Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park boasts a series of five protected habitat islands surrounded by pristine waters. The Channel Islands are filled with quiet camping, seaside hiking, kayaking, snorkeling, and diving! The coves and inlets boast sea kelp forests and a lot of exotic marine life. With great weather year-round, it is always a good time to visit the islands! 

We stayed on Santa Cruz Island, in the Scorpion Ranch Campground so this article will focus specifically on that experience. 

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We chose Santa Cruz Scorpion Ranch because it is the most easily accessible. There is less than a half-mile walk from the port to the campground. There is also drinking water available at this campground.

To get to Santa Cruz, you first have to visit recreation.gov and book your campsite. You will want to know which campgrounds are available during your visit before booking your transportation. This site breaks down the visitation and campground availability really thoroughly. Then visit Island Packer’s website to book transportation for your location and time frame. You are allowed to stow 45 pounds worth of gear (this does NOT include water weight). You can also bring a carry-on, which brings your total weight allowance of up to 65 pounds. We also paid $15 to bring our paddle board. Surfboards and kayaks are also permitted, within specific guidelines. We were able to bring a lot of stuff! Island Packers is great at providing all the information you need for your trip and gear specifications. They send reminder emails before your trip and keep their voice message updated for your convenience. When you arrive, everyone is very friendly and makes sure you know what to do and have what you need!

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Scorpion Ranch is one of only two campgrounds in the island system that DOES HAVE potable water available. This is great because you do not have to haul water with you. You just have to pack water containers. Some people say the water tastes a little funny. I thought the water was just fine, though maybe a little on the room temperature side. 

The park service cautions campers against rodents, foxes, and crows. Each one of these forest creatures comes with its own warning. The deer mice have the possibility of carrying Hantavirus (find out more here). There have been no known cases of an island visitor ever catching Hantavirus. Food storage boxes are provided at every campsite so that food can be stored safely away from rodents. The challenge with the crows is that they LOVE to steal shiny things. They can unzip zippers and are super bold. We watched one crow knock a protective rock off of our paddle board bag, unzip it, and try to steal Kenon’s flipper case. Attach paper clips, safety pins, or twist ties to zippers to make sure everything stays safe. 

The island foxes can also unzip zippers. However, they are after your tasty food. There is also a second storage box at every campsite to store things the island foxes might want. Island foxes are very friendly and very smart. They know where the food is and they do not mind getting up close and personal. As one ranger told us, they are also very devious. He said that some foxes will even pretend to be hurt to get your sympathy food scraps. Look at this little guy who joined our camp. He slept for a good long while, but when he woke up, he jumped right up on the picnic table and started sniffing around our stuff. 

Channel Island Camping

There is a concessionaire on the island. This concessionaire has guided kayak, snorkeling, and dive trips. They provide all the necessary gear for these trips. They also rent kayaks, snorkeling, and dive gear for personal use. This is the only concessionaire allowed in the park to provide these services. At the concessionaire stand, there is also a small number of snacks and other items (such as sunscreen and hats) available for purchase. We did not book a tour with this group, but we stopped by to chat with them. The lady at the stand was very informative, kind, and helpful. 

The Channel Islands is one of the top scuba diving and snorkeling destinations in the world. This is due to the crystal-clear waters, fascinating sea kelp forests, and an abundance of marine life. There are also sea caves accessible around Santa Cruz Island. I would highly suggest taking a tour or getting out on or under the water somehow. That is where the real show is! 

Paddle Boarding Channel Island

There is also plenty of hiking on the island. We took the Potato Harbor trail from the campground. It follows the coastline for most of the hike, providing stunning views of cliffs and crashing waves. It is a super easy hike, perfect for all ability levels. 

Coast Hiking

We were on Santa Cruz over Christmas. We were incredibly blessed with our timing of visiting Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands. We were also incredibly unlucky. The first part made us want to go back. The second part made us promise we would someday soon go back. 

The blessing of our timing in Santa Cruz was that there was practically no one else on the island. We camped on the island for two nights. The ferry service dropped us off on Monday morning, picking the day-trippers up at 3:00 in the afternoon. We stayed until Wednesday afternoon. On Tuesday, Christmas Day, there was no ferry, which meant no day trip groups came out to the island. All day Tuesday there was no one on the island except the small group of us who had chosen to spend Christmas on Santa Cruz. Everyone, while very friendly, kind of kept to themselves which made the whole day tranquil. Spending time in this protected space, away from the hustle of the mainland, with just a few like-minded people nearby was a soul-filling experience. 

Beach Sunrise

The lousy timing part, the part of travel that cannot be planned around, was that we hit a bad weather day on Christmas Day. Yes, the sun was shining. But the winds blew all night long and into the morning, leaving the water choppy and murky. We were hoping to get some great paddle boarding and snorkeling time in, but conditions made it difficult. We still got the board out, suited up in our 4:3 mm wetsuits, loaded our snorkeling gear onto the board, and hit the water. We did not last long though when we realized the wind was blowing us around faster than we could paddle and our snorkel masks would actually allow us to see, well, nothing. Instead, we beached the board and just sat in the waves, feeling nice and toasty in our wetsuits. 

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This is our reason for promising ourselves that we will be back! We want to explore the water-side of the park. We want to paddle, snorkel, and explore the sea caves with some clear weather. This park tops our “revisit” list! 

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