Channel Islands National Park: Camping and Hiking on Santa Cruz Island

The Channel Islands National Park. One of the least visited National Parks in America…lucky for us!

Even though I spent 7 years living in Santa Barbara, I sadly never made it out to the Channel Islands. Ironically, now that we have moved down to San Diego, we made the trip to visit and camp on the islands.

In order to get to the Channel Islands, you have to take a boat across the approximately 26 mile wide channel. Island Packers have a monopoly are contracted with the National Park Service, and operate the ferries back and forth between the islands. The boats leave mostly out of Ventura Harbor, but they do have some that leave out of Oxnard.

If you’re camping on the island, the round trip fare is $78 per person. Also, you will need to reserve a campsite through Reserve America in addition to purchasing your boat ticket. So, as far as camping trips go, it is a bit on the expensive side due to the cost of the boat ride.

Tip: Be sure to check the availability of both the boat, and the campsites before booking anything, as there are more spaces on the boats than there are at the campsite!


The first and most popular island that the boat stops at is Santa Cruz Island, which is where we camped. The boat ride is between 1 – 1.5 hours long, pending sea conditions and wildlife sightings, as they alter course or stop when animals are spotted to take a closer look.


We camped on the Scorpion Anchorage side, as the Prisoner’s Harbor side does not have a fresh water source. It is possible to bring water to the island, and hike to Scorpion Anchorage from Prisoner’s Harbor (it’s approximately 12 miles), as the ferry does drop off on that side of the island as well.

The other islands are Santa Rosa, which has a fresh water source or Anacapa, Santa Barbara & San Miguel, which do not have a fresh water source. For the islands without fresh water, you have to bring fresh water with you on the boat for the duration of your trip. The other islands can take a bit longer to get to (Anacapa: 1-1.5 hours, Santa Rosa & Santa Barbara: 2-2.5, San Miguel: 4-5 hours). Unfortunately, at the time of writing this, San Miguel is currently closed. I have not had the chance to explore these islands yet, but I am certainly interested in doing so!

Much of our time camping on the island was spent hiking and kayaking (stay tuned: post still to come on our kayaking adventure). The great part about Santa Cruz is you can hike as long as you want to if that’s what you like, but you can also get some amazing vistas of the island, channel. surrounding islands, and ocean by taking short hikes from the campsite.

On the first day, we decided to do an approximately 4 mile loop up the hill to the east of the harbor along the cliffs to check out a view of the harbor and cliffs, and then south through the island and down a small canyon back to the campsite.

Since we kayaked on the second day, we just did a short hike to Potato Harbor in the evening to catch the sunset over the inlet (approximately 3 miles roundtrip). There is a shortcut that goes up the canyon from the upper campsite, and cuts off 1/3 of a mile, but I highly recommend going on the trail tot he right of the bathrooms in the main camp site.

The views on the trail along the cliff and then at the harbor were absolutely incredible.

We watched a gorgeous sunset above Potato Harbor, and then hiked back with plenty of daylight. In my opinion, this is a must-do while on the island.

On our final day, we hiked to Smuggler’s Cove from the campsite (approximately 7 miles roundtrip). This was a great way to see more of the island and the beautiful cove with electric blue water.

Camping on Santa Cruz was an amazing experience. There are so many different activities including snorkeling, diving, kayaking, swimming, hiking, bird/wildlife watching, surfing, fishing, checking out the visitor’s center – a museum displaying the history of the island, etc. I throughly enjoyed our trip, and highly recommend a visit to this incredible place.


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  2. Pingback: Channel Islands National Park: Kayaking Around Santa Cruz | Fit To Wander

  3. Pingback: Local San Diego Review: Torrey Pines State Reserve | Fit To Wander

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