Channel Islands National Park is one of our FAVORITE national park experiences, but it does require some extra logistics to explore. In this guide we’re sharing how to visit Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park.
California is home to 9 national parks, more than any other state, and while you likely have heard of the mega popular ones, like Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and Death Valley, the least visited of them all, Channel Islands National Park, is well worth a visit.
In fact, Channel Islands National Park quickly became one of our favorite national parks we have ever visited and one of our top experiences on our Journey to Alaska in 2022! We spent three days on Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park and between the boat ride out to the island, hiking the trails, camping, and the amazing wildlife both on the water and on the island, it was one of the most memorable and unique national park adventures we have had.
Watch our Channel Islands National Park adventure, including our experience hiking and camping across Santa Cruz Island!
While the Channel Islands may be close to civilization, they do require a bit more planning to visit, so in this guide we are sharing some general information to visit Channel Islands National Park, plus everything you need to know to visit Santa Cruz Island, including the best things to do and itineraries for 1-3 days!
LOOKING FOR MORE THINGS TO DO IN CALIFORNIA? CHECK OUT OUR CALIFORNIA GUIDES AND VLOGS!
- The ULTIMATE guide to visiting Death Valley National Park
- The Best Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park
- Hiking Ladder Canyon near Palm Springs, California
- 3 Days in San Francisco Itinerary
- 3 Days in San Diego (Things to Do + Where to Eat)
- Exploring Redwoods National and State Parks
- 3 Days in Lake Tahoe
- The Best Day Hike in Yosemite: The Four Mile Trail + Panorama Trail
- See all of our California Guides
- Watch all of our California Vlogs
- About Channel Islands National Park
- Which island in Channel Islands National Park should you visit?
- About Santa Cruz Island
- How to get to Santa Cruz Island
- When to visit Santa Cruz Island
- What to Bring to Santa Cruz Island
- Things to know before visiting Santa Cruz Island
- Things to do on Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park
- How to spend 1-3 Days on Santa Cruz Island
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About 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.
For thousands of years, these islands were inhabited by native Chumash communities, who utilized the islands’ natural resources to live. And in the 19th century, the islands became home to many sheep and cattle ranches, before becoming a national park on March 5, 1980. Today, it is the least visited of California’s 9 national parks, but don’t let that fool you, it is more than worth the trek to get to it.
In fact, the islands have been referred to as the Galapagos of North America due to their biodiversity and each island offers a different experience, with lots of wildlife, including 23 endemic animals, like the island fox, and endless coastal scenery.
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.
Which island in Channel Islands National Park should you visit?
All 5 islands in Channel Islands National Park are able to be visited by the public and deciding which one to visit is one of the first big challenges of planning a trip to the park. You can read about each island on the Channel Islands National Park website, but here is a quick rundown of each:
Anacapa Island: This island is actually three islets, with East Anacapa Island being popular to visit for a day trip or one night camping trip. On the island you can see a lighthouse or hike the two mile trail system (with amazing views!), but beyond that, there isn’t a ton to do.
Santa Cruz Island (where we visited): This is the largest of the islands (and largest island in California!) and offers two launching off points, many miles of trails, water activities, camping, and an old ranch. It can be experienced as a day trip, but even better experienced over 2-3 days. We will explain a bit more of why we chose this island below!
Santa Rosa Island: This is the second largest island in California and can be visited as a day trip, but offers quite a bit to see, with trails, old ranch buildings, beaches, and primitive camping.
San Miguel Island: One thing that is unique about this island is that you MUST have a permit to visit this island and you are required to be accompanied by park staff past the ranger station. However, for those willing to go through some extra steps, you’ll be treated to a less busy and more secluded experience. On the island there is primitive camping, guided hikes, beautiful beaches, and a chance to see lots of seals and sea lions.
Santa Barbara: This is the smallest island and has a more limited transportation schedule. On the island there are five miles of hiking trails and also primitive camping.
While we would love to visit all 5 of the islands in Channel Islands National Park someday, we only had time to visit one island for our first trip and we set our sights on one island: Santa Cruz Island.
About Santa Cruz Island
Lying about 20 miles off the shore of Ventura Harbor is Santa Cruz Island. Legend has it that the island got its name after a priest accidentally left his staff on the island after the Portola Expedition of 1769. A Chumash Indian found it and returned it to the priest. So impressed by this, the Spaniards named the island, “La Isla de Santa Cruz”, the Island of the Sacred Cross.
