Weekend Getaway Guide: Camping on California's Santa Cruz Island

by  Will McGough | May 1, 2015

The Channel Islands are a chain of five islands 25 miles off the coast of California, most dramatically visible from the shores of the central coast. Preserved collectively as a National Park, the islands are ripe outdoor recreation like hiking, kayaking, and camping. While it's possible to stay on all five islands, most overnight visitors find themselves on the largest, Santa Cruz. Three quarters of it is a nature conservatory, and it features two different styles of campsites. So how can you pull this off in a long weekend? Here’s all you need to know about reaching one of our country’s most isolated National Parks:

Getting There
Island Packers  is the official concessionaire of Channel Islands National Park and the only public ferry that runs between the islands and the mainland. It runs several trips a day from Ventura, and the 20-mile, one-hour trip to Santa Cruz costs $79 roundtrip. You must make a reservation to ensure you have a spot -- they fill up quickly, especially the early morning outbound and late evening return. To get to Ventura, you can fly into Santa Barbara and take Amtrak south (34 miles) or fly into Los Angeles and take a bus north (68 miles).

Choosing Your Campsite
On Santa Cruz, you can choose between two campsites. Each has its own ferry stop. Scorpion Ranch is the most accessible and the best option for the most travelers. It has fresh water spigots and is only a half mile hike from the dock. Del Norte Campground, commonly referred to as Prisoner’s Harbor, is a three-mile hike from its dock and considered a “backcountry” campground, meaning there is no fresh water available, for those who want a wilder experience. The campsites are 11 miles apart via foot trail, and you must make reservations for either campground in advance.

Flickr / Ephraim Ragasa

What to Pack
There are fresh water spigots at Scorpion Ranch Campground, but there are no services or food vendors on the island otherwise. Bring ample capacity for water as well as all the food you need for the length of your stay. Again, if you're staying at Prisoner’s Harbor, you'll have to bring your own fresh water, too.

Expect nighttime temperatures to dip into the high 40s, even in the summer, and bring an outer shell to combat the wind, which can often howl. Since fires are allowed on the island, you’ll also need a propane camping stove to cook. As on all camping trips, be sure to bring plenty of trash bags -- and remember to carry all trash off the island back with you to the mainland.

What to Do
Three quarters of the island is a Nature Conservatory and blocked off to the general public. Luckily, the remaining quarter has plenty to offer. Be sure to hike to the top of Montanon Ridge, where you can explore the seemingly endless number of coves that make up the coast of Santa Cruz. Cavern Point is a great spot to catch the sunset, and Smuggler’s Cove is the most popular hike-to beach for Scorpion Ranch campers. Or, if you're a long-haul trekkers, make the journey to Chinese Harbor. (You can read descriptions and get mileage details of all the hikes at the National Park Service site.)

The water surrounding the island is also protected as part of the conservancy -- which means the clear waters are perfect for kayakers, divers, and snorkelers. Dive in and you'll find lots of beautiful kelp forests and sea caves. You can also rent kayaks on the mainland and transport them via the ferry, or you can rent them as part of an organized tour.

Final Tip
At Scorpion Harbor, you’ll notice that each site has a fox box for safekeeping your food. Use it! The island has 60-some unique species of plants and animals, the most personable being the Island Fox. And they're always on the lookout for a free meal. So, yes, you can appreciate the novelty of the foxes as they scramble about -- but also make sure your grub is locked away or be prepared to go hungry.

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