Channel Islands National Park: Day Trip to Santa Cruz Island

Updated: Mar 27

Visiting Channel Islands National Park should be on everybody's bucket list! There are many different National Parks in the state of California, most of which are much easier to access. However, this shouldn't stop you from visiting Channel Islands National Park. The islands is right off the coast of south California, and is made up of five different islands- San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara Channel. Channel Islands is so beautiful and full of different wildlife and plants.

Channel Islands National Park may seem very remote, but it is actually not that hard to get to. The islands are only about 30 miles off of the coast of California. Not many people know about Channel Islands, but it still gets a good amount of visitors every year. When I tell about Channel Islands National Park, I was surprised that a lot of people living in the US didn't even know about the place. I am so glad that I made the decision to go out and visit Channel Islands National Park.

Channel Islands National Park (Santa Cruz Island)


The main visitor center is in Ventura, which is easily accessible by car. But to get to the islands you must take a boat or a plane. Transportation to the park is available all year. I drove to Ventura in my van and they have plenty of free parking available at the visitor center. The main boats by the park is called (Island Packers), I went when them and they were great and very helpful. The Island Packers building is right beside the parks visitor center in Ventura. I didn't know that you needed to book before hand for a ride to the islands, especially since they only offer rides to certain islands on certain days and times. So make sure to call or visit ahead of time to plan your trip. The prices vary for the boat as well, it depends on how long you are going for and how much you are bringing with you.

I visited to place in mid December, and unfortunately in winter the options were limited to Channel Islands National Park. In winter Island Packers only makes trips to Santa Cruz and Anacapa Islands, and only on certain days. Since I was looking to do a lot of hiking, they recommended that I visit Santa Cruz, which is the largest of all the islands. Most people visit the park in the summer time, but I prefer winter because it was less busy and the temperature wasn't too cold or hot. In the summertime you can even arrange to go kayaking. Be sure you know what time the boat is leaving the island, as they won't wait if you not back to the dock on time.

The boat that I booked in December, 2019 was scheduled to leave at 9:00 AM to Santa Cruz Island. You need to arrive to Island Packers early for check in. The Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center and right beside Island Packers, and there you can talk to park rangers and learn more about the park. The visitor center is really nice and has a little gift shop and movie theater.

The boat is quite big, and really clean. All the staffs on board were all super nice and friendly. Leaving Ventura harbor you get a beautiful view of Ventura, Ventura to Santa Cruz Island is about 1 hour each way. The boat is a speed boat and the waves can get very intense at times and you may get sea sick like I did. The staffs were very helpful and offered ginger chews, water, and a paper bag. You can often spot whales and dolphins on the way to the islands. On the way we got to see an offshore drilling facility.

Spotted some sea lions on the boat!

There are two harbors on the island, there is Prisoners harbor and scorpion ranch. Scorpion ranch is much more popular as there is more to do there. However, the time I went Scorpion ranch was under construction so it was closed off. So, instead I went to Prisoners harbor.

Map of Santa Cruz Island, Courtesy of the National Park Service

When you get to the island, you exit the boat from a metal ladder. And then crossing a big wooden bridge. After getting off the boat you are pretty much on your own as the boat and crew leaves and comes back in a few hours for pick up. There are bathrooms (pit-toilets) on the island at the harbor and at campgrounds. From Prisoners harbor there are two trails that you can follow. You can follow Navy Road to hike towards Del Norte Camp and the Del Norte trail on your own, or hike towards Pelican Bay. If you plan to hike to Pelican Bay than you have to make sure you go with a park ranger or a crew member. Pelican Bay is part of the Nature Conservancy Property and not the National Parks Property, which is why you cannot enter alone.

The island is known for the island foxes, which is an unique animal to Channel Islands. You can spot a lot of these little foxes throughout the island. They usually like to hang out near the campgrounds.

For my time on Santa Cruz I decided to hike the Del Norte trail towards to campground. The trail is well marked and easy to follow. You start by following the road with a steady climb, you get amazing views of the landscape and eventually seeing the ocean as you get up higher. The place was very green and had a lot of trees and flowers.

The Del Norte campground is not that big, but it is in a nice area. There are picnic tables and platforms for tents. A nice place to sit down and enjoy lunch, and take in the views. After stopping at the campground for a bit, I made my way down by turning right and heading back towards where Navy Road connects to the trail. From Navy Road you could see the ocean on the other side of the island.


Channel Islands National Park is beautiful, besides some pit-toilets and campgrounds, there isn't really any other service available on the islands. You need to plan to bring everything that you think you may need. I suggest bringing water, food, extra clothing, and GPS (for hiking). There is not ranger station or running water available at Prisoners Harbor. If you plan to stay overnight, you will need all your own camping supplies, and make sure to take everything you bring in out with you as well. The Island Packers crew will help you load and unload everything from the boat. If you have an emergency you will likely have to be airlifted out by helicopter. Other than all of that you are pretty much on your own to take care of yourself.

Hiking is the main activity to do on the islands, but you can also enjoy bird watching, kayaking, snorkeling, and camping.


My final thoughts of Channel Islands National Park is that I am very happy that I decided to visit. It is only a short boat ride away from the coast of California. I'm sure you will love it as much as I did. Make sure to add Channel Islands on your bucket list for your next adventure!


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