The Channel Islands feel very remote even though they are located about 20 miles off the California coast near Santa Barbara. It is this remoteness that has made the islands so attractive to all kinds of life: the ocean, the kelp forests, and the rocky shores provide excellent natural barriers to predators but easy access to the mainland, allowing animals ranging from woolly mammoths to little foxes to flourish here over the past 13,000 years. The islands have been home to all kinds of human activity, too, including the oldest fossil remains on the continent, Chumash villages, farms, an olive grove, a vineyard, naval bases, and even an oil drill. When I visited with my friend Colan in early May, I experienced perhaps the most personal connection with nature that I’ve had in quite some time. We spent two days and one night on Santa Cruz Island, the biggest and one of the most popular islands you can visit, and aside from our boating excursions, we ran into lots of plenty of wildlife, beautiful vistas, and lots of history but only a few people during the whole time we were there.
Itinerary (2 days, 1 night)
- Night 0 – Stay overnight in Ventura (3 hour drive from San Diego)
- Morning 1 – Take a morning ferry to Santa Cruz Island (1-1.5 hour ride) and set up camp
- Afternoon 1 – Head out for a long day hike to El Montanon (8 miles, 4-5 hours round-trip), taking a sandwich to eat along the way
- Evening 1 – Eat a quick dinner, then head out to Potato Harbor to watch a dramatic sunset (3 hours round-trip including time to take photos)
- Night 1 – If you’re lucky, gaze up at the stars from your tent
- Morning 2 – Check out the exhibits at the Visitor Center (45 minutes), then take a kayak tour of the island’s sea caves (5 hours including time to gear up)
- Afternoon 2 – Have a late lunch, then take the ferry back to the mainland (1-1.5 hour ride)
Luckily, there are very few dangerous animals on the island that could cause you harm (watch out for urchins and barnacles if you get in the water or near the rocks in the water – they will skewer or cut you if you touch them with bare skin). But do make sure you pack first aid supplies – the kayak company and park rangers may have some, but by and large, you’re on your own. The trails can get gravelly, so a small slip can give you a scrape that you’ll need to clean up on your own. And don’t do anything daring that would result in you needing to get evacuated from the island; the NPS ranger told us that they would have to dispatch a special boat to come get you if a ferry isn’t available, and this may take up to 2 hours.
We had cell service (Verizon) only near Scorpion Beach, but it was full 4G out there! It’s a good idea to pop by the pier from time to time to ping your loved ones to let them know you’re okay. You could also advise that they text you in case they need to reach you so you can pick up messages whenever you pass by the pier. Another good way to get a message through would be to call or speak with Island Packers, as they may be able to get a message to or from a boat (they run between 2-3 trips a day).
Planning Your Trip
If you plan to camp on Santa Cruz Island, you have to make a reservation well in advance. Saturday nights tend to fill up ridiculously early, more than three and perhaps even six months before the desired date. Even Sundays and weekdays can fill up months before. The fee is only $15 a night, so if you see a day you like, take it; it seems worth the small penalty if you have to cancel.
There are two campgrounds to choose from on the island: Scorpion, the main campground that has potable water, and Del Norte, a backcountry campground located near Prisoner’s harbor where you need to bring your own water and toilet paper. Especially on a Sunday, even the more “developed” campground felt very secluded, and given the proximity of Scorpion to many of the island’s day hiking trails and other points of interest, the Scorpion campground seemed like a better bet for first timers like us. We really enjoyed staying in the upper campground loop (sites 23 through 25), the one furthest from the pier, about a half-mile hike from Scorpion beach. Although you are closer to the group camp sites, these were totally empty when we stayed, and the individual sites are spread pretty far apart from each other compared to those in the lower loop. The sites in the upper loop have have amazing views and good shade under a grove of Eucalyptus trees. Site 24 seems to have the best mix of isolation as well as a view.
In parallel with finding a camp site, you need to check to see if there are ferries available to get you to the island and back. Luckily, Island Packers Cruises, the boat operator, provides a handy page that links to both reservation systems. If the weather is looking particularly wet or your plans change, you can receive a refund of the ferry fare up to 72 hours before your scheduled departure.
