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Hiking miles along the edge of a sea cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean sounds about right up there with the trail of my dreams. When you combine the Potato Harbor Trail and Cavern Point Loop you get endless ocean views and amazing sites of Channel Islands National Park.
This 5-mile loop begins in Scorpion Canyon and showcases the ruggedness of Santa Cruz Island. It also showcases the beauty of the forest in the valley and meadows along the ridges. It then climbs to the ridge and follows the edge of the ocean for several miles, showcasing the rocky cliffs. You also get peeks of the underwater kelp forests and ample opportunities to spot marine wildlife.
To plan for my hike, I used the park’s brochures. They had them in places at the welcome sign. You can also find them here. National Geographic makes a detailed map of islands as well.
Getting to the island
Before you can hike the Potato Harbor/Cavern Point Loop, you first have to get to Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park. Because Channel Islands National Park is not a part of the mainland, there are no roads to lead you there.
Island Packers is the exclusive island transport to the island. You can book a day trip, where you go out and come back on the same day. And you can book a multiple-day trip. Because the Potato Harbor/Cavern Point Loop, is a little bit of a longer hike, you might consider a multi-day trip. I hiked the 5-mile loop in about four hours.
Finding the trailhead
Because the trail is a loop it doesn’t matter which way you hike it. I chose to begin the Potato Harbor/Cavern Point Loop by hiking up Scorpion Canyon and toward Potato Harbor. I chose this way simply because I left from my campsite and this part of the trail goes through the campground.
So to find the trailhead, begin by following the road that runs to the south of the visitor center and toward the campgrounds. Follow that road through the campground and into the canyon.
There’s not really an official trailhead. For a point of reference when I use mileage in this blog post, it will be roughly from starting at the visitor center.
Campground to Potato Harbor overlook
Once you get to the group campground, you come to a split in the road. This is about 0.5 miles if you started from the visitor center. Here you want to go right, which will take you uphill and out of the canyon.
The climb out of the canyon is steep but is not terrible. And the higher you go, you are distracted by the increasingly beautiful views of the canyon below. As you climb, you also get to see some of the layers of rock that make up the islands.
After about 1 mile the trail levels out. It slowly continues to climb, and you get glimpses of the other side of Santa Cruz Island in the distance.
Around mile 1.4 you come to an intersection with the North Bluff Trail. You want to go left to get to Potato Harbor. This portion of the Potato Harbor/Cavern Point Loop is an out-and-back. From here you follow the bluff line west.
Around 2.1 miles you come to the overlook for Potato Harbor. There is no beach access at Potato Harbor, but the view from above is probably better anyway.
Potato Harbor is a narrow inlet carved into the cliffs. It’s kind of like a hidden beach tucked away. The water is turquoise, blue, and crystal clear, making the shallow parts translucent.
Potato Harbor to Cavern Point Loop intersection
Leaving Potato Harbor, you retraces your steps back to the intersection with the North Bluff Trail. Around mile 2.9 you come back to the intersection. Here you want to continue straight along the bluffs. If you go to the right at this point, you will climb back into the canyon toward the campground.
The North Bluff Trail follows the cliffs with some of the best views. Along this portion, you have open fields and an open ocean in front of you. The trail snakes around the bluffs that cause the rough edges of the island. In some places, it skirts the edges where you can peer over and see the waves crashing against the cliffs. It’s a great reminder of how they are formed.
Around mile 3.6 the trail is a little tricky. You want to stay to the left, or toward the coast, even though it may seem like you need to go inland, or to your right. From this point, the trail begins to descend steeply into a valley. But don’t worry, you’re not going all the way down to the ocean.
It kind of snakes around through the hilly terrain before coming to the intersection with the Cavern Point Loop around mile 3.85.
(You can go right at this point having seen Potato Harbor and the cliffs and skip the Cavern Point Loop portion if you are short on time.)
Cavern Point Loop
To finish out the Potato Harbor/Cavern Point Loop, go left and follow the coast. Here the trail begins a short, but very steep, climb back to the top. There are amazing views along this portion, so there are many places to stop for breaks and take in the view.
Around mile 4.05 you come to the short spur to the Caver Point Lookout. Cavern Point provides endless views of the coastline. It is also a great place to spot whales and other wild life that call the ocean home. You can see the rocky coastline below highlighted by white waves and dark strips of green kelp forests.
From Cavern Point the trail begins to head southeast and you get views of Anacapa Island in the distance.
You start to see views of Scorpion Anchorage and the Scorpion Canyon. Around mile 4.7, the trail turns to the right, and you begin the steep decline back to Scorpion Cove.
Potato Harbor/Cavern Point Loop
The Potato Harbor/Cavern Point Loop feels like you’re hiking along the Great Plains with the ocean next to you, like one of those Photoshopped images that don’t quite look real. Channel Islands National Park is a beautiful, unique, and interesting place to visit. The flora and fauna are not like anywhere else. Hiking along the Potato Harbor/Cavern Point Loop is a great way to explore and sample Channel Islands.
I loved hiking along the edge of an endless deep blue ocean flanked by green and yellow grasses and a blue sky. The dots of black, white, and red rocks completed the scene. It is a gorgeous hike with many amazing views.
- 5 mile loop
- Elevation gain and loss 696 feet
- Dogs not allowed
- Backcountry camping not allowed