Day Trip to Channel Islands National Park: Santa Cruz Island
A day trip to Channel Islands National Park, Santa Cruz Island, is a perfect way to spend a vacation day. Channel Islands National Park is located off the coast of California and is made up of five islands: Anacapa Island, Santa Cruz Island, Santa Rosa Island, San Miguel Island, and Santa Barbra Island. The islands were formed by plate tectonics, underwater volcanoes, and changing sea levels. Santa Cruz Island is the largest island in Channel Islands National Park with 61,972 acres, measuring 22 miles long and 2-6 miles wide.
We chose to visit Santa Cruz Island because at only about an hour away from the mainland it offers a lot of things to do and see and is possible to visit on a day trip. Anacapa Island is closer than Santa Cruz Island, however it is very small and offers less options for hiking. The other three islands are a 3-4 hour boat ride away, which makes it difficult to visit on a day trip unless you are willing to spend a lot of money on a flight with Channel Islands Aviation. Follow this guide for how to do a day trip to Channel Islands National Park, Santa Cruz Island.
When to Visit Channel Islands National Park
Channel Islands National Park is open year round. We visited in September and had hot weather in the 80s. Many of the plants had dried up during the summer so the island wasn’t very green in September. Spring is the best time to do a day trip to Channel Islands National Park if you want to see more foliage while still enjoying nice weather.
Do you want to visit more national parks in California? Check out our guide to a weekend in Death Valley National Park
How to Get to Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park
To get to the Channel Islands, you can take an Island Packers boat, book a flight with Channel Islands Aviation, or use a private boat. Flights are extremely expensive, and most of us don’t have a private boat, so the best option is to book a trip with Island Packers. Island Packers operates trips to Santa Cruz Island 5-7 days a week, year round. It costs about $60 per person roundtrip to Santa Cruz Island. There are two locations that Island Packers goes to on Santa Cruz Island: Prisoners Harbor and Scorpion Anchorage. Scorpion Anchorage is a better option for a day trip because it is closer and has more short hiking trails that you can do in one day as well as kayak and snorkeling tours.
The Island Packers boats leave from Ventura Harbor in California and take about 1 hour to get to Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz. You should book your trip ahead of time on the Island Packers website because boats do fill up. There are Island Packers boats leaving Ventura at in the morning (around 8-9 am) and returning in the afternoon (around 4- 4:30 pm). If you do your day trip to the Channel Islands with Island Packers, you will have about 6-7 hours to spend on Santa Cruz Island.
Island Packers recommends getting to the harbor 45 minutes before the departure time. We got there about 30 minutes before and still had plenty of time to check in and wait before boarding the boat. If you want to make sure you get the best seats you could arrive earlier to get in line sooner.
The boat is fairly large, and has indoor seating, outdoor seating in the back, and second floor seating with both covered and uncovered parts. There are two bathrooms on the boat which aren’t bad, but I wouldn’t recommend going when the boat is moving since it can get bumpy. The boat also has a counter with snacks and drinks you can buy. If you are prone to sea sickness or aren’t sure, I highly recommend taking sea sickness medication like Dramamine at least 30 minutes before the boat ride.
The boat ride is part of the experience of the day trip to the Channel Islands, as you can see many different birds and animals on the way. We were lucky to spot a big group of Dolphins and spent time watching them swim around the boat.
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Where to Stay Near Ventura Harbor
The Island Packers boat to Santa Cruz Island leaves early from Ventura Harbor, so I recommend booking accommodation nearby for the night before. Booking.com is a great site to search accommodation near Ventura Harbor. You can find accommodations in Ventura or nearby cities such as Camarillo, Thousand Oaks, and Malibu.
Things to Know for Your Day Trip to Santa Cruz Island
- There is no entrance fee to Channel Islands National Park but you will have to pay for the round-trip boat ticket with Island Packers.
- There is no food on any of the Channel Islands, so make sure to bring food with you and a bag to carry your trash out.
- There is potable water on Santa Cruz Island in the Scorpion campground where you can refill your water bottle. Be careful because the water spigots tend to have a lot of yellow jackets around them.
- It can get cold on the boat on the way to and from Santa Cruz Island so be prepared with additional layers.
- Make sure to decide on your Channel Islands itinerary for the day before you leave as there will be no service on the island to do any research. If you want to book a kayak or snorkeling tour you will have to do that ahead of time.
What to Pack for a Day Trip to Santa Cruz Island
- Dry Bag: Make sure to bring a dry bag if you plan on going kayaking. I always use this 10L dry bag for all my kayaking adventures.
- Snorkel Gear: If you prefer to use your own snorkel and mask, this snorkel set is a perfect option for snorkeling in the Channel Islands.
- Water Bottle: Don’t forget to bring a reusable water bottle with you which you re-fill at Scorpion campground. This Stanley Water Bottle is really light to carry and stays cold for 12 hours.
- Bathing Suit: If you would like to swim or snorkel, make sure you bring your bathing suit.
- Beach Towel: This quick dry beach towel is light and compact so it is a great option to bring on your day trip to the Channel Islands.
- Dramamine or Sea Sickness Medicine: If you normally get sea sick or you aren’t sure, I recommend taking Dramamine or another sea sickness medication ahead of the boat ride.
- Sunscreen: A must when visiting the Channel Islands as the sun can be strong especially on a clear day.
- Sunglasses: When we visited Santa Cruz Island it was so bright it was hard to see without sunglasses. Don’t forget to bring a pair with you!
- Binoculars: Bring binoculars with you so you can spot animals on the boat ride to Santa Cruz such as dolphins and whales.
- Underwater Camera: If you are planning on snorkeling, capture your underwater adventure with a waterproof camera.
