Top Five Things to do on California’s Santa Cruz Island

Top 5 Things to Do on Santa Cruz Island

***Updated for Summer 2018***

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. Channel Islands National Park is composed of five individual islands and their surrounding ocean habitats. Each of the islands offers different options for hiking, ocean exploration and more. 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.

1) Kayaking

Santa Cruz Island’s coastline is littered with dozens of sea caves just waiting to be explored. From Elephant’s Belly to Marge Simpson to Green Room to Limbo they all have unique names based on their features. Some of the caves you enter from one side and come out another, navigating the small passageways. Entering the caves does require some finesse and local knowledge, so it’s worth considering a kayak tour. For summer 2017 the National Park Service as selected one authorized kayak guiding and outfitting concession for the Scorpion Anchorage area on Santa Cruz Island. The Santa Barbara Adventure Company runs and operates the Channel Islands Adventure Company which offers tours that range from 1.5 hours of paddling to 5 hours of paddling. 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. Kayak tours are offered yearround with the best conditions for the caves generally from June to October. Encounters with California sea lions and harbor seals are also a common occurrence, so have that camera ready.Kayaking the sea caves at Santa Cruz Island

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. You can rent snorkeling on the island from the Santa Barbara/Channel Islands Adventure Company at their “Snorkeling Hut”. If you keep walking past the bathrooms and the visitor center towards the campground you’ll find their hut on the right. It is $25 for a snorkeling bundle that includes mask, fins, and snorkel. 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.

Diving the Kelp Beds at the Channel IslandsPhoto Source: Chris Nelson

3) Hiking

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. Depending on how long you have on the island the 5-mile Potato Harbor hike offers incredible coastal views almost the entire way including of pristine Potato Harbor. 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. If you don’t have a lot of time the Cavern Point Loop is only 2 miles and drops you right near the ferry area to catch your boat home. Scorpion Canyon is also a great place to head for exploration, especially if you are looking for a bit of shade. Exploring Scorpion Canyon gives you your best opportunity to see the unique island scrub-jay. For a full list of trails and a hiking map, see this page on the Channel Islands National Park website.   Hiking on Santa Cruz Island   Hiking on Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park

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.

Whale Watching at Channel Islands National Park

5) Camping

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.

Camping at Scorpion Ranch Campground on Santa Cruz Island

Getting There

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 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.


Bearfoot Theory

*This post was originally published on The Matador Network, and I would like to send huge thanks to Visit Santa Barbara and Visit California for sponsoring my trip.*

Written by Kristen Bor

Hey there! My name is Kristen, and this is my outdoor blog. I discovered the power of the outdoors in my 20s, at the time I needed it most. Now 15 years later, prioritizing that critical connection with nature continues to improve my life. My goal at Bearfoot Theory is to empower you with the tools and advice you need to responsibly get outside.

19 comments on “Top Five Things to do on California’s Santa Cruz Island

  1. Hey Kristen:

    Cliched comment: With this post, you have again unfailingly got me swishing around the question how I can squeeze in another Stateside outdoors destination.

    I also think it important to share publicly that in my opinion you are balancing your informative narrative with the brand relationships that help make these trips a sustainable proposition. Keep it up. 🙂

  2. I feel like I have an idea to go somewhere then you post a blog on it. Makes planning even easier. As always, Great Posts!

  3. Hi Kristen!
    Thanks for the inspiration — going here in a couple of weeks!
    Quick question: Do you know if there was parking at Ventura Harbor? Or does it make sense to park elsewhere and Lyft to the ferry terminal?
    Thank you!

    1. Hi Hannah, thanks so much for reaching out. There is plenty of parking in Ventura at IslandPackers and the best part, it is free!

  4. For a day trip exploring the island and snorkeling at Scorpian Anchorage must you carry your gear? Or is there somewhere to set aside stuff while you hike around? I have a small beach tent that I’d like to bring but don’t want to hike with.

    1. Hi Stacy, great question–you can rent snorkeling gear from the island from the Channel Islands Adventure Company. You can set your personal items in a fox box while hiking but many people also just take a small tarp to put their gear under. Theft isn’t really a problem on the island since it is one way out and one way off!

    1. Hi there Patricia! Great questions! You can go snorkeling without a kayak tour. If you own your own snorkel gear you can take it out & snorkel or you can rent when from the island. What time of year do you plan to visit? From July-September you might be okay without a wetsuit but the rest of the year you’ll want a wetsuit. The same company that does snorkel rentals also rents 2-piece winter wetsuits on the island. If you have any questions reach out to them–their name is the Channel Islands Adventure Company.

  5. Hi, I already have reservations for 4 days on Santa Cruz Island in late August. Would a summer shorty wetsuit be OK, or should I bring my winter full suit?
    I also plan to do the kayak tour but not sure I am able to paddle for 5 hours. How strenuous would you say it is? I have only done lake kayaking but have done multi-day white water trips in AK and American River.
    Is the trail to Scorpion campground sandy/dirt, or gravel/paved? I am thinking my camping equipment cart wheels may have problems if it’s sandy. Lol.
    Your blog was great. I look forward to reading about other trips. Thanks so very much!

    1. The average water temps around the Channel Islands in September are around 66 degrees. As for paddling, it really depends on wind conditions. If you’re not feeling up for 5 hours of paddling, you can always choose a shorter tour.

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