15 Awesome Things To Do on Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park

The best things to do on Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands include kayaking through kelp forests and sea caves, hiking to gorgeous ocean overlooks, and observing the adorable island fox, a housecat-sized critter that roams all over the island.

Santa Cruz has become one of my favorite islands in the U.S. Located in the Pacific Ocean about 20 miles from mainland California, Channel Islands National Park is among the most overlooked gems in the country.

scorpion cove

Who knew there were islands so close to Los Angeles?! When I first learned that, I immediately put the Channel Islands on my travel wishlist.

Thankfully, I finally got to visit Santa Cruz Island recently. I spent several days here camping, exploring Scorpion Cove, hiking to Smugglers Cove, and enjoying the relative solitude of being away from the frenzy of modern life.

This post offers my personal tips for the best things to do while you’re visiting Santa Cruz Island. It’s broken down into two sections: Activities for a short one-day visit, and activities for folks who are camping on the island for multiple days.

things to do on santa cruz island in the channel islands

A Few Notes About Santa Cruz Island

The Channel Islands are sometimes compared to the Galapagos Islands, because in both cases, numerous animal species have evolved in isolation from the mainland. There are more than 100 species in the Channel Islands found nowhere else in the world!

Santa Cruz is one of five islands that make up the Channel Islands, along with Anacapa, Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel Islands. The Channel Islands became a national park in 1980.

Getting to Santa Cruz Island requires taking a ferry from Ventura, California. The ferry shuttles passengers to one of two spots on Santa Cruz Island: Scorpion Cove, the more-popular destination located on the eastern end of the island; or Prisoners Harbor, located on the north-central section of the island.

santa cruz island map

Santa Cruz Island is 22 miles long, and between 2 and 6 miles wide, depending where you are. That makes it three times the size of Manhattan. Santa Cruz has 77 miles of coastline, most of which has remarkable views of the ocean.

There are no hotels on Santa Cruz Island. Just a couple of rustic campgrounds.

This itinerary focuses mainly on the Scorpion Cove end of the park. That’s where I visited, it’s far more popular than Prisoners Harbor, and it’s where most of the activities are located.

Things To Do on Santa Cruz Island (Short Trip)

While I recommend camping overnight on Santa Cruz, it’s possible to do a day trip via the Island Packers ferry. That will give you 6-7 hours here, depending which specific ferry time you select.

If your Santa Cruz Island visit is only one day, here are some activities I recommend.

Check Out the Visitor Center

You’ll find a small visitor center at Scorpion Ranch. It features informational boards providing historical information about the island, including the fact that there used to be a functioning ranch at this location. Learning about the history is fascinating.

scorpion ranch visitor center

There’s another visitor center on the mainland in Ventura. But that one is only open from 8:30 am to 5 pm. All the ferries board before 8:30 am, and they return after 5 pm. Which means that if you’re taking the ferry that day, you can’t enter this visitor center (yes, that’s unfortunate… and bizarre!)

Explore Scorpion Ranch Itself

A few old ranch buildings remain, the largest of which is open for guests to walk through. You can see the former kitchen and its old stove. There’s also an orientation kiosk and a blacksmith shop.

farming equipment

Outside the building, get a close-up look at a large number of pieces of rusted farming equipment. It’s pretty cool to see plows and tractors from 100 years ago and imagine how those folks must have lived.

The ranchers used to have pigs and sheep here, some of which became feral over the years. But they were eventually removed from the island because of their negative effects on the native plants and animals.

The last wild sheep were removed in 1999, and the last feral pigs were eliminated by 2007.

visitor center santa cruz

Take a Kayak Tour

One of the best reasons to go to Santa Cruz is for the kayaking. That’s true whether you’re an experienced kayaker, or a beginner.

You can rent kayaks during peak season, but the island has a limited number of vessels. To assure yourself a kayak, book a small group tour with a company like Santa Barbara Adventure Company, which operates official tours from Scorpion Cove.

The tours range from 2.5 to 5 hours. All of the tours visit the kelp forests and sea caves along the shore, and the scenery is spectacular!

kayaking santa cruz island
My view kayaking out of a sea cave into the ocean at Santa Cruz Island.

I booked the shorter kayak tour and had a great time. Paddling through sea caves was incredible. You get to kayak through natural caves formed in the rock.

The kelp forest was fun too. You’ll be amazed how much kelp is growing in some areas of ocean along the coast.

Fun fact I learned on this tour: Kelp is the fastest-growing plant in the ocean. In perfect conditions, it can grow as much as two feet in one day!

We ate kelp straight out of the ocean – it feels slimy and tastes like kale.

kayaking kelp forst

The tour provides everything you’ll need, including water shoes, life jackets, kayak instruction. And helmets, too – those are necessary to protect your head in some of the low-clearance sea caves.