- Snacks: There is no food on Santa Cruz Island, so make sure you bring food with you for the day. You can also purchase snacks on the boat ride to the island.
- Extra Layers: The boat can get cold during the ride especially on a windy day so make sure to bring extra layers.
Best Things to Do on Santa Cruz Island
There are a lot of things to do on Santa Cruz Island including hiking, swimming, snorkeling or kayaking. A unique experience you can book on Channel Islands is this Adventure Sea Cave Kayak Tour (2.5-3 hours). After kayaking you should hike the recommended path below along the coast to Cavern Point and Potato Harbor.
We spent the day doing a long hike but we wish we would have spent the money and done the kayak tour. Hiking Santa Cruz Island was incredible, but we felt like the first loop was enough for us to get a good taste of the island by land. It definitely seems worth it to spend time exploring the nearby sea caves. If you don’t want to spend the money on the kayak tour (yes, its pricey), you could spend your day at Channel Islands National Park doing one or both of the hikes below, and then snorkeling on your own with your extra time.
For another island adventure check out the 20 best things to do on Oahu
Hike on Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz Island has a few beautiful hiking trails. One of the best things to do in Santa Cruz Island is to hike to Potato Harbor Overlook where you can see a beautiful view of the clear blue water below. If you arrive to Scorpion Anchorage I recommend hiking at least the blue loop above. If you have more time you can combine multiple hikes and do both the blue and green loops. Both of the outlined hikes combined will total about 7 miles so it will take up most of your day on Santa Cruz Island.
Cavern Point and Potato Harbor Loop
Hike Cavern Point Loop counterclockwise and then continue on North Bluff Trail to Potato Harbor overlook. If you start Cavern Point Loop counterclockwise, the trail starts about a 5 minute walk up from the pier, past the bathrooms. You will see the museum ahead of you and a small sign on the right that says Cavern Pt Loop Trail. Follow this path up and you will see incredible views of Scorpion Anchorage, the nearby Anacapa Island, and the large cliffs. As you continue hiking the trail there will be more breathtaking views of the large cliffs and you will also be able to spot sea caves.
The point where you turn around is Potato Harbor Overlook (pictured in the last photo above), where you will see this amazing view of the clear blue water and can also see sea lions. A day trip to Channel Islands National Park is not complete without visiting Potato Harbor Overlook. To get back, head town the trail on the right (Potato Harbor Road). Once you get to the campground if you have more time you should continue to Scorpion Canyon. On the way down the trail, near the campground, we saw a few island foxes. This species of island fox evolved from the mainland gray fox.
Scorpion Canyon Loop Trail
The second loop, Scorpion Canyon Loop Trail, is marked in green in the map above. This hike is a significantly steeper climb and is only recommended if you are planning to spend the entire day in Santa Cruz Island hiking. You will continue this part of the hike at the campground, where you should first fill up your water at the spigot (watch out for yellow jackets!). There are bathrooms located at this campground if needed. On the southwest corner of the campground you will see the Scorpion Canyon Loop trail. There is barely any shade on this trail so make sure you have plenty of water and sunscreen. Scorpion Canyon Loop Trail is a nice hike through and up the canyon with different views of the island, the nearby Anacapa Island, and the ocean. This hike would be the best in the spring when Santa Cruz Island has more foliage since it is mostly internal through the canyon.
Spend more time in Southern California with a Weekend Getaway to Temecula Wine Region
Kayak Around Santa Cruz Island and Explore Sea Caves
One of the best things to do while visiting Santa Cruz Island is to kayak and explore the sea caves. You will find many unique sea caves near Scorpion Anchorage, making Santa Cruz Island a unique place to kayak. Channel Islands Adventure Company offers kayak tours that range from 2.5-5 hours long where you can explore the sea caves. In the longer tour you will get to kayak to Potato Harbor. The other option is you could bring your own kayak or rent a kayak from Channel Islands Kayak Center for the day and pay a fee to Island Packers to transport it for you. You would need to contact Island Packers ahead of time to make sure they have space to transport the kayak. Bringing a kayak with you to Santa Cruz Island would be the cheaper option but would take more effort to coordinate.
Snorkel at Scorpion Anchorage, Santa Cruz Island
Snorkeling is another fun activity you can do on your Santa Cruz Island day trip. You can snorkel at Santa Cruz Island in Scorpion Anchorage on your own or with a guided tour. I recommend purchasing your own snorkel gear ahead of the trip and bringing it with you so you can snorkel off the rock beach at Scorpion Anchorage. If you don’t have your own gear, you can rent snorkel gear from Channel Islands Adventure Company when you arrive at Santa Cruz or ahead of time on their website. They have a small store located about a 10 minute walk from the pier, past the restrooms and museum.
From June to September Channel Islands Adventure Company also offers guided snorkeling tours on Saturdays and Sundays. The snorkel tour is significantly more expensive than buying or renting snorkel gear, so opt for snorkeling on your own if you are looking to save money. You can reserve snorkel gear or a snorkel tour and see the most updated prices on the Channel Islands Adventure Company website.
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Learn About Channel Islands National Park in the Museum
On your Channel Islands day trip don’t miss the museum where you can learn more about the Channel Islands. The museum walks you through how the Channel Islands were formed, the history of ranching in Santa Cruz, the different animals that adapted to the island, and the conservation efforts of the park today. Santa Cruz Island used to be one big ranch which provided food, hay, grain, pasture, sheep, cattle, wine and more.
Boat Ride Back to Ventura: Look for Animals!
End your day trip to Santa Cruz Island with a nice boat ride back to Ventura. Look for animals on your way back such as dolphins, whales, and birds. The captain will point out animals that they spot and slow down the boat so everyone can see.
Disclosure: Please note that some of the links above are affiliate links for products and services I recommend. At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you make a purchase. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
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