On Santa Cruz – the largest and most accessible of the islands in Channel Islands National Park, this hike follows old ranch roads from Scorpion Ranch to the beach and old ranch house at Smuggler’s Cove, where you’ll experience sublime panoramic views, walk through the remnants of an historic olive orchard, and relax along a gorgeous stretch of SoCal coastline that most mainlanders never get to experience.
If you’ve taken the primary shuttle route from Island Packers, you’ll be dropped off at the pier at Scorpion Anchorage. Continue walking inland, passing the trail to the Cavern Point Loop, the ranger station, and restrooms. This route begins to the immediate south of the ranger station.
Walk toward the campground and in less than 0.1 mile, turn left to head south on Smuggler’s Road — the route you’ll be following all the way to the cove itself. Keep your eyes peeled for an old windmill, and know that if you’re entering the campground you’ve gone the wrong direction! If in doubt, just look for the road to the south that that goes up.
This road loops around the southern canyon wall near Scorpion Anchorage, providing a great vantage point for the landing, the sea kayakers, and the beachgoers — but if you’re looking to relax on the coastline, your extra effort in hiking to Smuggler’s Cove will pay off big time — not only will you have a larger, sandier beach to enjoy, but you’ll also have a fraction of the human company.
As you climb this first stretch of Smuggler’s Road, be sure to watch the steep, rocky cliffsides along the road for some prime examples of the Channel Islands’ diverse community of fascinating Dudleyas.
By the 0.4 mile mark, you still have a lot of uphill left but at least you start to get some new views — here, you’ll see the broken island of Anacapa come into view for the first time since your boat ride in — and it’s a lovely sight.
Ahead of you lies more incline — you’ll be climbing up on Smuggler’s Road for a while, reaching a short but welcome plateau around 1.1 miles and another quick, steep climb at 1.5 miles. Santa Cruz Island’s boney backbone Montañan Ridge takes up the full forward view for most of this section of the hike.
At 1.7 miles, keep left at the junction to continue toward Smuggler’s Cove. The trail here keeps a steady, relatively level elevation until the 2.4 mile mark, when it starts a very steep drop back down. Remember you’re going to a beach, so you’re starting and ending at sea level — keep that in mind when you’re getting your supplies ready for this hike, especially water. You’re doing these elevation gains on the way in and the way out.
As you hike along the road, be on the lookout for large piles of white stones scattered throughout the hills along the way. These are the remnants of the first road that was built from Scorpion Anchorage to Smuggler’s Cove. Built in 1892, the road was expertly crafted but was routinely washed out during heavy rains, leading to the modern re-route.
By 3.4 miles, you’ll be on your second big chunk of the descent, passing through a surprisingly large remnant of one of the olive orchards that still stands on the island — a remnant of its ranching and agricultural past. The olive trees were planted in the late 1800s and many of them are still doing fine today, despite many decades of not being tended to by the farmers who used to live here.
By now, you should start to feel some cooling effects of the at-this-point-in-the-hike extremely welcome sea breeze, and by 3.7 miles you’ll be down near the beach at Smuggler’s Cove.
A few picnic tables lie scattered in this area, as does a very rustic outhouse. You’ll likely be more excited to see the long stretch of smooth coastline and picturesque sand — a perfect spot for an afternoon picnic and dip in the Pacific.
Beachcombers will likely find lots of animal bones and remnants of the area’s ranching and seafaring past. Enjoy anything you find, but remember that everything here is a protected element of the National Park System. Don’t take shells, rocks, artifacts, or anything else with you, and if you build rock cairns on the beach be sure to knock them down before you hike out. Leave No Trace!
This area’s name of Smuggler’s Cove isn’t just local flavor — the bay’s secluded location and relative proximity to the mainland meant that this region was popular with those clandestine traders, all the way back to the Spanish colonial era. After the Americans took over, sea otter smuggling eventually gave way to bootlegging during Prohibition, but eventually died down.
For a quick side trip, you can continue along the trail into Smuggler’s Canyon, where you’ll see a partially restored ranch house that still stands.
This building was used while the Island was an agricultural ranch, and it was also used as a makeshift hunting lodge when conservationists were hunting feral pigs and sheep that were wreaking havoc on the island’s ecosystem. It was built in 1889 and you can still see the quarry used to get the stones to build it just to the west of the house. This building is being restored and renovated and is off-limits to the public.
During the wet months, you can continue hiking into Smuggler’s Canyon on a rough use trail to see a series of beautiful cascades, but if it’s dry you may just want to hang out at the beach for a little while instead.
When you’re done, return back the way you came — or consider taking the Scorpion Loop Trail back down through the campground instead for a change of scenery!