Backpacking Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park (Prisoners Harbor to Scorpion Cove)

Wanting to experience backpacking Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park? In this guide we’re sharing everything you need to know, including routes, what to expect, what to bring, and more!

We have a goal of visiting all 63 National Parks in our lifetime and on our journey to Alaska from Texas in 2022, we visited several new national parks, including Channel Islands National Park in southern California. 

The Channel Islands are so beautiful, undeveloped, and biodiverse that they have been referred to as “the last perfect place in California” and the “Galapagos of North America.” But despite this, it’s the least visited of California’s nine national parks.

However, it may be one of our favorite national parks out of the 48 we have visited. The combination of a stunning boat ride (with a very high chance of wildlife sightings!), rugged cliffs, ocean scenery, mountains, wildflowers, and cute little island foxes, a species only found on the Channel Islands, make it a memorable and unique national park experience unlike any other!

Watch our Channel Islands National Park adventure, including our experience hiking and camping across Santa Cruz Island! And to learn more about visiting the park, read our full guide to Santa Cruz Island!

While Channel Islands National Park is popular for day trips, the best way (in our opinion) to experience it is by backpacking! We spent 2 nights backpacking across Santa Cruz Island from Prisoners Harbor to Scorpion Cove and the trip quickly became one of our favorite backpacking adventures yet! 

And in this guide we’re sharing everything you need to know to replicate our backpacking trip, including how to book your boat ride, what gear to bring (+ limitations), and more!

LOOKING FOR MORE THINGS TO DO IN CALIFORNIA? CHECK OUT OUR CALIFORNIA GUIDES AND VLOGS!

Note: this guide contains affiliate links, which means that if you use the links provided and make a purchase, we get a small commission at no extra cost to you. We will only ever recommend products we truly love, actually use during our adventures, and think you can benefit from too!

About Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park

The Channel Islands are 8 islands off the coast of Ventura in Southern California and Channel Islands National Park consists of 5 of these islands including Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara and their surrounding ocean habitats.

Santa Cruz Island is the largest of the islands and one of the most popular to visit, as it offers a wide variety of activities, including kayaking, snorkeling, hiking, and historic sights. We definitely suggest choosing this island if it’s your first visit to the park!

And while the island is part of Channel Islands National Park, it is actually owned and managed by two different parties, the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy. The park service owns the eastern 24% while the Nature Conservancy owns the western 76%, which is not open to the public.

Before embarking on your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave every place better than you found it, so that others can enjoy these beautiful places for many years to come!

These seven principles include planning ahead and preparing, hiking and camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly (pack out what you pack in!), understanding campfire rules and always fully extinguishing your fires, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other visitors. 

Why should you backpack Santa Cruz Island?

Backpacking Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park

While Santa Cruz Island, plus the other Channel Islands, are well worth a day trip if that’s all you can manage, we highly suggest backpacking Santa Cruz island if you have the time and ability. And our #1 reason? You get to see so much more of the island than most visitors get to see, due to their limited time, AND you get to experience a ton of solitude!

The backpacking route that we will share below includes two campgrounds on the island, with one only having 4 campsites, which means that you’ll encounter 4 groups at most on that leg of your journey. It also includes a hike along Montañon Ridge, which from our experience, not many (or any) people hike. This is a tough hike and not for inexperienced hikers, but we didn’t see a single person on the trail, which made us feel like we had the island to ourselves!

Staying on the island multiple nights also gave us the chance to experience much more than we could’ve in a day trip. But even if you can’t backpack, camping for a night at the Scorpion Cove Campground, which just requires a short walk to get to from the boat, is well worth it to give yourself more time to enjoy and appreciate this magical national park.

Not sure if backpacking Santa Cruz Island is right for you? Here is a quick run down of the route and itinerary that we will be covering in this guide!

Santa Cruz Island Backpacking Route

Miles (roundtrip): 14.74
Elevation gain: 2,785 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions (this route linked does not include the detour to Potato Harbor)

Above is our AllTrails recording from our backpacking trip on Santa Cruz Island, which is the only backpacking route option on the island! As you can see, it totaled almost 15 miles, which was among two days, with the first day being a little over 3 miles. And while 2,785 feet over the course of this mileage isn’t too steep on paper, it felt steep, especially with our packs on and lack of shade. 

We will share how to get to the island, important things to know beforehand, plus our experience as we continue on with this guide, but here is a quick rundown of the itinerary, to give you an idea of what to expect before planning any further!

Note: You could do this route in reverse, but we think that the Scorpion Anchorage area offers more to do and would be a fun way to end your trip. Plus there is water at the Scorpion Anchorage and ending your trip with unlimited potable water is a huge perk!