Taking a kayak tour is one of the absolute best things to do on Santa Cruz Island, so splurge for the experience!

Hike to Cavern Point

If you’re only going to do one short hike on your visit, go to Cavern Point! It’s only one mile each way, with about 300 feet of elevation gain.

This is the most popular hike on the island, and for good reason – the views are incredible. You’ll be standing a few hundred feet on a coastal cliff, with the Pacific Ocean beneath you and the California coastline off in the distance.

cavern point

Hike to Potato Harbor

Once you reach Cavern Point, it’s an additional 1.5 miles each way (3 miles roundtrip) to continue on to Potato Harbor. This hike offers a new set of spectacular coastal views, but because of its length, you may decide your limited time on the island is better spent elsewhere.

There is no beach access at Potato Harbor. You’ll be on a cliff looking down at the harbor.

Look for Island Foxes

The coolest critter in Channel Islands National Park is the island fox. These are smaller than typical foxes, measuring only two feet long and 4 pounds in weight, on average.

santa cruz island fox

Each island has its own subspecies of the island fox, since they all evolved slightly differently due to their isolation. The Santa Cruz Island fox is the smallest of them all – it’s the size of a housecat. And just as cute!

Take your pictures, but don’t go trying to touch them, and don’t feed them. They’re still wild animals. And they will steal your food if you leave it sitting around.

In fact, Channel Islands is the only national park I know of that has “fox boxes” instead of bear boxes to store your food!

animal food storage boxes

A visit to Santa Cruz isn’t complete without seeing at least one island fox. Where can you see island foxes? Just about everywhere, really.

I saw probably close to 20 foxes in various parts of the island during my few days there. The campground was the most common location to see them.

Wander through the campground slowly and look carefully in the tall grasses and bushes. Chances are you’ll find a fox before long. They often hang out in areas where people are, because they know that people have food.

But they also live in more remote areas. I saw a couple foxes pop out from the grass onto the Smugglers Cove trail, far away from the parts of the island where most humans spend their time.

fox beach

How often do you see foxes by the ocean? I spotted this one at Smugglers Cove beach.

Interestingly, island foxes were endangered in the mid-2000s, when golden eagles living on the islands hunted them into near-extinction.

But then bald eagles were reintroduced to the islands, and they chased away the golden eagles. Bald eagles don’t eat foxes, so the foxes experienced an explosion in their populations and are now thriving. What a success story!

Hang Out at Santa Cruz Beaches

You’ll disembark the ferry right at Scorpion Cove, which has a nice little beach along the cliff. It’s a small beach, but sufficient for kids and adults to take a dip in the water (hope you brought your bathing suit!) Prisoners Harbor has a beach as well.

santa cruz beaches - smugglers cove

There are some other beaches on Santa Cruz Island, like Smugglers Cove, but you won’t have time to go that far during a day trip.

Try Bird Watching on Santa Cruz Island

What, you’re not much of a bird watcher? Ok, I get it. I’m not either. But aside from the foxes, the birds are the most fascinating animals on Santa Cruz Island.

bird watching at santa cruz

According to the Nature Conservatory, this small island is home to more than 200 species of birds. Keep your eyes peeled for bald eagles, which sometimes pass by this area.

On my kayaking tour, we saw a bald eagle getting chased and dive bombed by several smaller birds. Who knew that little birds could take on a bald eagle? They can’t hurt the eagle, but they can annoy it until it leaves the area, which is the purpose.

The island scrub jay is another one to watch. Santa Cruz Island is the only place on earth that the island jay lives!

It has a bright blue appearance, with black accents and a white underbelly. I photographed this island scrub jay with a bee in its mouth. Yum, dinner!

island scrub jay

And don’t overlook the wily ravens. Ravens are everywhere on Santa Cruz Island, and they will get into your food if you don’t keep it securely zipped up in your pack. They’ve even been known to unzip backpacks that are left unattended and fly away with your snacks.

You can also see sea birds like pelicans, gulls, and plovers, and land birds such as warblers, hummingbirds, and sparrows.

Snorkel in the Ocean

You can snorkel at Scorpion Cove and Prisoners Harbor. The waters are rich, and the kelp forests are awesome to explore.

Bring your own snorkel gear, or rent it from the Scorpion Anchorage rental shop (only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day.)

Wet suits are recommended since the waters can be chilly, but I think this varies depending on your own tolerance. Coming from Washington state, where our lakes are much colder, I found the water in the Channel Islands to be perfectly comfortable.

Santa Barbara Adventure Company, the same company that does the kayaking tours, also operates the snorkel rentals and tours.

channel islands snorkeling
Snorkeling in the kelp forest is one of the coolest things to do on Santa Cruz Island.

Scan the Ocean for Marine Life

These plentiful waters support several different kinds of dolphins, seals, and even whales. They can sometimes be spotted from the island.

