Saturday, March 18, 2017

El Montanon and High Mount Benchmark

Hiked: 3/17/2017
Distance: 9.3 miles round trip on trail
Summit Elevation: 1808'
Prominence: 1333'
Elevation Gain: 2074'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 1.65
Round trip time: 4 hours 15 minutes
Recommended water: 64 oz.
Parking/Fees: $59 Island Packers round trip boat fare
Difficulty: Moderate

Island Packers - Santa Cruz Island

El Montanon (LPC #75) is not the highest point on Santa Cruz Island, but it is the highest point on the public part of the island. The eastern 2/3 of the island is a private preserve. After rained out trips in December and February, I boarded the 9:00 AM boat with a posse from work (Rod, Veronica, Noel and Geoff). The rain delays actually worked in my favor leaving the island thriving and green. We headed for Scorpion Anchorage from Ventura Harbor. The return trip was set at 4:00 PM, leaving us a plenty of slack time for the 9.3 mile round trip. On the ride over, the boat stopped for a few minutes to check out a humpback whale that made a brief appearance. With that delay, and because we had to endure a lecture from the local USFS park ranger before hiking, we started about 45 minutes later than planned. Island Packers asked everyone to be back at the dock at 3:30 PM and with the late start, much of our slack time was gone. To make things even more interesting, Rod was nursing a bone bruise on his heel and was not sure he could make the entire trip.

Noel and Geoff each brought coolers of beverages and stowed them in free lockers near the restrooms. Finally, we took off up Smugglers Road. The whole island was green and blooming instead of the expected 50 shades of brown. The trail was smooth at the start. I had hoped we would see an island fox (only found on the channel islands) and that happened almost immediately. The island fox population has grown so much that it was removed from the endangered species list. We ended the day with 5 fox sightings. The marine layer rose hundreds feet above the ocean and after the initial views over the cliffs, we lost sight of the the ocean for the rest of the hike. In about two miles of steady but mild climbing, we reached the junction of the Scorpion Loop trail and turned south toward the El Montanon ridge line. A rusty, abandoned oil derrick was just off trail after the junction. Past the derrick, the trail to the saddle on the ridge line was a little rougher with plenty of large rocks to kick.

Leaving Ventura Harbor

Humpback Whale

Scorpion Anchorage

Heading toward the visitor's center

First island fox sighting

The tip of Summit Peak on Anacapa Island poking through the marine layer

Looking past the oil derrick toward El Montanon

Looking back, oil derrick on the right

Second fox sighting

From the saddle, the trail skirts around High Mount Benchmark on the east side. I left the trail and went directly up the obstacle free ridge to High Mount benchmark. A couple of tall wooden poles and a benchmark were at the summit. Views were great in every direction, including Devil's Peak and the rest of Santa Cruz Island. The marine layer covered the ocean and only the highest point on Anacapa Island poked out above it. From there, it was less than a mile of clean ridge line to El Montanon. A solar powered radio tower was at the summit along with the register and benchmark (stamped HIGH). Noel and I arrived first at the summit. We were not sure if the next bump on the ridge was higher, so we made the 5 minute trip over there finding only a short metal pole. Whether it was higher or not, the second point is the one marked as 1808' on the topo map. We returned to the summit area with the radio tower and met up with everyone else for a few photos. Rod had been able to gut it out and made it to the top, moving slower than his usual pace. Despite the packed boat on the way over, only two other hikers made the trek to El Montanon. We had planned on a lunch break at the top, but decided to head back and not take any chances with the time.

Approaching the saddle and High Mount Benchmark

Looking west to the rest of Santa Cruz Island from High Mount Benchmark

The ridge to El Montanon

Radio tower

Rod coming over the last bump

Looking northeast back toward Scorpion

El Montanon benchmark stamped "High" in 1951

Work posse on the summit

Below the oil derrick, we returned on the other half of the Scorpion Loop trail. Again, the green fields and exploding flowers caught us off guard. We passed a couple of busy campgrounds on the way. It was an ideal time to be on the island. We got back with about 30 minutes to spare and spent most of it imbibing from the coolers. Two more island foxes wandered by, probably looking for hand outs. As we lined up to board the return boat, we spotted a dead or sleeping sea lion on the rocks below the dock. Noel didn't think it was dead, but the sea lion remained motionless and oblivious to the crowds (and the flies). Either way, it didn't dampen our spirits on a trip that exceeded expectations.

Returning on the other half of the Scorpion Loop trail

Pair of foxes

Sea lion, dead or asleep

Cliffs near Cavern Point


  1. This trip was such big fun. The island is so green after the rains, just beautiful. Truly another world but so close.

    1. Noel,

      Thanks for going! It was a fun, memorable trip in many ways.

  2. Awesome. I love that trip. It is better when it is green.

    1. Madison,

      Your trip reports to the channel islands were the first I read that thoroughly documented it. I didn't know it could be that green, on St. Patrick's Day no less.