Home to one of the largest concentrations of blue whales on the planet, one of the world’s smallest foxes, and the only major breeding population of California brown pelicans, California’s Channel Islands National Park is considered the Galapagos of North America. In June, I went out to Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the volcanic archipelago, to experience the best that the island has to offer. Whether you want to explore topside or below the surface, here are the top 5 things to do on Santa Cruz Island.
Top 5 Things to Do on Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz Island’s coastline is littered with dozens of sea caves just waiting to be explored. On a calm day, you can wriggle your way into the deepest caverns that are so dark a headlamp is necessary to navigate the small passageways. Entering the caves does require some finesse and local knowledge, so it’s worth considering a three-hour guided kayak tour with Channel Islands Outfitters. Even if conditions force you to skip the caves, you will be mesmerized by the 600-foot vertical cliffs as you slowly glide over the giant kelp beds that hug the coastline. Encounters with California sea lions and harbor seals are also a common occurence, so have that camera ready.
2) Snorkeling or Diving
In order to experience all that the Channel Islands have to offer, you need to take a peek below the surface. California sea lions, and the garibaldi, which resembles a giant goldfish, playfully lurk in the kelp forests, and sightings are almost guaranteed. Excellent snorkeling exists directly off the beach at Scorpion Anchorage where the ferry lands on Santa Cruz Island. If you want to go deep, check out Santa Barbara Divers in the Ventura Harbor. They have regularly scheduled trips out to the islands and rent all the equipment you need, including that heavy-duty wetsuit that you’ll want for those frigid water temps.
Photo Source: Chris Nelson
Santa Cruz Island has over 15 trails ranging from an easy half-mile stroll to a strenuous 18-mile trek. And those who are willing to hoof it to the top of the ridge will be rewarded with expansive views that on a clear day extend all the way to Santa Barbara. Bring some binoculars for a chance of seeing whales and keep an eye out for eagles and the ridiculously cute four-pound Channel Island fox. For a full list of trails and a hiking map, see this page on the Channel Islands National Park website.
4) Whale Watching
With over 30 species of whales, dolphins, seals, and sea lions, whale watching near the Channel Islands is about as thrilling as whale watching gets. Blue whales, the largest mammal on the planet, visit the area from May to November, along with finback, humpback, and killer whales. Then from December through April, over a thousand California Gray Whales swim through on their annual migration. The Condor Express, based in Santa Barbara, offers year-round excursions and is going to be your best bet for encountering these giants. And no matter your luck with the whales and the time of year, on almost every cruise chances are you’ll find yourself in the midst of hundreds of dolphins who love to flirt with the boat’s wake.
For the complete Channel Islands outdoor experience, pitch a tent at the Scorpion Ranch campground. This family-friendly campground has the most developed facilities and is the most accessible for a quick weekend trip. Tent spots are located about a half a mile from the pier and sit in a shaded grove of oak trees. You can also backpack Santa Cruz Island, and the further you go from Scorpion Ranch, the more likely you are to have the starry skies to yourself. Reservations are required and can be made here online up to five months in advance. Sites cost $15 per night. For other tent camping options along the California coast, see this post.
Island Packers offers regularly scheduled boat trips out to Santa Cruz and the other islands in Channel Islands National Park from the Ventura Harbor. Reservations are required, and Island Packers will also transport kayaks for an extra fee. The ride takes just over an hour to Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island. Be aware that the the boat ride can be cold and rough, so dress appropriately with layers, and if you get sea sick, consider taking preventive measures prior to the ride.