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Planning Your Trip to the Channel Islands National Park

NPS Channel Islands Map
santa cruz island mapThere are 5 islands that make up Channel Islands National Park, 4 of which are on a chain to the South of the California Coast (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel from East to West). Santa Barbara Island is the 5th and is 30 miles S-Southeast of Anacapa Island. These islands rest in a transverse direction, meaning they run East to West.

For the first time visitor, Santa Cruz Island is the most accessible and has the most to offer. It is the largest of the 5 and it rests only 20 miles from Ventura across what is called the Santa Barbara Channel. Getting to East Santa Cruz Island requires a 75-90 minute passage across the Santa Barbara Channel on high-speed catamarans from Ventura Harbor operated by Island Packers. While Island Packers runs service to all of the islands, they operate to Santa Cruz Island almost every day of the year.

channel sunset

The Santa Barbara Channel at Sunset from Cavern Point on Santa Cruz Island


Orca in the Santa Barbara Channel

The Santa Barbara Channel is one of the most incredible marine environments in the world. Each year the California Grey Whale migrates through the corridor of the Channel on their way to and from Baja Mexico. The Grey Whale makes the Santa Barbara Channel part of it’s 2,000+ mile journey every year. 34 species of marine mammals visit the Channel each year such as the Blue Whale and the Orca (Killer Whale). The ferry always stops for viewing these prehistoric creatures in the wild.

The Channel Islands are an oceanic island chain, meaning it is not part of the continental shelf. Due to this isolation, the islands are home to over 100 species of plants and animals that are genetically unique, or endemic. For this reason, many people call the Channel Islands the Galapagos of the North. The Santa Cruz Island Fox is the cutest, and therefore the most well known, of the endemic species. In it’s company are certain species of Buckwheat, Iron wood, and a beautiful flowering plant called Coreopsis. running island fox

Santa Cruz Island was also home to the indigenous Chumash people for the past 15,000 years with the last of those people being removed in 1820 by the Spanish missionaries. Archaeologists are currently rushing to record the many sites that showcase the long and prosperous culture of these island inhabitants.

If you are looking for a day or camping trip where you can enjoy both the land and water highlights of this amazing island, East Santa Cruz Island, Scorpion Ranch is the place you should go. Trying to plan a trip to any of the other islands is going to prove much more difficult, and in some cases not possible.

Why Visit East Santa Cruz Island?

  • Passage to this island is the most frequent and shorter due to proximity to Ventura Harbor.
  • The Scorpion Marine Reserve is well protected from the common Northwest winds and is also a protected body of water.
  • The kayaking and snorkeling at Scorpion Marine Reserve is world class. With sea caves less than 1/4 mile from the beach, and a wild diversity of marine wildlife, going to the remote areas and risking poor weather just doesn’t make sense.
  • The camping and hiking at Scorpion is beautiful and the best in the National Park.
  • Ferries run year round and the passage is less than 90 minutes one-way.
  • Many of the other islands require much longer ferry rides which shrinks the amount of time available on the island for the day trips.
  • Volcanic Sea Caves

    l cave

    L Cave with Scorpion Rock in the Background

    Santa Cruz Island is a mixture of volcanic and sedimentary rock (limestone, sandstone, diatomaceous). The North side of the island is mostly volcanic with thousands of fractures or faults. These faults are weak areas in the volcanic rock that are susceptible to erosion. Over the past 10,000 years the sea levels have been rising and carving away the softer rock in those faults. Santa Cruz Island is home to the longest sea caves in the world and the largest concentration of sea caves (over 125 in a 20 mile stretch). We explore dozens of caves in the Scorpion Area, some of which are large enough to drive a boat into and some are just large enough to squeeze the kayaks through. We do not visit Painted Cave (it’s 20 miles away 🙁 ) on our Caves and Coves adventures, but if you have a group, we can arrange a private tour to Painted Cave during the Summer months.

    trip-map-ciSanta Cruz Island is the perfect place for a day or camping trip. The Scorpion area of Santa Cruz Island is one of the easiest areas of Channel Islands National Park to reach with mild conditions and a diversity of recreational activities. Thanks to the ease of beach access, nearby campground, healthy kelp forests, and clear ocean water, Scorpion is a world-class destination for snorkeling, kayaking, hiking, camping, diving, swimming, and relaxing.

