Santa Cruz, Channel Islands in California: Camping

Camping on Santa Cruz, on California’s Channel Islands

By Will McGough

Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands, California. photo by Will McGough.
Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands, California. photo by Will McGough.

I was proud of myself.

I had survived about 22 miles of hiking and two nights on Santa Cruz Island in a tent on four cans of tuna, two cans of garbanzo beans, two protein shakes, a Cliff bar and some trail mix.

Not bad, right? I even carried my pack, tent, and sleeping bag the half-mile walk from the dock to the campsite. See that’s the thing – when you camp on an island, you don’t have your vehicle parked at the campground – which ultimately serves as a storage unit and a safety net when the everyday person goes camping.

I consider myself an everyday person (I think), and standing on the dock that Sunday morning, reflecting back on those two nights – those long hikes and spectacular views – brought a very large smile to my face.

And then I boarded the ferry to head back to the mainland and met two men who had been camping on the other side of the island. I told them all about my adventure, and they promptly laughed at me, going on to say they had to carry their packs three and a half miles to their campsite, and that unlike Scorpion Ranch (my campsite), Prisoners Harbor (their campsite) did not have a water supply.

All right, I thought, maybe I should tone down the pride for a bit. I might as well have gone for a 12-mile bike ride and bragged about it in front of Lance Armstrong.

Choose Your Channel Island

Anapaca Island
Anapaca Island

Camping is available on all five of the Channel Islands. Since no one in my group had ever been to any of them, we picked Santa Cruz because it’s the biggest (96 square miles) and offers diverse hiking.

My thoughts: Fires are not allowed on any of them – and your experience will most likely be similar on each – so pick a name out of a hat and pack up the propane stove (permitted on all five islands).

Santa Cruz Island Campgrounds: Scorpion Ranch vs Prisoners Harbor (Photo: Our campsite at Scorpion Ranch)

Santa Cruz It is.

Now, let’s cut to the chase: Do you want to have access to a water source, or are you comfortable bringing all the water you need for the length of your stay?

There are other differences between the two campsites, as well as the areas of the island they are located. Scorpion Campground is very open, Prisoners has thick wooded areas, but where you stay ultimately comes down to the issue of water.

My group wanted a water supply – we wanted to get away and get back to basics, but we wanted to have a good time, not worry about rationing and dehydration. Scorpion was right up our alley.

Once you have decided on and reserved your campsite, you’ll need transportation to the island. Unless you have your own boat, Island Packers is the way to go. Well, it’s the only way, unless you fly into Santa Rosa Island. It makes port in Ventura, California – about an hour outside of Los Angeles, 30 miles from Santa Barbara. Tickets aren’t cheap – mine was $70 round-trip.

Cavern Point at sunset.
Cavern Point at sunset.

Santa Cruz Island is approximately 20-25 miles off the coast of California near Santa Barbara/Ventura area, which translated into a boat ride of just over an hour. It’s a beautiful cruise – plenty of opportunities to take pictures of the birds and gorgeous coastline as you leave the port and approach the island.

The National Park requires that you carry all your gear from the dock to the campsite – something to keep in mind when packing and consolidating and minimizing what you bring along. They will explain what you can and cannot bring when you reserve your campsite.

When the ferry boat pulled away and left us standing on the dock, it was very clear at that moment that we were on our own. The ranger gave us a short speech about safety or something, and that was that. Move along, he said, and we took the first steps of the half-mile hike.

Honestly, the only other time I saw the ranger during our trip was when he came to correct an outhouse issue. I am still trying to figure out what would break on an outhouse.

Coastal Beauty in Santa Cruz

We made camp sometime after 3 p.m. on Friday afternoon on the Upper Loop. The campsite was clean and calming, with great views of the mountains and hills that surround the site. We were tucked away in a valley and Eucalyptus trees were scattered throughout – providing shade and entertainment.

Scorpion Ranch has great access to hiking trails. At the beginning of the Upper Loop is one that provides access to Potato Harbor, and with plenty of daylight remaining we set off. The hike is only a mile and a half, but we took in the coastal views and calming wheat fields and stopped often. There are plenty of small cliffs and hidden nooks that you can find to sit and hang – and I would highly encourage you to do so.

Tent sites at Santa Cruz island, Channel Islands, CA.
Tent sites at Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands, CA.

At this point in the year (We went in Spring 2012), Cavern Point is the place to watch the sunset– it’s approx. 1.5 miles from Potato Harbor. We set up shop for about an hour before sunset. It’s an awfully nice place to picnic or sip a drink, but beware of the wind – it can be brutal up there.

As for the sunset, our photos said it all.

To the Top: Scorpion Loop to Smugglers Cove Provides Caribbean Vibe

We were initially planning to hike to the highest peak on the island, Montanon Ridge, via the Scorpion Canyon Loop. We took the Loop to the Montanon Ridge trail, but about three-quarters of the way up we decided to backtrack and reroute our journey to Smugglers Cove.

We felt the view would not improve drastically if we kept going, so we decided to save the energy and spend that time relaxing at Smugglers.

I am glad we did for two reasons: the Caribbean vibe and the long, brutal return trip from the cove back to the Loop, since it’s very, very, very uphill. Don’t misunderstand me– the weather is not as warm and the imagery not quite as vibrant.

kayakers in the Channel Islands, California.
Kayakers in the Channels.

But there are glimpses of aqua-blue water at Smugglers, sailboats lounging in isolated coves all around the island, and beautiful views that relaxed me to the core.

If that’s not the Caribbean, I don’t know what is.

Because there are many cliffs and the shores are rocky, a good portion of the coast has no beach access. It is frustrating as a hiker – standing on a cliff with no way to get down to sea-level – but that’s also what makes it such a wonderful place to kayak – it’s the only way to see many parts of the island, assuming you don’t have a boat.

The caves are another big hit with kayakers, which is why many people bring their own (Island Packers will transport it for you). Kayaks can also be rented there on the island – you can’t miss them when you get off the boat at Scorpion Ranch.

I have a bit of a back issue at times so I had to pass on the experience, but all reviews from people I know have been favorable.

Heading Home

There is something about a camping trip that grounds me, brings me back to the facts. When I slept in a tent and ate canned food and survived, it made me think about the ultimate psychological struggle of “want versus need.“

I made the decision to rough it, deciding not to bring a light source or any propane. All the other campers making their hot breakfasts in the morning probably thought I was crazy, but that’s all right. It may have come in a can, but the freedom I felt never tasted so good.

And with every buoy we passed on our way into the Ventura Harbor, I could feel that same freedom slowly slipping away, dwindling down to almost nothing.

I was sure it was truly gone as I got into my car and opened my glove compartment and turned on my cell phone.

Will McGough

Will McGough is a regular contributor to Jaunted, Gear Patrol, and his own blog, Wake and Wander. He lives in Colorado.

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2 thoughts on “Santa Cruz, Channel Islands in California: Camping

  1. Super helpful. My husband and I are planning to do this for my 29th birthday. I have zero camping skills but he loves the outdoors and escaping the bustle is exactly what we are looking for.

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