A Visit to Santa Cruz Island of the Channel Islands National Park

As the largest of the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California, Santa Cruz is the perfect destination for those who want to combine kayaking and hiking for a day (or two) of adventure surrounded by pristine, natural beauty.

The waters surrounding Santa Cruz, and all of the Channel Islands, is a Marine Protected Sanctuary.

 

Setting off on a hike from Scorpion Anchorage.

 

From the North Bluff Trail, one can see Anacapa, the smallest Channel Island and five miles from Santa Cruz Island.

Hiking and Kayaking Adventures

Santa Cruz Island is rugged and mountainous, with a steep canyon cutting through the middle. Hiking enthusiasts will enjoy a good challenge here, as well as breathtaking views.

Most visitors to Santa Cruz Island come for the sea caves. Dotting the coastline, these caves are fun to explore by kayak, but unless you’re experienced, it’s best to join one of the popular kayak tours available through Santa Barbara Adventure Company. They offer 1-1/2 and 3-hour adventures with a knowledgable guide. If you prefer to kayak on your own, you are responsible for renting or bringing your own kayak from the mainland, but you must reserve a transport spot for your kayak in advance with Island Packers ferry since space is limited. For rentals, call Channel Island Kayak Center at (805) 984-5995.

Exploring the sea caves by kayak is one of the most popular activities on Santa Cruz Island.

A National Park Treasure

Five of the eight Channel Islands, including Santa Cruz, are part of the National Park Service (NPS), and the areas around the islands are a Marine Protected Sanctuary.

There’s plenty of marine wildlife to see on your visit to Santa Cruz, including these sea lions – spotted as our ferry departed Ventura.

Pelicans – which were on the brink of extinction in 1970 because of the now-banned pesticide DDT getting into the ocean – along with cormorants and other marine birds, rule the roost here. You can’t miss them soaring overhead in fighter-plane formation and swooping into the sea for a tasty meal.

On land, you’ll run into the cute and surprisingly docile Channel Island foxes scurrying about in search of food. On the water, you might catch harbor seals lounging on the rocks and see California’s official state fish, the poppy-orange garibaldi, weaving in and out of the nutrient-rich kelp forest.

At Yosemite National Park, there are places to secure food to keep away from the bears; on the Channel Islands, you’ll need to lock your food up so the foxes won’t get to it!

A Little History

While Santa Cruz Island today feels world’s away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, it was not always like that. The island’s vast grasslands, coastal scrub vegetation, oak woodlands, and rich coastline sustained villages of the native Chumash Indians for thousands of years. For much of the 19th century, mariners found shelter in its coves, and hunters and fishermen exploited the marine life. Immigrant ranchers grazed cattle and sheep on the island until 1987, when the privately owned property passed to the non-profit organization, The Nature Conservancy, which liquidated the cattle operation and ended the island’s ranching era.

Remnants of Santa Cruz Island’s history are on display at Scorpion Anchorage.

Getting There

It’s not quite as easy to get to the Channel Islands as many other National Parks. There’s no transportation on the islands, no hotels, no Airbnb, and no food to buy. If you’re camping, you have to take everything in with you and then bring everything back out. Fires are not allowed on any of the Channel Islands.

Tent site on Santa Cruz Island near Scorpion Harbor.

Whether you’re going for a day trip or an overnight adventure, the islands are only accessible by park concessionaire boats (Island Packers, mentioned above) and planes (Channel Islands Aviation), or private boat. The ferry from Ventura Harbor to Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz takes a little over an hour. During the trip, you may spot whales breaching in the distance, depending on the time of year, or catch a pod of dolphins playing alongside the boat.

Arriving by ferry at Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island.

While this means advance planning is a must, it also means you won’t be overwhelmed by crowds, and it’s easy to find places where your only companion is total silence (and maybe a squadron of pelicans overhead!)

Lunch break hiking on Santa Cruz Island

Of course part of the allure of the Channel Islands is that it is relatively unvisited. Like the Galapagos in South America, it is a true sanctuary for the wildlife that live and flourish in this magical place.

 

To plan your trip, start at the National Park Service website for the Channel Islands. You can read about the five different islands that are part of the NPS, top sites and activities, and the logistics of your visit.

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