We also had a great time kayaking on the island with Channel Islands Adventure Company; it really gave us a different perspective from what we saw during our day of hiking! In the summer, tours sell out, but in the spring, the kayaking reservations don’t fill up quite as quickly (some people on our tour had booked as little as several days in advance), and given that you will lose your entire payment if you cancel within 7 days of your excursion, you may want to consider waiting to see how you’re feeling and if the weather holds up before booking. We recommend doing your kayaking excursion on the day you leave because unless you want to carry your camping gear around with you, the usual place you can leave it after you check out of the campsite is sitting by the pier totally unsecured. If you are kayaking, however, you are allowed to store your gear in a giant box at the kayak outfitters; when we visited, this box also wasn’t secured in any way, but we felt pretty safe leaving our gear there, especially with people manning the nearby snorkel shop all day.
Finally, in order to make the most out of a short trip, you’ll want to take a morning ferry out of Ventura Harbor. If you’re driving from far away, like we were, consider staying in town. We stayed at the Residence Inn by Marriott Oxnard River Ridge; the hotel was a little older but very comfortable, offered free parking, an in-room kitchen to prep camp meals, a full breakfast, and was less than a 10 minute drive from the harbor.
After spending the night in Ventura, we arrived at the offices of Island Packers Cruises in Ventura Harbor to take the second ferry of the morning (to give us a bit more time to rest and because campsite check-in isn’t until after 11AM). We parked near the office, checked in, got a parking pass, and unloaded our gear near the pier since we had to park the car a bit further down the road in long-term parking. We found out that it’s especially important for campers to arrive an hour or so before departure because the gear has to go below deck first; no passengers can board the ferry until all the gear is stowed. Note that you shouldn’t pack any liquids or camping fuel in your packs; there are separate storage areas for these items. There are also bathrooms at the pier so you can go before you go; the ferry also has small bathrooms if you happen to need to go again on the way over. I wish I had known there was a Subway sandwich shop at the pier, as well; this would have made for a super easy lunch for our hike!
We departed the harbor right on time at 9AM. It was a grey and overcast day in Ventura, and the waves were a bit rough on the way out, so it got pretty wet, especially on the lower deck!
Nevertheless, the ride across to the island was super fun. We got to see pelicans and other sea birds, sea lions resting on a buoy, and finally Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands emerging out of the mist.
On the ferry ride, we were also reminded of California’s continuous struggle between economic growth and natural preservation. Right between the pristine coasts of Ventura and Santa Cruz Island is a platform extracting natural gas from the ocean floor and piping it back to the mainland. The idea of issuing new permits for offshore drilling has reemerged in recent times, and the frame of the platform with Anacapa Island in the background is an excellent reminder that further development of California’s fossil fuel resource must be carefully balanced with the risks posed to the delicate habitats in this area.
The crossing took us an hour and a half on this day, so we arrived at the Scorpion Anchorage at Santa Cruz Island at 10:30AM (the boat continued on to Prisoner’s Harbor from there). When we landed at Scorpion Anchorage, the day visitors disembarked first while we waited for our gear. We were actually the only campers on the boat that day; everyone else was just coming for the day, and many campers were leaving the island after having spent the weekend. We had to climb up a small ladder, about 3 rungs, to get up onto the pier from the boat. The sun was just starting to burn through the fog, but there were still some higher clouds hovering above the island when we landed.
A Park Ranger checked us in, and then we made our way up to the upper campground loop from the Pier, which took about 10 minutes. The previous campers at our site had already left, so by the time we arrived at 11AM, we were able to get our tent set up and unpack most of our gear. Our site (number 25) was super nice, opening up onto green hills covered in yellow wildflowers!
There are two fairly large animal lockers available at each site, big enough for your gear as well as your food. The island foxes and ravens are not shy and will go after anything you leave out (even if it is zipped up), so the lockers are definitely the way to go. Colan also thought to bring a couple of twist ties to keep our tent zipped up while we were away from camp. The larger locker had a hole for a combination or pad lock, which was handy when we wanted to lock up our camera gear or other valuable items while we were away from camp.
By the time we had finished setting up camp and filling up our day packs (along with about 2 litres of water each from the blue spigot in the campground), it was around noon. Since there were still clouds hanging overhead, this seemed like an ideal time to take on a totally exposed trail and head to the highest point on the National Park portion of the island, El Montanon (an even higher peak, Mount Diablo, located on the Nature Conservancy property on the island, is off limits to hikers).
We started off along the Scorpion Canyon Trail, which is located right next to site 23 in the upper campground. The sides of the dry creek were carpeted with wildflowers!
The trail quickly starts winding its way up a steep path with white canyon walls exposed by the old sheep grazing activity on the island. The contrast of the white rock, green grass, and colorful wildflowers was quite striking.
