Humboldt Canyon

By Chuck Graham   |   August 30, 2022
An early morning run through the Scorpion Canyon Loop

It’s a secretive side canyon cloaked in unique island and California flora on the southeast fringe of Santa Cruz Island.

However, this narrow, craggy draw needs to wait for the month of May to arrive before one can truly soak in all its island splendor. Over the years it’s proven to be one of the prettier, more colorful canyons on the southeast end of the isle. Mainly it’s due to the brilliant Humboldt lilies blooming in profusion. Through countless millenniums, wind and water have carved and cut these fortified volcanic cliffs, crags, and weathered grottos.

Island Ramble

A spot to dip the toes in the canyon

The hike begins in Scorpion Canyon, and as the sounds of the ocean fade, I quickly walked up the seasonal arroyo, its single-track trail paralleling the winding creek bed. From there, the trail gradually ascends southeast up the side of Scorpion Canyon, but just as it begins to do so, I jumped off-trail and continued up the boulder-choked canyon scrambling over fallen trees with island flora brightening the volcanic canyon walls. Blue dicks, California fuchsia, Santa Cruz Island liveforever, golden yarrow, fragrant silver lupine, Santa Cruz Island silver lotus (one of my favorites), ironwood trees, and prevalent island morning glory were still blooming and holding tough in another episode of extreme drought conditions. The islands like everywhere else need rain, but the islands enjoy fog drip, the largest water input across the chain. It keeps the island flora moist for a longer period.

Birdsong is prevalent throughout this island, off-trail hike. Endemic island scrub jays, raucous ravens, spotted towhees, Bewick wrens, and song sparrows offer a melodious symphony that carries throughout the honeycombed canyon with natural acoustics varying with each bend in the creek bed. 

There are lots of side canyons within Scorpion Canyon, all of them stunning and some challenging to climb out of. The rock is very weather-beaten. It’s ancient, and being volcanic rock, it is very porous. It’s extremely crumbly and can break away at any time. However, it’s that porous rock that allows so much of the island flora to sprout from its cracks and fissures, getting a foothold and germinating amongst all the multi-colored lichen seemingly tattooed all across the gritty rocks.

Side Canyon Occupants

Humboldt lilies in full bloom

This year though, there was a welcomed surprise in Humboldt Canyon. A family of island foxes had a proper den right in the middle of the pathway leading to the densest bushel of Humboldt lilies. They had made the effort and dug out their den underneath a good-sized boulder in the side creek. Two island fox pups, both the size of the palm of my hand, peeked out from inside their den. Their mother nursed them on the matted grasses outside the opening. Soon, their father arrived, both pups frantically wagging their stubby tails as he approached. After nursing, the mother vanished from view, hunkering down in the lemonade berry bush 10 feet across the den site.

There was a dark, narrow corridor inside the den, as the pups peered outward. Curiosity got the better of them though. I sat quietly and motionless. One pup was more inquisitive than the other. Ten feet from their side canyon home, they crept out into the open as they began to wrestle with each other.

Just before dark, I decided to follow their dad. I was curious to see where his territorial boundaries were. The eastern fringe of his territory spanned the entire lower half of Scorpion Canyon. I followed him there, where he drank from a pool of water. He then disappeared in another side canyon as it grew too dark to see.

I came back early the next morning and later in the afternoon, but there was no activity of any kind at the den site. Island fox parents are known to move their pups around, so I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t see them. 

I decided to turn my attention to other photographic subjects in Scorpion Canyon. After a couple months, I kind of forgot about that family of island foxes.

Sharing the Trail

Sometimes those early morning trail runs on the island produce some sweet surprises in various forms. Fresh out of the tent, the Scorpion Canyon Loop Trail is always a guaranteed leg burner. Once past the lower and upper campgrounds, the trail narrows, first over the dry creek bed, and then meandering gradually into the meat of the canyon.

After that lone creek-crossing, it’s about a half-mile further before it ascends southward. It’s here where the trail leaves the canyon, ascending and bending southward into a steep, narrow, rocky route. It was here on August 8, 2022, where the island delivered another surprise. Two, 2-month-old island fox pups were playing with their dad in the middle of the trail.

I momentarily startled them, but they quickly settled and grew curious and playful. Heads bobbing up and down, both pups approached within a few feet, and then playfully dove back into a tunnel of coyote bush. It’s very possible this was the same family of foxes from Humboldt Canyon.

I continued running for just 10 strides, when I peered over my shoulder to discover both pups hot on my heels. I stopped and crouched down with one pup only an arm’s-length away. One of their parents sat nearby, and then all three vanished in the brush. 

It was a great way to start the steepest portion of Scorpion Canyon Loop Trail. After seeing them it didn’t feel as steep as I loped toward another epic island sunrise.  


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