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.
Why we chose Santa Cruz Island
We chose Santa Cruz Island for our Channel Islands adventure because we wanted to spend a few days if possible and it offered the most variety in things to do, from short hikes, to longer hikes and backpacking, multiple camping options, historic sights, amazing scenic views, and kayaking (which we ended up not doing, but looked amazing!).
It felt like a very well rounded island to visit and after spending a few days there, we highly recommend choosing it if it’s your first visit to the park.
Although it is popular, the boat there will likely be full with day trippers (we did visit when Anacapa, a popular day trip island, was closed), the island is a lot quieter at night for camping. If you spend your early mornings and evenings exploring (when the day trip crowd is gone), you’ll still have tons of solitude. And you can also fully escape humans by backpacking across part of the island, which we will explain later!
How to get to Santa Cruz Island
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, who offer 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 many dolphins and a couple gray whales…it was incredible! It brought us back to our time whale watching on Maui!
These cruises range in price depending on the island and activity (day trip or overnight camping), but for Santa Cruz Island, the prices are $63 for a day trip and $84 for overnight camping, with the prices being less for children and seniors. You can book your spot online and we recommend doing this in advance, as they can sell out!
Where to catch the boat + parking
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. If you are visiting for just a day trip, you can park without any sort of pass, but 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!
The different drop off points on Santa Cruz Island
Once on the boat, there are two main drop off points on Santa Cruz Island, Scorpion Anchorage and Prisoners Harbor. The ride normally takes about an hour to get to Scorpion Anchorage, but if the captain sees marine wildlife they will stop and this can make the ride take longer. After dropping people off at the Scorpion Anchorage, they then cruise along the coast to the more western drop off point at Prisoners Harbor. If you’re getting dropped off at Prisoners Harbor the total ride can be 2+ hours.
The Scorpion Anchorage is the drop off point that most visitors use, as this is near the majority of the trails, kayaking launch point, larger campground, and visitor center. Getting off the boat here is easy. You will just walk right off onto a ramp.
The Prisoners Harbor drop off is way less busy and is used by the Nature Conservancy employees, plus those (like us!) wanting to backcountry camp on the island. Getting off the boat here does require climbing a ladder, so if you’re unable to climb a ladder, this anchorage may not be a good fit for you.
Some day trippers will get dropped off at Prisoners Harbor as well, but there is less to do on this side of the island, so we’d recommend going to the Scorpion Anchorage if you want to do a day trip.
You can also be dropped off at one area and picked up at the other, which is what we did. This requires you to book over the phone vs. online, just FYI!
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 visit Santa Cruz Island
Channel Islands National Park has mild temperatures and is a great place to visit any month of the year, but each season brings a different experience.
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! The island was covered in gorgeous yellow flowers, which popped against the blue ocean!
If getting out on the water is your goal, the summer and fall are the best times to snorkel, kayak, or dive, as the water is warmer and the visibility is deeper. However during this time of the year, the island is a bit more dry and tan looking, which in our opinion, isn’t quite as beautiful as during the winter and spring.
Regardless of which month you visit, you’ll have plenty of wildlife opportunities, with different whales migrating in the area, tons of birds, seals and sea lions, and the always present island foxes.
What to Bring to Santa Cruz Island
As always, we recommend having the 10 essentials on you when doing any hike, but here are a few key items we want to point out that will especially help you during this hike!
There are no services or places to get food on the boat or on the island, so you will need to bring everything you’ll need for your trip with you. And please pack out what you pack in!
There is only one water source on the island and that is in the Scorpion Campground. For those who plan to do longer hikes or hike from Prisoners Harbor (where there is no water), make sure to pack plenty of water!
Santa Cruz Island is very exposed, with very limited trees outside of the Scorpion Campground. A hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses will come in handy!
We did not have much cell service on the island, so be sure to download maps for any hikes you are thinking about doing. Some trails do connect with others, so it can get a bit confusing!
Want to get 30% off an AllTrails+ membership? Click this link or use our code aplusk30 (you must redeem this code on the website, not the app)!
We use AllTrails+ on every single hike and it is the most helpful hiking tool out there! Some of the features we love are offline maps (so we can navigate even without cell service), wrong-turn alerts, and its 3D maps feature, so we can get a feel for trails before we hike.