Cavern Point is one of the best spots to see marine life, especially whales, since it has a high vantage point with a lot of open ocean.

The best time to see these animals from shore is in the early morning. After that, the winds often pick up and the waves get choppier, making it more difficult to spot swimming mammals.

The ferry ride to and from the Santa Cruz Island is actually the best opportunity to see marine life. I saw two bottlenose dolphins and a bunch of common dolphins on the ferry ride.

ventura channel islands

The ferry captain will point out any wildlife sightings during the ride. Sometimes orcas, humpback and minke whales are seen from the ferry!

Blue and humpback whales pass through the Channel Islands during summer. Gray whales appear from December through March. Common dolphins are just that – they are commonly sighted year-round.

Pick Up an Interpretive Guide Booklet

The park created a 63-page interpretive guide for Santa Cruz that is one of the most informative National Park Service publications I have ever seen.

The booklet goes into great detail about every facet of the island: the plant life, the animals, the geology, the history, and the specific story behind each piece of old farming equipment. Understanding this context can make your visit more rewarding.

You’ll learn how Santa Cruz Island is actually two ancient islands that were shoved together over thousands of years by merging tectonic plates. You’ll learn about the Chumash people who once lived here. You’ll see photos of the most common birds on the island.

You may be able to pick up this guide at the visitor center on the island. Or, download it and read through it before your trip. The guide is currently available here (PDF.)

Santa Cruz Island Activities for a Longer Camping Trip

If you’re camping on Santa Cruz, you’ll have so much more time to explore this area. Make sure to find time for all 11 activities listed above, and add these additional activities to your itinerary:

Hike to Smugglers Cove

This is my number one recommendation of things to do on Santa Cruz Island. The trek to Smugglers Cove is 7.5 miles round-trip with 1400 feet of elevation gain, and the walk is almost entirely unshaded.

As long as you’re not hiking in the middle of the day, it’s a pleasant walk. And the reward is a private cove with few other people around.

Go in the morning, before the ferry arrives with new passengers, and you may have the entire cove to yourself. I was there for a full hour before a few other folks started showing up.

smugglers cove

My own private beach for an hour! This felt like paradise. Where else you can find that so close to Los Angeles?

On this beach, I saw island foxes. I saw a group of pelicans flying past. I saw an old abandoned ship. I also saw a large pile of bones, but I have no idea what they were. Maybe a seal or sea lion?

Smugglers Cove does have a bathroom, but no running water. There are a handful of picnic tables to sit and enjoy lunch.

Do Some Tidepooling

The best spot on Santa Cruz for tidepooling is at Smugglers Cove. If you spot any tidepools along the shore, look for anemones, urchins, barnacles, mussels, and other creatures that like these shallow pools.

It is unlawful to remove any animals or shells, so it’s ok to look, and even touch, but don’t take.

Relax at the Campground

Each of the 31 campsites at Scorpion Campground has a picnic table, but that’s about it in terms of amenities. In between hikes, take some time to chill out and truly enjoy the scenery.

camping santa cruz island california

Stop and listen to the sounds of nature, the insects and birds. Enjoy the solitude and the lack of big-city noise. Sit and quietly watch the birds and foxes as they fly go about their business.

I spent at least 10 minutes watching a small bird play with a mouse. It kept trying and failing to pick up the mouse. When it finally did, it carried the mouse into a tree, then dropped it, and had to chase it again, as the mouse was unharmed.

It seems the bird was unable to actually prey upon the mouse, so ultimately it had to go find another meal. Little nature moments like this always seem thrilling.

Hike from Prisoners Harbor to Scorpion Cove

This last one is just for the experienced hikers. You can take the ferry to Prisoners Harbor, and then hike to Scorpion Cove.

It’s a 16-mile one-way trek that you should not attempt unless you have topographic maps and experience in the backcountry. There’s no water or food anywhere along the way.

I did not personally attempt this hike, but a couple of the folks I kayaked with completed the hike.

They camped at Prisoners Harbor, woke before dawn, and spent a few hours hiking all the way to Scorpion Cove, in time for the kayaking tour. So it’s totally doable if you’re healthy and motivated!

hiking santa cruz prisoners harbor
Hiking on Santa Cruz Island is so scenic with the ocean in the background!

FAQs About Visiting Channel Islands

How do you get to Santa Cruz Island?

Unless you’re traveling by private boat, all visitors to Santa Cruz will arrive via the Island Packers Ferry, which boards in the morning in Ventura, California.

If you’re concerned about sea sickness, sit near the back of the boat, it’s the ride is easier and more stable there. They also pass out ginger chew candies to help counteract motion sickness.

Book the journey to Santa Cruz and your return trip in advance. The company will email you all the details regarding boarding times and requirements.

What’s the closest hotel in Ventura to the ferry boarding?

