The 2-mile, figure-eight Loop Trail on East Anacapa serves up great views and is a good introduction to the island's natural history. Follow signs from the boat-landing area to the trail head. A pamphlet describing the island's most significant features is available in the visitor center. Naturalists also lead guided nature walks daily year-round.
Most hikes in the national parkland of Santa Cruz begin at Scorpion Ranch. The easiest and shortest is the Historic Ranch Walk. The ranch area is visible from the beach. This hike is basically the beginning leg of all the hikes described below, so if you are planning to take one of those, you don't really need to allocate much additional time for this hike.
The hike up to Cavern Point leads you to the bluffs northwest of Scorpion Harbor, providing spectacular views of the north coast of the island. Between January and March, this is an excellent vantage from which to spot migrating gray whales. Follow the main trail from the beach through the ranch area. Beyond the ranch, look for the second side canyon on your right (west). Follow the signed trail through the eucalyptus grove and up the side of the canyon to Cavern Point. Avoid the unstable cliff ledges at the top and return to Scorpion Beach by following the trail to the east. At 2 miles round-trip, the hike is rated moderate to difficult due to a 200-yard uphill climb, uneven terrain, and loose rock.
A little longer than the Cavern Point hike, the hike up to the Potato Harbor Overlook also provides magnificent coastal views. Head past the ranch about .75 mile until you come to a big break in the eucalyptus trees. A trail sign marks the spot. Follow the old road on the right (west) until you reach the bluff trail to Potato Harbor Overlook. Avoid cliff edges, and return the way you came (or make a loop of it on the scenic Northwest Bluff Trail). The round-trip is 4 miles and is rated moderate due to a 1-mile uphill climb.
For another coastal view, you can head up to Scorpion Bluffs. Approximately 100 feet past the ranch area, before the eucalyptus grove, turn left (east) on the road/trail across the streambed to the base of Smugglers Road. At the top of the road, follow the trail that goes along the bluffs. Avoid cliff ledges, and return the way you came. The round-trip is 2 miles and is rated moderate for its 300-foot elevation gain.
Your best chance to see the island jay is to head up Scorpion Canyon. Follow the main road/trail through the ranch area and into the eucalyptus grove. The trail will eventually wind in and out of an old streambed before reaching the first oak tree after approximately 1.5 miles. You may continue up the streambed, but the terrain is rocky and uneven.
For those with a little more time, the hike to Smugglers Cove is a nice way to spend a day. At 7 miles round-trip, it is not recommended for visitors with time constraints. Easy to follow, the hike follows Smugglers Road all the way from Scorpion Ranch to the white-sand and cobblestone beaches of Smugglers Cove. Because of the 600-foot elevation gain over many uphill sections, the hike is rated strenuous. Another longer option is the strenuous hike up to Montañon Ridge, an 8-mile round-trip.
Because of its large size, Santa Rosa offers a diverse array of possible hikes. To get to all the trail heads, follow signs from the boat-landing area. Volunteers and concessionaire employees lead guided hikes.
The white sands of Water Canyon Beach are a popular destination for hikers and day-trippers. The trail is 2 miles round-trip and is rated easy.
The Lobo Canyon Trail descends through Lobo Canyon to a Chumash village site and on to an excellent tide-pooling area. Unlike most mainland tide pools, the Channel Islands' intertidal zones have not been destroyed by human impact on the fragile habitats. The hike is 13 miles round-trip and is rated moderate.
The hike to the island's endemic stand of Torrey pines is 5 miles round-trip and affords unbelievable views. East Point Trail is a strenuous 12-mile round-trip that also allows for more views of these rare trees, as well as the brackish marsh at the island's eastern tip.
Outside of the Cuyler Harbor/Lester Ranch Area, hikes on San Miguel must be led by a ranger. There are three trails, all of which meet at Lester Ranch. Due to terrain, length, and the tiring effects of walking in all that wind, all three are rated moderately strenuous. Concessionaire employees and volunteers also lead guided hikes.
If you don't feel up to a serious trek, you can make the relatively easy walk from the landing at Cuyler Harbor to Cabrillo Monument and Lester Ranch, the starting point for the three official hikes.
The first trail heads north to Harris Point, allowing marvelous views of Prince Island to the east and Simonton Cove to the west. Taking the trail southeast from Lester Ranch will lead you to Cardwell Point.
San Miguel's most popular hike is the 5-mile round-trip trek along the Point Bennett Trail to the aforementioned caliche forest.
For those with more time and stamina, consider following the trail all the way to Point Bennett, a 16-mile round-trip. Camping along the trail is forbidden. The diversity of scenery and wildlife on view is seemingly endless for those hikers hardy enough to endure the wind and weather. After crossing San Miguel Hill, the trail passes the caliche forest. The trail then heads west to Point Bennett, passing south of the island's other peak, Green Mountain. At the end of the trek, the barking of sea lions will signal your arrival at Point Bennett, where 30,000 pinnipeds sometimes congregate.
Note: San Miguel Island was used as a bombing range for the U.S. Navy between 1948 and 1970. Live ordnance is still occasionally uncovered in the shifting sand, so it is extremely important to stay on established trails.
Hiking the short Canyon View Nature Trail is a good introduction to Santa Barbara, but since it's such a small island, it's not that difficult to hike all three of the island's main trails. All trails begin and end at the campground and visitor center; guided hikes are available.
At 5 miles round-trip, the Elephant Seal Cove Trail heads southwest from the visitor center to the west coast of the island, then heads up by Webster Point, a favorite beach for sea lions and elephant seals, and continues to Elephant Seal Cove.
The Arch Point Trail heads north from the visitor center to Arch Point, the northernmost tip of the island. You can then turn south and follow the island's northwestern bluffs, before turning inland and crossing the Elephant Seal Cove Trail. Once across the Elephant Seal Cove Trail, the trail becomes the Signal Peak Loop Trail and continues southwest and up Signal Peak. It then follows the bluffs around the southern portion of the island, cutting inland briefly to bypass Cat Canyon. Once on the southeastern side of the island, the trail heads up to Sea Lion Rookery, where it runs inland and then north back to the visitor center.