At the top of the main canyon, there is a nice side spur that leads to a fabulous view of Cavern Point and the channel between the island and the mainland. A giant shipping vessel happened to be passing through when we reached this point.
As we continued up the trail onto a set of red rocks, we started to get some pretty awesome views of Anacapa Island to the east. The interconnected mounds that form Anacapa were especially striking from the lower elevations on the trail.
Near the connector trail between the Scorpion Canyon Trail and Smuggler’s Road, which is the main trail for another long day trip on the island, Smuggler’s Cove, we came across the remains of a failed experiment on the island: an old oil well. While modern offshore platforms are doing very well at extracting oil and natural gas from beneath the ocean floor, this well hit water instead of oil! As it is slowly rusting away, it forms a beautiful red frame for the green grassy hills and the blue of the sky and the ocean off in the distance.
From here, the Montanon Ridge trail continues upwards and gets decidedly more gravely. It’s a great place for slowing down and looking around to spot wildlife, including island fence lizards (with a blue ventral side and beautiful turquoise dorsal markings), as well as other lizards, caterpillars, and beetles.
After the ascent, we found ourselves at the High Mount, which offers a wonderful view of Prisoner’s Harbor. The harbor is so named because, at some point, the island was considered as a potential penal colony, although this location was a Chumash village long before that. We scrambled up the social trail to the ridge to get a clearer view.
Some guides say that the path from here up to the El Montanon isn’t clear, but the marker of the antenna off in the distance and the path to it were super obvious when we visited. From the ridge, there are also phenomenal views of Anacapa and the Olive Grove at Smuggler’s Cove.
The ridge is also an awesome spot to catch a glimpse of some wildflowers with colors from across the rainbow.
Finally, after four miles of hiking and 1808 feet of elevation gain, we reached El Montanon, with stunning views in all directions.
And though there is a giant antenna at this point, there is seemingly no cell signal or 4G, at least not on Verizon :).
We retraced our steps back to camp and wound up back at the tent around 5PM. More animals were out and about at this time, and we got additional glimpses of the Island Fox and the Island Scrub Jay. Both of these species are examples of Foster’s Island Rule of evolution: without predatory pressure, small animals tend to get larger over generations, but larger animals tend to evolve to be smaller because of limited food supplies.
After our long hike, we were super hungry! At all of the camp sites, you are not allowed to light fires (so you need to bring a camping stove if you want warm food). There is no food available on the island, and there is also no trash collection, so you have to pack out anything you bring in. We decided to keep things simple by just boiling water instead of cooking in the pot and using the food storage containers as our plates. After several missteps, we finally hit on the magic recipe for using the camping stove. We sheltered the camp stove from the wind behind the food locker and only boiled a small quantity of water (about 2-3 cups) to make the process go faster. Note: don’t cook or put a hot pot on the picnic table – we saw plenty of scars that show that the table surface melts in the heat. Once the water boiled, we poured it into single-serve containers of Annie’s Mac and Cheese. We kept the containers covered to keep them warm and let them sit for 5 minutes instead of the usual two. Et voila! A gourmet organic camping meal, supplemented by sandwiches, cookies, and Nutella.
After dinner, we made our way out to Potato Harbor, which is about a 2 mile hike from the upper campground. Be sure to pack a head lamp, as you’ll be returning after dark. We left about an hour and a half before sunset to give us plenty of time to catch views all the way from before the sun went down to about 15 minutes after the sun was below the horizon. We would also recommend not taking the Potato Harbor Road, which you will get to first, but instead to proceed as if you’re heading towards Cavern Point and then turn left to follow the coastal road to Potato Harbor. This will give you some additional coastal views in the beautiful afternoon light. We’ll just let the pictures Colan and I took do the talking here.
With so few people camping on the island, and with even fewer venturing out in the waning light, watching this sunset was a very peaceful experience. With our headlamps on, we made the dark trek back to camp just in time to see Venus setting over the horizon and many stars visible in the northern sky. We got settled in for bed, but the foxes scratching at the food lockers in camp kept us awake for a little longer than we would have liked :).
A chorus of birds woke us around 5 o’clock in the morning, and we unzipped the tent to find the grey, foggy morning typical of a “Gray May” in Southern California. Rather than trekking 8 miles out and back to Smuggler’s Cove to look out over the foggy ocean, we decided our time would be better spent learning about the history of the island at the visitor center at Scorpion Ranch, 10 minutes from our campsite.
