Nameless No More
The barks and bellows from raucous California sea lions wafted skyward from their seaside rookery just beyond wave-battered Potato Harbor. Ascending the newly named Montanon Ridge Loop Trail, I loped across a craggy, rolling marine terrace, that cacophonous marine mammal serenade gradually drifting away, aided by wispy northwest winds above Coche Point on Santa Cruz Island, the largest isle in the Channel Islands National Park.
For decades, this trail was without a name, just a lonely track with minimal traffic, mostly endemic island foxes bounding along, but that all changed in November 2018. Over the last several years, it has easily been my favorite trail for running and hiking. The solitude and knowing I’d share it only with island foxes was all I needed to motivate me.
Unmaintained routes become known only as “social trails” or “renegade trails,” among other monikers. In the case of the Montanon Ridge Loop Trail, perhaps it may have been an old sheep trail when ranching occurred on the most biodiverse islet off the California Coast between the early 1800s and late 1900s. Today, the rugged 10-mile loop is well trampled by curious island foxes, the largest land mammal on the island and by the occasional island visitor boating over from the mainland.
After ascending above the honeycombed sea caves of Coche Point, Chinese Harbor, and the rest of the idyllic north side of Santa Cruz Island came into view. The narrow trail ascended sharply to the southeast as I tried to concentrate on its shifting contours, yet, catching myself peering over my right shoulder gazing at all the scenic coves hundreds of feet below.
Eventually I topped out on a serpentine-like ridge of red, undulating rock, straddling the spine that leads to Montanon Ridge. From here the views grew more incredible. The precarious ridge itself was a virtual island botanical garden cloaked with bushels of Santa Cruz Island buckwheat, sporadic Santa Cruz Island silver lotus (my favorite), hardy Dudleya, vibrant sticky monkey flower, scattered, wind-whipped and dwarfed island oak trees and dormant giant coreopsis.
This unique island flora was a real draw for the endemic island scrub jay, one of the rarest birds in the world. This larger, distant cousin of the mainland western scrub jay has the smallest range of any bird in North America. Santa Cruz Island is the only place in the world where it can be found. Roughly 2,400 jays inhabit windswept Santa Cruz, and a handful of them greeted me from their many roosting spots, shek-shek-shek, before a final, harsher shreeenk as I loped on by.
As the route continued sea serpenting its way toward Montanon Ridge, the ragged, open book-shaped side canyons draining into Scorpion Canyon drew my attention. As my pace quickened over smooth, weathered sandstone, another set of epic views captivated me sweeping downward toward the gnarled finger of San Pedro Point. Just south of San Pedro Point, Mordor-like Hungryman Gulch opposed its southerly neighbor, the perpetually tranquil Smugglers Cove.
It was an exceptionally clear day, a hike/run to remember with the turbulent three-mile-wide Anacapa Passage shimmering all the way to the sheer, 200-foot-tall cliffs of Anacapa Island, itself enthralling in many ways. It was so clear even tiny Santa Barbara Island and US Navy-owned San Nicholas Island revealed themselves amongst cobalt blue seas and distant cresting whitecaps.
The descent back to Scorpion Anchorage was a rocky one, and at some point, it felt as if I was hiking on ball bearings. Once at the old oil drill site, I vied for the steep Scorpion Canyon Loop Trail instead of transitioning to the old ranch road. It was an excellent choice as I shared the trail with a playful island fox, keeping pace with its silvery, cinnamon frame on the most mountainous isle off the California Coast. www.nps.gov/chis.