3 Day Santa Cruz Island Backpacking Itinerary

Del Norte Campground on Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park

You need a minimum of three days to do this backpacking trip due to the timing of the boats and the longer mileage you will have to hike on day two. While you could technically do it in two if you rush, skipping the second night of camping, it would take away from the experience and would be risky if you happened to take longer than planned and missed the boat.

Below is our exact itinerary for our trip!

Day 1

  • Ride to Prisoners Harbor with Island Packers Cruises
  • Have lunch by the dock (if you’d like!)
  • Hike to the Del Norte Campground (~3 miles)
  • Set up camp

Day 2

  • Hike the Del Norte and Montanon Trail to the Lower Scorpion Canyon Campground (~11 miles). We suggest taking a slight detour to Potato Harbor along the way as well, which we will discuss more below!

Day 3

  • Enjoy the day hikes and activities near the Scorpion Anchorage! We list all of the best things to do on the island in our detailed Santa Cruz Island guide and we will share exactly what we did in the “our experience” section of this guide.
  • Say your sad goodbyes and ride the boat back to Ventura Harbor!

How to get to Santa Cruz Island (as a backpacker)

Island Packers Cruise to Channel Islands National Park

Unless you have your own boat or take a plane, the only way to get to Channel Islands National Park is with Island Packers Cruises. Island Packers offers trips from Ventura to all islands, depending on the time of year and conditions. And along the way you’ll possibly get the chance to see wildlife. We saw dolphins and gray whales!

For backpackers, a roundtrip cruise to Santa Cruz Island is $84 per adult, with reduced pricing for children and seniors. While most visitors can book their spot online, for those following the route outlined in this guide, you will need to call and reserve, as you’ll have different drop off and pick up points, which we will cover below. 

Where to catch the boat + parking

Parking for Channel Islands National Park

Island Packers Cruises leaves from Ventura Harbor, which is a busy area with a marina, different tour companies, and restaurants (we recommend tacos from Baja Bay Surf n Taco!).

Although there is a lot going on in the area, there is ample FREE parking and during our visit, plenty of spots were available. For those backpacking and parking overnight, you will receive a permit from Island Packers to leave on your car.

We left our van (which is slightly oversized) in their lot for multiple nights with no issues!

Where to get dropped off and picked up 

Prisoners Harbor at Santa Cruz Island on Channel Islands National Park

Once on the boat, there are two main drop off points on Santa Cruz Island: Scorpion Anchorage and Prisoners Harbor. Most day trippers will get dropped off at the Scorpion Anchorage, which is closest to a variety of trails, kayaking tours, and the largest campground on the island. However, to backpack the island, we would suggest getting dropped off at Prisoners Harbor instead.

This is about a 2+ hour ride from Ventura and once arriving at Prisoners Harbor, you’ll have to climb up a ladder to get onto the dock, where you can find some picnic tables nearby, before heading off on your backpacking adventure. 

To leave the island, you will want to get picked up from the Scorpion Anchorage, which you will have hiked to over your backpacking journey. 

The boat ride over can be a bit turbulent so if you tend to get seasick or are worried about it, be sure to take some preventative measures such as taking Dramamine or some other motion sickness medicine. 

When to backpack Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park has mild temperatures and is a great place to visit any month of the year, but for backpacking, we’d especially recommend planning your trip for the winter or spring.

In the winter and spring, the islands are more green, with tons of wildflowers. This is a great time to visit if you want to hike and see the island’s terrain at its most colorful. We visited in early March and it was perfect for backpacking, with cooler mornings and mild afternoons with plenty of sunshine!

The summer and fall, while still mild, are a bit warmer and are the best times to snorkel, kayak, or dive, as the visibility is deeper, however the island is a bit more dry and tan looking, so it isn’t as scenic. While it’s totally doable to backpack during these months, due to the lack of shade on most of the island and limited water for part of the backpacking trip, it may be a bit more challenging and uncomfortable at times.

Where you’ll camp on Santa Cruz Island

There are two campgrounds on Santa Cruz Island, the Scorpion Canyon Campground, which is near Scorpion Anchorage and is larger, and the Del Norte Campground, which is solely for backpacking. Both campgrounds cost $15 per night and you must reserve them in advance on recreation.gov. Make sure to check the dates and book the boat first, to ensure you have a ride to the island, then book your campsite.

For this guide and itinerary, you’ll start at the Del Norte Campground and then end at the Scorpion Canyon Campground. Here is a quick rundown of each!