We spent about 45 minutes checking out the walk-in visitor center at Scorpion Ranch (which appears to be always open). Inside, we found an excellent overview of the island’s wildlife, human history, and the restoration efforts of the Nature Conservancy and the National Parks Service. It was also neat to check out the implements and inventions used around the ranches and farms on the island and to see some of the original structures that were used by the ranchers.
For breakfast back at camp, we stuck to our easy-serve menu: single-serve cereal boxes and single-serve almond milks, which don’t need to be refrigerated.
After breakfast, we broke down our camp site, repacked our bags, and headed out to Channel Islands Adventure Company’s outpost/equipment center on the way back to Scorpion Anchorage. Although the guidelines on the reservation said to arrive at 10AM, we had to wait until about 10:30AM for our guide because the boat from the mainland (carrying some supplies and many of the other kayakers) was a little later than expected. For the kayak excursion, there are two options: a 1.5 hour “Discovery” Tour and a 3 hour “Adventure” Tour. The Adventure Tour was great and allowed us to see many of the sea caves on this side of the island, as well as exploring the inter-tidal zone and the amazing birds around Scorpion Rock. Although billed as a sea cave adventure tour, the caves weren’t really much of an adventure, at least not with the calm water we had. The kayaking excursion should really be billed as an outstanding naturalist tour of the island, giving unique perspectives and information on the animals, plants, geology, and history of this special place.
Including the waiting time, gearing-up, a dry-land orientation on paddling, and the time on the water, our excursion lasted close to 5 hours: we weren’t done until 3PM. Because the tour is so long, we recommend making this the only major activity on the day you leave the island, hitting the bathroom before you head out, and bringing a small bottle of sunscreen, plenty of water, and a snack along with you in the boat. If you are taking a camera, make sure it’s waterproof in case you fall in. We were advised to try to attach our cameras to ourselves or to a float; carabiners and cheap waterproof phone cases proved super useful on this outing.
The kayak outfitter provided us with helmets and life vests, as well as kayaking jackets and sleeveless wet suits for those who wanted them (your bottom and shoes will get wet in the kayak, so it’s a good idea to wear swim trunks/quick-dry underwear and water shoes or flip flops even if you choose to use a wet suit). All of the campers going kayaking were in one group; there were eight of us in all, plus our guide. We got a quick orientation on paddling on dry land before we got in our boats. On this day, the morning fog burned off quickly, so it was crystal clear as soon as we set out on the water! With the sun shining on us and the cool mist from the ocean, the temperature was just perfect.
We launched one by one from the beach and paddled over to the nearby kelp beds. The kelp forests support a lot of marine life and also made handy “ropes” to keep us steady while we waited to sync up with our group :).
Once we were all together, we headed west to Cavern Point. With calm waters, the navigation through the caves along this part of the coast proved fairly straightforward. We got to see cormorants, island pigeons, and other bids up close as well as some seal pups, and we passed through several dramatic caves, finally terminating at Cavern Point.
For me, the more interesting part of the coastline was east of the pier, towards Scorpion Rock. Scorpion Rock is a giant bird nesting place and a completely restored habitat with only native species of plants and birds (the restoration was paid for by a settlement from the manufacturer of DDT). On the second half of our paddle, in addition to dramatic caves and rocks, we got to see birds defending their nests from other birds (“Planet Earth” style), as well as marine life in the intertidal zone, such as Garibaldi fish and purple sea urchins.
After our tour, we had just enough time to eat lunch, grab our gear, and head back to Scorpion Anchorage to catch the ferry. Again, campers got to get their gear onto the boat first. With the clear weather over the water, we saw even more marine life on our way back to Ventura than we did on our way out, including more seabirds and many pods of leaping dolphins!
Once we were back on the mainland, we hauled our gear back to the car and were desperately in need of an all-you-can-eat buffet before making our way back to San Diego. Luckily, the Souplantation in Camarillo was happy to oblige – awesome salads, soups, chili, pizza, muffins, and cobbler for $12.69 (less if you can find a coupon online or if you have member coupons from their email list). After dinner, rush hour through Los Angeles had mostly died down, so we made it back to San Diego in another 2.5 hours super tired but in total awe of the amazing weekend we had experienced.
Have you been to the channel islands? Any tips for good vegetarian meals to prepare on a camping stove? We’re all ears — leave your comments below!