If you plan to stay on the island overnight (which we highly recommend), make sure you bring all camping supplies you will need, as there will be no way to get anything you left behind. If you need help with packing or want our product recommendations, check out our backpacking gear and packing list!
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!
Things to know before visiting Santa Cruz Island
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.
Reserve the boat and campground in advance
Make sure to reserve your spot on the boat in advance! The boat schedule is limited and they do fill up. You also must reserve your campground in advance, but it is suggested to book your boat ride first, then campground, as the boat can fill up and you won’t be able to camp without a spot on the boat!
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!
PLEASE always secure your food in one of the boxes at 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.
There are no services on the island
You will need to bring all the food (and possibly water) that you will need for your entire stay because there are no services on the island besides potable water at the Scorpion Campground.
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.
You can store your bags (if needed)
If you camp on the island and need somewhere to store your bags before checking into your site (or after checking out) or plan to bring a bunch of items and do not want to carry it all when doing day hikes, 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.
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.
Things to do on Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park
Whether you visit Santa Cruz Island for just a day or multiple days, there are plenty of activities to enjoy! Below are the top things to do on Santa Cruz Island, based on our experience. Looking for an itinerary that combines these activities together? We’re sharing itineraries for 1-3 days at the end of this guide!
Go for a day hike
There are a variety of trails to choose from that range from short hikes that are less than a mile to 18 mile adventures. Below are some of the more popular routes to enjoy on the island!
Note: These distances are all starting from near the Scorpion Anchorage and may be different for you, depending on where you start and if you combine trails.
Cavern Point Loop
Miles (roundtrip): 1.7
Elevation (feet): 291
Reviews & Current Condition
No matter how much time you have on the island this is a must see! You walk along the coastal bluff with gorgeous views of the ocean and maybe some whale sightings! Do this loop clockwise, starting from the campground (site #22), to avoid a steep climb back.
We also highly recommend continuing on the North Bluff Trail to Potato Harbor!
Miles (roundtrip): 5
Elevation (feet): 620
Reviews & Current Conditions
Potato Harbor was one of our top sights on the island! We loved it so much we went back a second time for sunrise on our final day on the island. Once you reach Potato Harbor you have amazing views of the harbor down below. The sounds of the water crashing on the beach and the sea lions barking in the distance was something else!
Scorpion Canyon Loop Trail
Miles (roundtrip): 4.5
Elevation (feet): 784
Reviews & Current Conditions
This scenic loop will take you into the interior of the island. On this trail you’ll have a good chance of seeing the island scrub-jay, which is found nowhere else on earth. Once you get to Scorpion Canyon hike off trail to the northwest to see the endemic bird. If you want to avoid a steep climb back, do this trail clockwise starting with the Smugglers Road.
Miles (roundtrip): 7.7
Elevation (feet): 1,414
Reviews & Current Conditions
This trail is one of the less popular trails on the island, partially due to the fact that it’s a bit longer for daytrippers, but don’t let that steer you away. You’ll follow the Smugglers Road (it’s more scenic than it sounds) over a ridge and then down to the beach at Smugglers Cove. This would be perfect on a warmer day when you can get in the ocean to cool off before you head back. Be sure to take plenty of water because there is no water along the trail or at the cove!
Montañon Ridge Loop
Miles (roundtrip): 8.9
Elevation (feet): 1,699
Reviews & Current Conditions
If you’ve got the time and are looking for a strenuous hike, then we can highly recommend the Montañon Ridge Loop! We did this hike as part of our backpacking trip and it was tough, but extremely rewarding! At 1,808 feet, it’s not the highest point on the island, but it is the highest point on the eastern side, which makes it the highest accessible point for the public!
From the ridge you have sweeping views of Santa Cruz Island, the ocean, other islands in the distance, and the mainland! As we admired the views, we kind of felt like we were back in Hawaii, with tons of mountains, hills, and coves to admire, as well as the vast ocean. It was stunning!
The trail does get pretty steep and rocky in some parts, so we only would recommend it to experienced hikers, but it is totally worth it for the payoff in views you get from the top and lack of crowds. While we were hiking we felt like we were the only ones on the whole island and we didn’t see another hiker until we got closer to Potato Harbor.