Del Norte Campground

The Del Norte Campground sits on a bluff overlooking the ocean and is the only backcountry campground on Santa Cruz Island. It is a very small campground, with only 4 sites and each comes with a picnic table and fox box. There is also one pit toilet here that has recently been rebuilt or refurbished and it is probably the nicest pit toilet we have ever seen!

Sites #3 and #4 are tucked under some oak trees, while sites #1 and #2 are fully exposed to the sun, but definitely have the best views.

Del Norte Campground on Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park

We had site #4 during our stay here and had a decent amount of privacy compared to the other sites, but were still close to our neighbors. While we did really enjoy this site, site #1 would be our top pick for the future, which has the best view of the ocean!

Unfortunately this site was booked during our visit (I checked multiple times in advance to see if it opened up), but the campers never showed. So if you do book a campsite and decide not to go, please cancel it so others can enjoy it!

Scorpion Canyon Campground

The Scorpion Canyon Campground is located just a flat, half mile walk from the Scorpion Anchorage. There are 25 sites and each comes with a picnic table and fox box and has access to multiple pit toilets and potable water. 

Scorpion Canyon Campground at Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park

There are two areas at this campground, upper and lower. The lower campground is under a giant canopy of trees and is closer to the anchorage. This would be a great spot to stay if you are doing activities on the water because you are closer. The upper campground is further inland and more exposed to the sun. This campground would be great to stay at if you plan on doing lots of hiking. We stayed at site #22, which was kind of in the middle of the campground.

What to bring when backpacking Santa Cruz Island

Backpacking Gear

Since this is a backpacking trip, you’ll want to make sure you bring all appropriate camping gear, like a tent, sleeping bag, cooking supplies, plus the 10 essentials, as there will be no way to get any items you forgot once on the island. If you need help with packing or want our product recommendations, check out our backpacking gear and packing list, or click the items in the Kit above!

NOTE: There is a weight limit for gear on the Island Packers Cruise, with no single item weighing more than 45 lbs, but this shouldn’t be an issue for most people! 

Scorpion Canyon Campground at Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park

Lots of water

Potable water is ONLY available at the Scorpion Canyon Campground, which means you’ll have to carry enough water for your first two days on the island (thankfully one is just a partial day). We carried 9L total between the two of us (two 3L Camelbaks + two 1.5 liter Smart Water bottles) and it covered us for the 14+ miles we had to hike from our drop off point at Prisoners Harbor to the only water sources at the Scorpion Canyon Campground.

Once at the Scorpion Canyon Campground, there is a potable water station where you can fill up as much as your heart desires!

Del Norte Campground on Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park

Food

There is nowhere to purchase food on Santa Cruz Island, so you will need to bring all of the food that you think you’ll need, with maybe a little extra, just in case. One thing we have learned when backpacking in areas with limited water is that cooking dehydrated backpacking meals can take a lot of water. So for this trip, we tried to balance bringing some non cooking items + backpacking meals.

For non cooking items we brought some wraps/tortillas, summer sausage, tuna packets, hard cheese, lots of nuts, biltong, bagels, peanut butter packets, and other snack items that do not need to be refrigerated. We tried to eat these for breakfast and lunch and then save our backpacking meals for dinner. It worked pretty well and we were able to keep enough water to drink!

To see some of the food we like to bring when backpacking, check out this Kit below!

Foldable daypack

One thing we love bringing on backpacking trips, especially when there are day hike options, is a foldable daypack. This fits into our backpacking pack and allows us to go for smaller adventures without carrying our big packs.

AllTrails Maps

We did not have much service on the island, so make sure to download maps for the trails.

Motion sickness medicine

If you tend to get seasick on boat rides, this might be a good idea to bring along. 

Sun Protection

Santa Cruz Island is very exposed because there are not a lot of trees in most hiking areas, especially during the long hike between campgrounds. A hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses will come in handy!

Potato Harbor Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park

Satellite Communication device

We always carry our Garmin inReach Mini when we hike or backpack. It has come in handy several times on our adventures, mostly to text family (not for SOS reasons thankfully)!

Hiking poles

There are some steep sections of this backpacking route and for the first time in my hiking career, I (Kathryn) experienced knee pains, which unfortunately have stuck with me a bit, months later. If knee pain is an issue for you on hikes, we highly suggest bringing hiking poles

Things to know before backpacking Santa Cruz Island

There isn’t an entrance fee

There is no entrance fee for Channel Islands National Park, but the boat ride out to the island, any tours, and campsite reservations do have a fee. 

Dogs are not allowed

Pets are not allowed on any of the islands to protect the island wildlife and during our trip to the island we boarded Kona at White’s Pet Hospital in Santa Barbara.