The Holiday Inn Express is the closest hotel to the Island Packers ferry location. It’s 1 mile away, about a 20-minute walk. Four Points by Sheraton is only slightly further away.

Most of the other Ventura hotels are a few miles away, so you’ll need to drive or Uber to the ferry boarding location.

How do you get from LAX Airport to Ventura to board the ferry?

The drive from LAX to Ventura is about 70 miles and can take anywhere from 90 minutes to over 2 hours, depending on rush hour traffic.

There are several possible ways to get from LAX to Ventura:

-Take an Uber. This is the fastest method, but it will cost you well over $100. Maybe closer to $200.

-Rent a car. This is another fast method. I recommend Discovercars.com for the best rental car deals from LAX.

-Take the Ventura shuttle. This is the typically cheapest method. The shuttle picks up right at LAX and drops you off at the Four Points by Sheraton in Ventura.

-Take Amtrak. Yes, you can even take Amtrak from Los Angeles to Ventura. You’d have to take the LA FlyAway shuttle from LAX to downtown, and then Amtrak from there to Ventura.

I actually took Amtrak on the reverse trip from Ventura back to LA because it was so cheap (only about $30.)

santa cruz channel islands activities
I love the rolling hills of Santa Cruz Island.

What’s the best time of year to visit Santa Cruz Island?

This is a rare national park in that you can visit any time of year. Summer is great because the sun is out, but it never gets too crazy hot here, due to the nice ocean breeze.

Summer is the most popular time to visit. There are more daily ferries, and more kayaking and snorkeling tours offered.

January through March are ideal for seeing wildflowers here, but temperatures are cooler. Spring and autumn are nice because the weather is decent, and there are a lot of fewer tourists at that time.

What should I bring to Santa Cruz Island?

Water is number one, followed by food. There is very little running water on the island. The only place to find potable water is at Scorpion Campground.

Most visitors choose to bring all the water they’ll need for the duration of their stay. You could also get by with a single gallon of water, if you keep refilling it in camp. There are spigots in both sections of Scorpion Campground.

The same goes for food. There are no food stores anywhere on the island. Bring lunch and enough snacks to get you through the day. In fact, bring a lot of food, because hiking burns calories, so you will work up an appetite!

Beyond that, bring a hat and sunscreen, as most of the hikes do not have any shade. And a wind jacket, even in summer, since the ocean winds can be fierce. Binoculars are great if you plan to do some ocean wildlife watching.

flowers channel islands

What should I know about camping at Santa Cruz Island?

Advance campground reservations are required. Never leave food or packs unattended because the foxes and ravens are opportunists.

The winds at night can get brutal at times. On my first two nights camping, the winds were so bad that I had to weigh down my tent with several large rocks.

And I couldn’t even sleep initially because the wind whipping against my tent was so loud. Fortunately, both nights, the wind completely did down around midnight, and things were silent the rest of the night.

Is there cell phone service on Santa Cruz Island?

It’s very spotty. Expect that you won’t have any kind of cell signal during your visit. Occasionally, a weak signal will sneak through.

I was sometimes able to get a couple bars of service by hanging out around the pier at Scorpion Cove, so if you’re desperate and need phone access, try the pier or Cavern Point.

Are there storage boxes on the island?

Yes. Each campsite has individual storage boxes, and there are also several general storage boxes in Scorpion Cove available to all visitors.

These boxes do not lock (so don’t leave valuable in there!), but they will allow you to put down your backpack for a while.

Are there bathrooms on Santa Cruz Island?

Yes, there are multiple individual outhouses at Scorpion Cove, Prisoners Harbor, and Smugglers Cove. The campgrounds have bathrooms too. These are very rustic – no sinks, no mirrors. Just a pit toilet.

What kind of wildlife does Santa Cruz Island have?

As noted earlier, marine life includes various types of dolphins, whales, California sea lions, harbor seals, and more. In the air, there are more than 200 types of birds, ranging from small sparrows to bald eagles.

island fence lizard
A glimpse of an island fence lizard I saw on the Smugglers Cove hike.

On land, the island fox is the biggest animal, and it’s only about a foot long. Spotted skunks are rarely seen, as they tend to stay in areas away from people.

There are also two kinds of mouse, and three species of bats, and that’s it. Those are the only land mammals found on the island.

Santa Cruz Island has nine species of amphibians and reptiles: four lizards, two salamanders, a tree frog, and two kinds of non-venomous snakes.

Fun fact: Pygmy mammoth fossils and skeletons have been found on these islands.

Is Santa Cruz Island a good place to visit alone?

Sure, if you’re in good physical condition and you’re comfortable camping and hiking. I came here as a solo traveler and had a great visit. The solitude and tranquility are remarkable, given that Los Angeles is so close.

In fact, the Channel Islands make my list of the best national parks to visit alone.

Do you have any more tips to share for visiting Santa Cruz Island?

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