The barks and bellows from raucous California sea lions wafted skyward from their seaside rookery at Potato Harbor. Ascending the newly named Montañon Ridge Loop Trail, I loped across a rocky, rolling terrace as the marine mammal serenade drifted away, aided by wispy northwest winds above Coche Point on Santa Cruz Island.
For years this trail was without a name, just a lonely track with minimal traffic, but that all changed in November 2018. It’s easily been my favorite trail for running and hiking, an unmaintained route previously known as a “social trail” or “renegade trail,” among other monikers. It’s possible the Montañon Ridge Loop Trail was an old sheep trail when ranching occurred on the largest of the Channel Islands between the early 1800s and late 1900s. Today, the 10-mile loop is well trampled by curious island foxes and occasionally by island visitors.
Once above Coche Point, Chinese Harbor and the rest of the north side of Santa Cruz Island comes into view before the trail ascends sharply to the southeast and to the narrow, rocky rim that leads to Montañon Ridge. The precarious rim itself is a virtual botanical garden loaded with bushels of Santa Cruz Island buckwheat, sporadic Santa Cruz Island silver lotus, Dudleya, sticky monkey flower, wind-whipped island oak trees, and coreopsis. Plus, it’s a real draw for the endemic island scrub jay, one of the rarest birds in the world.
After reaching the spine of the rim, the route sea-serpents its way toward Montañon Ridge, overlooking the open book-shaped canyons draining toward the southeast. From there, another set of epic views sweeps downward to the craggy finger of San Pedro Point, Mordor-like Hungryman Gulch, and tranquil Smugglers Cove. The turbulent three-mile-wide Anacapa Passage and the sheer cliffs of Anacapa Island are always captivating. On ultra-clear days, even tiny Santa Barbara Island and U.S. Navy–owned San Nicolas Island reveal themselves among cobalt-blue seas and perpetual, cresting whitecaps.
The descent back to Scorpion Anchorage is a rocky one, and at some points it feels as if you’re hiking on ball bearings. Once at the old oil drill site, you can vie for the ranch road or connect with the steep Scorpion Canyon Loop Trail. Either way, the rest of the route never disappoints.