If you’re curious how we travel full time with a dog, including when we visit national parks (where dogs usually are not allowed), check out our blog post

Respect wildlife & DO NOT FEED THEM

One cool fact about the channel islands is that there are 23 endemic species in the park, with one of the most common being the island foxes that we mentioned earlier. These foxes only live on 6 of the 8 Channel Islands and are found nowhere else on earth. They are descendents of the mainland gray foxes, but about ⅓ smaller. 

There are a couple theories on how they got to the island. Older research says they could’ve rafted across the water on debris to the island 10-16,000 years ago, when water levels were lower. Newer research dates them back 6,000 years, many years after Native people populated the islands, which suggests that humans may have brought gray foxes and they evolved over time to the type of fox seen here today.

You will very likely see these foxes when hiking around the island. DO NOT feed them…it is illegal!

Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park

Store your bags and food properly

PLEASE always secure your food in one of the boxes at the campsites or near the boat dock. Not only will the foxes try to get into your bags (one got into our tent looking for food, but there was no food in it), there are birds on the island that can unzip your backpack to get to your food. We saw this happen at the Scorpion Anchorage when a group of people went swimming in the ocean and they left their bag on the shore and birds got into their food. This left trash all over the beach and it fed the wildlife, which is a big no no.

And if you need somewhere to store your bags before checking into your campsite or after checking out, there are storage lockers near both boat docks to put your bags (and especially your food) in! We had no issues leaving our backpacking packs in here for a few hours.

There are no services on the island

You will need to bring all the food (and water) that you will need for your entire stay because there are no services on the island besides potable water at the Scorpion Campground. Also, please pack out what you pack in, as there are no trash receptacles. 

Del Norte Campground on Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park

There are restrooms, though!

There are restrooms on the island though! The Scorpion Anchorage area, plus Scorpion Campground and Del Norte Campgrounds have pit toilets.

Cell service is limited

Cell service on Santa Cruz Island is very limited. We had some at the Scorpion Anchorage and Potato Harbor, but other than that don’t expect much connection to the mainland.

No fires allowed

While campfires are one of the best parts of camping, they are not allowed here. You will need to bring a camp stove (like this one!) to cook any food.

Our Santa Cruz Island Backpacking Experience

Below is a more detailed recap of our experience, which we hope can help you better understand what to expect as you are backpacking Santa Cruz Island!

The boat ride to Prisoners Harbor

Ventura Harbor | Channel Islands National Park

Our Santa Cruz Island adventure began with the boat ride out to the island. Our boat left at 9 AM, but we had to arrive early to check in, plus get our gear weighed, put our fuel canisters in their fuel bin (it needs to be separate from the other items for safety reasons), and remove our water from our bags (another rule for the boat ride).

Backpackers get to load their items before anyone boards and by the time we got our gear on board, the line to board the boat was really long. At first we were worried that we wouldn’t have a good spot on the boat, but as soon as the boat started moving, you could freely walk around and we spent the entire ride on the side of the boat, enjoying the scenery.

Island Packers Cruise to Channel Islands National Park

If the boat ride was the only thing we did on this trip it would have been incredible because we got lucky and saw so much wildlife along the way! We saw probably 10+ dolphins, a whale or two, and some seals, and stunning scenery!

The boat first drops off passengers at the Scorpion Anchorage and about 95% of the boat got off here. It was really neat to get to be on the boat for this to see the area we would later be visiting up close!

Island Packers Cruise to Channel Islands National Park

After dropping off the Scorpion crowd, we continued on to Prisoners Harbor. All in, this ride was probably over 2 hours, as we stopped for wildlife a good amount. The scenery from the Scorpion Anchorage to Prisoners Harbor was so beautiful, with lots of cliffs and coves, and something we would’ve missed out on had we just done a day trip or stayed on one side of the island.

Once arriving at Prisoners Harbor, we had to climb a ladder (a bit unexpected, but fun!) to the dock, got our gear back, repacked our bags with our fuel canisters and water, and then found a nice picnic table to enjoy some lunch before our hike. We even got to see our first island fox here! He immediately went to our table after we ate to try to find crumbs.

Island Fox at Channel Islands National Park

Prisoners Harbor to Del Norte Campground

And then it began…our hike to the Del Norte Campground. This short hike was much more strenuous than we thought it would be! Since you’re starting at sea level, you instantly have a steep climb up a dirt road and then you’ll be going up several ridge lines and back down into the valleys between them. While it was tough, especially with the midday sun, it overall wasn’t too bad and we made it to our campsite with plenty of time to relax before dinner.