    Scorpion-marine-reserveThe Scorpion Marine Reserve is just one of 12 marine protected areas located within the waters of Channel Islands National Park and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. The Scorpion Marine Reserve is closed to all fishing and hunting year-round. It has been this way since 2002 and is part of the less than 1% of the earth’s ocean that is protected like htis.

    dscn2168 Both paddlers and snorkelers visiting Scorpion Marine Reserve have the opportunity to explore a destination that possesses additional levels of protection resulting in a higher quantity and diversity of marine wildlife such as Harbor Seals, Bat Rays, Leopard Sharks, California Spiny Lobster, Garibaldi, Horn Sharks, California Sheepshead, Calico Bass, Spider Crab, Kelp Crab, sea urchins, sea stars, nudibranchs, and a variety of other sea creatures.

    • Ferry Schedules
    • Camping
    • Where to Stay Before Your Trip

    Getting to Santa Cruz Island Scorpion Ranch


    Crossing takes about 75 minutes, depending on whale and dolphin sightings.

    • Passage takes 75-90 minutes depending on whale and dolphin crossings.
    • Island Packers Ferries depart from Ventura Harbor and they are the only way to Santa Cruz Island.
    • Morning departures vary from 8am and 9am. We do not operate tours for later departures. Typically we operate tours at 10:15am, so the 9am ferry is preferred.
    • The ferry departs the island at 3:30, 4:00, or 5:00pm. We recommend the latest ferry of the day.
    • Camper fare is more expensive than day fares. We can act as agent to book your ferry transportation only if you are going on an adventure with us on the first day of your trip.
    • Weather Cancellations will be made by 5:30am the morning of your departure. Call 805-642-1393.
    • Check Ferry Availability

    Camp at Scorpion Ranch

    Spending a night or two at Santa Cruz Island is a very unique California experience. The campground is settled in a eucalyptus grove, with fairly good wind shelter. There are two camping areas.

  • Lower Loop- 1/4 to 1/2 mile from beach
  • Upper Loop (group camping area) – 1/2 to 3/4 mile from beach
  • Camping adventures are available year-round and are subject to ferry and campsite availability.

  • Check Campsite Availability Here
  • Check Ferry Availably Here
  • If you are on an adventure with us your first day, you will leave your camping gear with us in our secure storage boxes. If your adventure occurs on a day other than your first day, you will be able to move your equipment to the campground and enjoy a day of hiking and relaxing on your own. tent at Scorpion

    What to Know about Camping on Santa Cruz Island We like to refer to it as “primitive car-camping”. This means you can bring the two-burner stove and a cooler, but you should keep the other gear minimal. There are no facilities at the islands other than pit-toilets and running water from spigots. A suggested packing list is sent to you with your trip confirmation. No camp-fires are allowed year-round, so propane cooking is the only option.

    Great Hiking: We highly suggest a hike to Potato Harbor (3.5 miles round trip), Smugglers Cove (7 miles round trip), and/or Montanan Ridge (6.5 miles round trip, 1,800 foot ascent). Our guides will be available to assist you in finding trail heads and selecting routes.

    When to go? To avoid crowds, mid-week and non-summer months are the best, however, there is a very special feeling at the islands in the summer where watching the sunset from Cavern or Potato Harbor is quite possibly akin to the evening entertainment.

    Camping gear is available for rent*

    • 2-3 Person Tent = $15/night
    • Comfy 2-inch thick Paco Sleeping Pad = $6/night
    • Sleeping Bag = $10/night
    • Camp Kit for up to 6 (Includes cooking pots, pans, cooking utensils, sharp knife and meal kits for up to 6 people. Meal kits include plates, bowls, cups, and eating utensils. 8 oz of coffee and drip filter included. Table cloth, napkins, cleaning supplies, trash bins, and lantern also included) = $30/night
    • 2 Burner Stove with propane = $10/night
    • Camp Chair = $4/night

    *Camping gear is available for adventurers with pick-up and delivery accompanied by guide. For all others (people who are not on an adventure with us) we charge $50 for pick-up and delivery of camping gear to Island Packers ferry. Please call to make a reservation, camping gear is not currently available online.

    Ventura Area

    Your adventure starts in the Ventura Harbor at the Island Packers ferry. Parking is FREE. When you arrive in the parking lot, park closest to the road that you drove in on and make sure you’re within the yellow lines. Eat light and get a good night of rest. Here are some of our Ventura recommendations.

    Camping in the area

    We do not recommend camping the night prior to your departure. The camping areas are not very close and you will have to get up really early to take down camp. If you have an RV or motorhome, this might be a bit easier. Here are the camping areas from closest to furthest.

    • McGrath State Beach
    • Carpinteria State Beach
    • El Capitan State Beach
    • