather with no marine fog layer all fitting in with my typical last minute family scheduling was altogether too much. So with a forecast for excellent weather and a few days of open time, I decided to hit up Santa Cruz just to tackle El Montanon.

I drove down from San Jose in the evening, sleeping at the paved RV campground squeezed between the beach and US101 somewhere outside of Ventura. It was actually quite nice with the sound of the waves crashing against the beach to send me to sleep. It helped that I arrived after 1a when all the RV generators are silent. The first boat doesn't leave Ventura Harbor until 9a, so I had plenty of time to get up with the sun and get myself to the port. The ride takes about an hour on a boat large enough to carry more than a hundred passengers. The ocean was mostly calm with only 2-foot swells, making the passage across the channel a pleasure. There were some harbor seals on a buoy that the boat paused for, but nothing else the crew thought worth checking out. I did see some porpoises porpoising or dolphins dolphining, but they were at a distance. The weather was sunny but chilly with a 20mph headwind created by the boat flying over the water. I put on my fleece and jacket, but would have them off as soon as we arrived on the island.

As one approaches Scorpion Harbor, the more popular of the two landing spots, it is easy to spot El Montanon, the highpoint along the long, Montanon Ridge that runs across the background. Immense cliffs of crumbly rock greet one on the approach to the north side of the island. Cavern Point is aptly named for the numerous sea caves carved into the base of the cliffs below it. The waters are crystal clear as one nears the dock. Forests of giant kelp in the harbor and around the island provide habitat for the fishes that live in these waters. The dock is not very large nor elaborate. The boat approaches it head on, mooring the bow to the dock and it is from here that all the gear and passengers disembark. An NPS volunteer is at the dock to greet us, suggest a few rules for our visit, and to offer a guided hike to those interested. I was pretty sure he wasn't heading to El Montanon, so I left the group shortly after the important info had been dispensed.

Scorpion Harbor was once a busy ranching port and there is evidence of its ranch and farm history all about. The only business currently conducted is a kayak rental concessionaire on one side of the beach. The Visitor Center and the other nearby buildings were restored from the remnants of a sprawling complex that once stood at the site. Multiple floods over the years, most recently a deluge in 1997, have wiped out most of the old structures. An outhouse and blacksmith shop have been partly restored, though they do not sit on their original sites. Caves in the side of the hill were once used for refrigeration, now inhabited by bats as they once did before ranching times.

Following the directions given in the LPC guide, I found the road leading up and out the south side of the canyon's mouth and started up it. The weather forecast had called for windy conditions with gusts to 35mph, but it was nearly a dead calm for the whole day, almost too warm with temperatures peaking around 75F in the afternoon - a beautiful day to be on the island. One soon gets a fine view of Summit Peak to the east, the highpoint of nearby Anacapa Island. To the north can be seen the Transverse Ranges stretching from Point Conception in the west to the San Gabriels to the east. Haze obscures the views some, but much less than one might normally expect. Once out of the canyon, Montanon Ridge comes again into view to the west and though I had an NPS map with me, navigation is fairly straightforward with well-signed junctions.

Passing the junction for Smugglers Cove, I continued heading west past a rusting oil well and along the crest of the island leading to Montanon Ridge. The road turns to trail as one climbs higher, old fences dotting the landscape along the way. Aside from a few ravens that find my intrusion a curiosity, the only other animals I noted were lizards, a rather large one blocking the path at one point, not moving a muscle until I had cast my shadow over it. Upon reaching the ridge around 11:45a, I was treated to a view of the west end of the island, with the highpoint of Devils Peak. I turned left and headed south along the ridge, passing a last trail junction for the route to Prisoners Harbor.

I reached the summit shortly after noon. Along with a small communications facility, there is a benchmark and summit register located at the highest point. The notebook dates back only to the beginning of the year and is nearly full. The most recent names from a few weeks earlier were from notable highpointers - Bob Packard, Dennis Poulin, Ken Russell and Adam Helman. I'm pretty sure they didn't come all this way from Washington and Arizona to climb El Montanon, but rather were there to poach Devils Peak. I'll have to write one of them to see if they have any pointers for that adventure.

My daughter is in the habit of sending one of her Ugly Dolls with me on my hikes so that I can get some pictures of them on adventures with Dad. Summit photos are the ones she likes best, so I had Wage sign the summit register and then the two of us climbed the antenna tower to get even better views of the surrounding terrain. As one might expect, ocean surrounds you on three sides, the island landscape looking much like most of Southern California did at one time before the advent of civilization.

I returned north along the ridgeline until about a quarter mile past the junction to Prisoners Harbor. Here I left the main trail to follow a thin use trail west. Have plenty of time before the boat returns at 3:30p, I wanted to make a large loop of the outing by following the crest of the drainage around Scorpion Harbor. I had seen other trails and roads to the north that follow along most of this route (and they are depicted as well on the NPS map), so knew there would only be a short section of cross-country (Santa Cruz is one of the few islands where cross-country travel is allowed), but even this turned out to be minimal. The quarter mile or so that connects to Pt. 1,532ft is nearly brush-free and a faint trail can be followed for most of it. Once at Pt. 1,532ft, I unexpectedly picked up a more regular trail, one that does not show on the NPS trail map. Portions of this were cut into the hillside, appearing that it was at one time, or planned to be for the future, a regular trail on the island.

After climbing to the top of Pt. 1,532ft for a last view of the island's west side, I followed my new-found trail down grassy slopes to Potato Harbor where one finds the current trail system shown on the map. There is a steep trail descending to the beach at Potato Harbor, but I declined to follow it down, choosing instead to take a small break, seating myself at the top of the cliff dropping down to the water's edge. I watched seagulls and pelicans vie for perching rights along the cliffs and in the sheltered caves and coves about the harbor. A few seals could be seen lazily plying the waters. If there were any fish in the water I couldn't see them though the waters were very clear. At 300ft above the water it was possible that I was just too far away to make them out.

After my break I followed the trails along the northern cliffs for a mile and a half or so to Cavern Point, the local highpoint I had spotted from the boat when we first approached Scorpion. An old survey marker is found at the flat summit area overlooking a vast stretch of the Santa Barbara Channel. Though there were more than a hundred visitors and other personnel in the Scorpion area today, I had seen no one all day since leaving the harbor to start my hike. It wasn't until I started the hike back down into the canyon that I came across a few parties on the trail. By the time I had returned to the Visitor Center at 3p for a quick tour, I was the only one around the area. I found the rest of the folks down at the dock either waiting for the boat or stacking gear in prepartion of loading. As it was Sunday afternoon, a large proportion of the returning visitors were campers that had spent the weekend at the nearby campground.

The boat arrived around 3:15p, and much to my surprise it was efficiently boarded in under twenty minutes, including the storage of all the gear. It was a much more pleasant ride on the way back, the warmer air temperatures taking the chill out of the headwind. Sunset came as we entered Ventura Harbor not long before 5p. It had not been a difficult outing by any means, totaling just under 12 miles with a few thousand feet of gain, but it was certainly a highly enjoyable one. And I would look forward to returning again for Devils Peak, perhaps sometime in the next few months...


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