Camp or go backpacking
A day trip on Santa Cruz Island will give you enough time to go for some short hikes and possibly kayak, but to get a full experience, stay the night by camping or backpacking!
There is one established campground (Scorpion Canyon Campground) and one backcountry campground (Del Norte Campground) on Santa Cruz Island, which are open year round and cost $15/night. You must make reservations in advance on the recreation.gov website.
Scorpion Canyon Campground
The Scorpion Canyon Campground is just a flat half mile walk from the boat dock, so while you do have to carry your supplies to camp, it’s not a far walk. The campground has 31 sites and all come with a picnic table and fox box, with pit toilets and water spigots nearby.
The sites are tucked in a tree-filled area, with some having more privacy than others (our neighbor was pretty close to us and we didn’t have many trees to separate us). The campground wasn’t full when we visited in early March, so it was pretty quiet!
Del Norte Campground
Nestled in a shaded oak grove with fantastic views of the coastline, the Del Norte Campground requires a 3.5 mile (one way) strenuous hike from the Prisoners Harbor boat dock. It is a very small campground, with only 4 sites and each comes with a picnic table and fox box. There is also 1 pit toilet here that has recently been rebuilt or refurbished and it is probably the nicest pit toilet we have ever seen!
We had site #4 during our stay here and it was mostly tucked into some trees, giving it a bit more privacy than the other sites, but with less of a view. We did really enjoy this site, but site #1 would be our top pick for the future, which has the best view of the ocean!
Camping vs. backpacking
During our visit, we stayed at both campgrounds and backpacked across the island from the Del Norte Campground to the Scorpion Canyon Campground (you can see our route here!). This is about 15 miles (from the Prisoners Harbor boat dock) and had a good amount of elevation gain, which was tough with packs on. While difficult, we LOVED doing this, as we had one solid day of complete solitude, plus got to experience so much of the island. However, it isn’t for everyone!
If you mostly want to relax, do day hikes, and get out on the water, we’d suggest staying at the Scorpion Canyon Campground the entire time. You can use this as a basecamp and then hike to the various viewpoints in the area.
But if you’d like to experience as much of the island as possible, we’d recommend getting dropped off at Prisoners Harbor, camping at the Del Norte Campground the first night, then hiking to the Scorpion Canyon campground for the second night. Space is limited at the Del Norte backcountry campground, so this option is dependent on if you’re able to reserve a site there. You can also do this the opposite direction, starting at Scorpion Canyon, but we really liked doing it the way we did it.
We wouldn’t necessarily suggest staying at the Del Norte Campground without backpacking, as the hike up to it is pretty steep and you’d miss out on the Scorpion Canyon area, which we really loved.
Watch our backpacking adventure on Santa Cruz Island and to learn more, read our detailed guide to backpacking across Santa Cruz Island for more information on campsites, trails, and things to know!
Santa Cruz Island is home to some really neat sea caves, which are best explored by kayak! If you’d like to get out on the water in a kayak and explore the caves and other island scenery, book a tour with Santa Barbara Adventure Company. They are the only authorized kayak guide and outfitter for the island and offer a variety of different sea cave tour options, depending on the time of the year.
You will still need to book a ride with Island Packers Cruises to kayak, as you will meet your kayaking guide once on the island. Another thing to note is that there are no kayak rentals on the island, there are only guided tours. But you can bring your own kayak onto an Island Packers Cruise, for an additional fee.
To be able to see all that Santa Cruz Island offers you’ll want to get underwater! The national park manages and protects not only the 5 islands, but also the ocean habitats that surround them. Here you’ll find some of the most diverse and unique dive sites in the world like kelp forests teeming with over 800 species of marine wildlife and rocks covered in sea anemones, starfish, and hydrocoral! It’s not uncommon to see sea lions, harbor seals, and all kinds of massive fish!
There are a couple different ways you can experience this underwater wonderland, including snorkeling and scuba diving!
If you’d like to snorkel, Santa Barbara Adventure Company will be your go to guide! They offer snorkeling tours three days of the week during the summer months (check their schedule here!) However, if you’d like to snorkel without a guide, that is an option too!
You can either bring your own gear or rent gear from Santa Barbara Adventure Company near the Scorpion Anchorage. If this is something you want to do be sure to give then a call to make sure they’ll have what you need when you get there.
