Adventure entry by Andrea Iniguez | Riverside County Public Lands Fellow
Hike Name: Hike to Del Norte Backcountry Campground via the Del Norte Trail
Name of area/general location: Channel Islands National Park / Santa Cruz Island
Land Acknowledgement: This trail is primarily located on the ancestral homelands and traditional territories of the Chumash people. To learn more about the original residents and stewards of the lands, visit native-land.ca.
Trail rating: Strenuous, given that campers must carry all their gear, food, and water to the campsite. Therefore, visitors are encouraged to pack as light as possible (i.e., backpacking style). To protect the unique ecosystem of the Channel Islands, some packing restrictions apply. Please click here for more information on packing restrictions and guidelines.
Trail mileage: 3.5 miles from Prisoners Harbor via the Del Norte Trail
Permissible trail uses (dogs, horses, mountain bikes, others): To protect island wildlife, pets are not allowed in the park. Service animals are allowed in the park; however, they are required to complete a protocol of vaccination, parasite prevention, and health exam prior to making the journey. For information, please click here and/or call the Chief Ranger at (805) 658-5717.
Description of the area, sights, wildlife, and any key markers on the trail: Channel Islands National Park encompasses five remarkable islands, including Santa Cruz Island, and their ocean environment. While all the Channel Islands are enjoyable to visit, Santa Cruz Island is the largest and most diverse of all the Channel Islands. Plus, it is one of the most family friendly islands due to its wide range of recreational activities, comparatively easy access, and good weather. It is the perfect island for a one-day trip or an overnight camping trip. The island is home to more than 600 plant species, including eight plant species found nowhere else on earth.
The island scrub-jay, large and a vibrant blue colored endemic bird, is also restricted to the island of Santa Cruz. These remarkable creatures are classified as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List (an international inventory list of the conservation status and extinction risk of species) due to their limited habitat. Beyond its biodiversity, the island is most recognized for its incredible sea caves. For instance, Painted Cave, named for its colorful composition, is one of the largest and deepest sea caves in the world, nearly a quarter of a mile long. One-way visitors can explore the island and its sea caves is through authorized tour companies like the Channel Islands Adventure Company, or the park’s interpretive programs. Otherwise, the island offers plenty of other recreational opportunities, including camping and hiking, so visitors can explore the island on their own.
While there is one established campground on each island, Santa Cruz Island offers visitors limited backcountry camping as well. Currently, the only backcountry campground on the island is the Del Norte site, which is located 3.5 miles from Prisoners Harbor. The campground is nestled in a shaded oak grove, about 700 feet above sea level, and provides scenic views of the island’s pristine coastline. The National Park Service opened this backcountry site in recognition of its rare natural landscape values, so please visit respectfully. Although the campground provides visitors with picnic tables and pit-style toilets, campers must carry all their gear, food, and water to the campsite, including toilet paper. Note, there is no transportation available beyond Prisoners Harbor. Also, visitors are required to carry their own trash out of the campground and off the island. Therefore, overnight campers are encouraged to pack as lightly as possible.
The Del Norte Trail is the shortest route to this campground. From Prisoners Harbor, visitors should follow Navy Road, a gravel road that is routinely used by vehicles, for about 1.5 miles. There is a turn-off sign for Del Norte Trail which visitors should follow for 1.8 miles until reaching the signed junction that leads .2 miles to the campground. The trail winds up and down two canyons, Cañada del Agua and Cañada del Muro, so take the journey slowly. There are some stops along the trail, with beautiful scenic views, where travelers can stop to rest or picnic. Although backcountry camping is an arduous endeavor, it’s an incredible experience for those willing to plan ahead and exercise some resilience. While this venture is not recommended for beginners, the national park’s islands are great places to explore for those seeking adventure or solitude.
The trail is well marked with signs, so the possibility of getting lost is low. Island foxes, and other wildlife, are frequently seen in Scorpion Canyon and around the campground area. Remarkably, the island fox only inhabits six of the eight Channel Islands, including Santa Cruz, and each population is recognized as a separate endemic (a species only found in a very limited geographic range or location) or unique subspecies. In other words, these island foxes aren’t found outside these six islands.
Directions to the trailhead: Channel Islands National Park is only accessible by park concessionaire boats (i.e., Island Packers) or private boats. The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary protects the waters surrounding the Channel Islands, so the boat trips are designed with wildlife viewing in mind. On our cruise, we saw multiple blue whales and other ocean wildlife. Click here to learn more about Island Transportation.
Areas to camp nearby: Camping is available year-round on all five islands in Channel Islands National Park; however, there is only one established campground on each island. Currently, Scorpion Canyon Campground is the only managed campground on Santa Cruz, California’s largest island. All campgrounds are located away from the boat landing areas, so visitors must hike and carry all their gear to the campgrounds. Click here to learn more about Island Camping. Please note, overnight campers must secure transportation to Channel Islands National Park before reserving a campsite. Also, limited backcountry camping is available on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands. Please click here for more information on Backcountry Camping.
Caution: Weather and road conditions can change in an instant. Always check with the managing agency before embarking on a trip. Always hike with a friend and carry a cell phone for emergencies. Bring plenty of drinking water, food, and clothing for changing weather conditions. Let someone know where you are going and when you intend to be back. Remember, California’s wild places are beautiful but they can also be dangerous to the unprepared and unwary. CalWild assumes no liability if you intend to visit any of the wild places featured in our materials.