Hiking Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park

When we got to our campsite we noticed we had some neighbors right next to us, which we expected. The sites were a little bit closer than we hoped (we only really care because filming can be awkward around strangers, but it turns out one of our neighbor’s mom watches our channel…too funny!).

We enjoyed a quiet night at the campground, eating some warm meals, which were very much enjoyed after our mediocre lunch of tortillas, cheese, and summer sausage/tuna, and watched the sunset, before hitting the hay for a big day!

Hiking from the Del Norte Campground to Montañon Ridge

Day two was a doozy! We had about an 11 mile hike from Del Norte to Scorpion and while the inclines weren’t horrible, it was enough up and down (especially with heavy packs) to really wear you out!

A few things really stood out to us along this stretch of the hike. First, there are CONSTANT views! There was never a time, that we can remember, that we didn’t have a view of the ocean! Second, we saw NO ONE else on this stretch…it was incredible! We prefer to hike in solitude, which can be impossible at many national parks, but we felt like we had a private island for a bit. And third, there were SO many wildflowers!

If you can do this hike in the late winter/early spring, yellow and purple wildflowers cover the island, which just adds to the beauty of the scenery. We also got to enjoy the island while it was still somewhat green vs. the brown it turns in the summer. It was such a colorful experience!

Backpacking Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park

Something else to know about this stretch of the hike is that towards Montañon Ridge, the hike gets a bit more rocky and rugged, with some steep stretches that require a little bit of scrambling. But once you reach the top you’ll have incredible views of the west side of the island on one side and Scorpion Harbor on the other side.

This was the perfect spot to stop and enjoy some lunch and rest after a pretty tough uphill hike!

Hiking down towards the Scorpion Canyon Campground

After leaving the ridge, we got a bit confused about where to go to find the trail. As you can see on our recording if you zoom in, we got off track around the marker for High Mount. There were some social trails (trails formed from people walking over and over) that confused us and after following them, it led to a drop off that we felt fairly certain wasn’t the actual trail.

Backpacking Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park

But after turning back towards our lunch spot, we found another path that proved to be the correct one. Soon after you reach it, you’ll reach a junction, with one way pointing towards Scorpion and the pier and the other pointing towards Potato Harbor. We highly suggest going the route to Potato Harbor. It may be a tad bit longer, but it’s well worth it, not only for Potato Harbor itself, but the views along the way.

Backpacking Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park

Side trip to Potato Harbor

While we thought the best views had already happened, as we continued along another ridge, towards Potato Harbor, we ended up at a spot with stunning views of the southwest part of the island and the blue water below.

Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park

After this, it’s pretty straightforward and almost entirely downhill to Potato Harbor. And right before you reach another junction to go to Potato Harbor, you’ll get to walk through the most insane field of yellow flowers. It was stunning!

Channel Islands National Park wildflowers

We made a left turn towards Potato Harbor, which isn’t much further, and gasped at the beauty of the area around us. This cove is so picturesque, with gorgeous white cliffs and insanely blue and clear water, plus we could hear the sound of sea lions barking! 

Before we even left Potato Harbor we decided we had to come back the next morning for sunrise as well.

Potato Harbor Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park

Potato Harbor to Scorpion Canyon Campground

For the final stretch we made the flat and downhill walk to the Scorpion Canyon Campground. This campground didn’t seem full during our visit and the sites were spread out among trees, with a good amount of space at each site, but not always a ton of privacy. We had site #22 and were the end spot, so we had only a neighbor on one side of us.

Our final day on the island

For our final morning on the island, we went back to Potato Harbor for sunrise, before heading back to camp, resting and eating breakfast, and packing up. 

Since checkout time was before the boat time, we stored our bags in the storage area near the boat dock (these do fill up, but we found space and had no issues with the safety of our items).

From here, we hiked along the coast to enjoy Cavern Point, checked out Scorpion Ranch, and laid out at the beach until we were picked up from Scorpion Cove and rode back to the mainland. It was bittersweet to leave the island, we LOVED our time here so much! 

Want to learn more about visiting Channel Islands National Park? Including more things to do on Santa Cruz Island, read our full guide to Santa Cruz Island!

Ready to backpack at Channel Islands National Park?

Pin this guide to backpacking Santa Cruz Island to help plan your adventure!

about us

Hi y’all! We’re Adam, Kathryn, and Kona, an adventurous married couple (+ pup!) living on the road in our self-converted sprinter van! You can often find us driving all around the US and Canada, scoping out the best coffee shops, eating tacos and ice cream (we’re a 5+ taco and 2+ scoop household), and enjoying nature.

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