Santa Cruz Island is located at a transition zone between warm south currents and cool north currents, which creates dive sites with tons of marine life. You can go scuba diving with a handful of diving companies in Ventura. While these will not take you onto Santa Cruz Island itself, they will take you right by it and give you an experience that most visitors do not have. A couple tour operators to check out are Spectre Boat and Raptor Dive Charters.
Hang out on the beach
Compared to some of the other Channel Islands, the beach on Santa Cruz Island (at least the beach by the Scorpion Anchorage) isn’t really a soft, sandy beach (it has a lot of small rocks), but it still makes for a nice activity! We enjoyed having a picnic lunch and hopping into the chilly water on our last day on the island, while admiring seals in the water.
Explore the Historic Scorpion Ranch
Make sure to take some time when you’re on the island to check out the Historic Scorpion Ranch and learn about the more recent human history on the island.
This area was used as a sheep ranch and used for other agricultural endeavors for over 100 years. The operation ended in 1997 when the park service acquired the last interest from the owning family. Today, the park service works to preserve and maintain this part of the island’s history for generations to come.
If you get off the boat at Scorpion Anchorage, you’ll have no choice but to walk by the ranch complex. Here you’ll find a restored compound from the late 1800s that includes a blacksmith shop, farm implements, and a visitor center in the really well restored ranch house. We always love seeing old buildings like this and it was a neat addition to our time in the park!
How to spend 1-3 Days on Santa Cruz Island
With daily cruises to and from the island, a variety of hiking and activity options, and multiple camping experiences, it is the perfect island to choose for your first visit!
The island has two different harbors that you can start your adventure from, Scorpion Cove, which is the most popular and offers the most things to do, or Prisoners Harbor, which is good for those who want to get off the beaten path or backpack.
During our visit to the Channel Islands, we spent three days on Santa Cruz Island, visiting both areas of the island, and had the best time! We were both pretty sad as we pulled away from the dock to head back to the mainland.
Whether you have three days or just visit for a day, here are some ideas of how you could spend your time on Santa Cruz Island!
1 Day on Santa Cruz Island
Take the Island Packers boat from Ventura to Scorpion Cove, which will likely have you arrive by 10 or 10:30 AM. Once on the island, you’ll have about 5 hours until heading back to the mainland and we suggest spending your day doing the following:
- Go on a kayaking tour with Santa Barbara Adventure Company. If you want to hike as well, make sure to choose their Discovery Sea Kayaking Tour, which is only 2.5 hours, leaving some time to explore the island.
- Go for a hike! For day trippers, we recommend the Cavern Point Loop, Potato Harbor, and if you’re feeling ambitious, Smugglers Cove.
Looking for a place to stay in Ventura before or after your day trip to Santa Cruz Island? A few lodging options to check out are: Caravan Outpost (a refurbished Airstream in a cool little campground!), Crystal Lodge Motel, Best Western Oxnard Inn, Courtyard by Marriott Oxnard Ventura, and the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Ventura Harbor.
2 Days on Santa Cruz Island
Take the Island Packers boat from Ventura to Scorpion Cove and drop off your camping gear at one of the lockers near the boat dock, as it will likely be too early to check into your campsite.
Spend the afternoon going for one of the hikes we listed above before heading back to the campsite and relaxing for the rest of the night.
For your second day on the island, you’ll only have until the mid to late afternoon to explore. You could either go for more hikes or go for a kayaking tour!
3 Days on Santa Cruz Island (What we did!)
There are a couple options for three days! Below is our itinerary, but you could also follow the two day itinerary and just spend an additional night at Scorpion Canyon and do more hikes in the area or kayak!
Take the Island Packers boat from Ventura to Prisoners Harbor. Once on the island, enjoy a picnic lunch at one of the picnic tables near the beach.
Hike 3.5 miles to the Del Norte Campground. Spend the rest of the day at the campsite, which has nice ocean views.
Get up early to hike across the island to the Scorpion Canyon campground, which is over 10 miles and takes the majority of the day. Set up your camp at your new campsite and enjoy a relaxing night after a long and tough day.
For your final day, you could kayak or complete one or two of the hikes we listed earlier in this guide! We personally were too tired to do too much hiking, but did hike to Potato Harbor and Cavern Point, before spending some time on the beach.
Ready to visit Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park?
Pin this Santa Cruz Island guide to help plan your trip!