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Pelican Bay Trail

Explore some of the most diverse habitats on Santa Cruz Island, with particularly good opportunities for spotting wildlife.

Hiking Moderate

7.2 km
314 m
314 m
1-2 hrs
Low Point
0 m
High Point
102 m
Pelican Bay Trail Map

Prisoners Harbor is the lesser-visited landing on Santa Cruz Island, and it’s the jumping-off point for backcountry treks on the island. Even if you aren’t backpacking, there are good options for day hikes, and Pelican Bay is the best of them. The only catch is that this trail leaves the national park for land privately owned by The Nature Conservancy. Access is normally allowed only on a docent-led hike (provided at no extra charge by the boat tour operator), but during the pandemic that changed to a self-guided tour with a signed waiver. How these policies might be modified in the future is uncertain, so be sure to inquire with the tour operator if you’re interested in this trail.


On Pelican Bay Trail, you can witness habitats and species that are found nowhere else on earth. This part of the island is wetter than the rest, with sheltered north-facing slopes. Thus the forest is thicker here, and flora includes the rare Catalina ironwood tree. In springtime, all the foliage bursts with vivid green and colorful flowers. Birdlife is abundant year-round, and you might see a Santa Cruz Island jay, which is a bright blue bird that lives only here. Then there are, of course, the little island foxes, which you may see on this trail as well. Don’t forget to look toward the water also, for a chance at spotting seals, sea lions, and dolphins.

This trail is somewhat strenuous and rugged. It crosses steep hillsides and dips into ravines, moving frequently between sun and shade among diverse vegetation. Be sure to stay on the narrow dirt path in order to protect the natural environment that surrounds you. Near the end of the trail, you’ll reach an overlook of Pelican Bay, which is a horseshoe-shaped cove. The trail doesn’t actually go there, however. Instead, it descends to a smaller cove where you’ll find a pebbly beach lined with rock walls. It’s a wildly secluded place, perfect for a brief respite before making the return trip.

If you want to make the full hike on Pelican Bay Trail, you must come prepared. There is no water or other supplies available at Prisoners Harbor, so you’ll need to arrive on the boat with all you might need. You can find a pit toilet near the landing but no other amenities. Note also that private boaters can access Prisoners Harbor and this trail, but will need to arrange a permit with the Nature Conservancy in advance.

Sources: https://www.nps.gov/chis/planyourvisit/hiking-santa-cruz-island.htm https://islandpackers.com/prisoners-harbor-day-trip-sci/ https://www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/places-we-protect/santa-cruz-island-california/



Hiking along trails with some uneven terrain and small hills. Small rocks and roots may be present.

Medium Exposure

2 out of 4

The trail contains some obstacles such as outcroppings and rock which could cause injury.


2 out of 4

Away from help but easily accessed.

Best time to visit

all year round


  • Wildlife
  • Historical
  • Picturesque
  • Wild flowers
  • Family friendly
  • Forestry or heavy vegetation

Guidebooks in this area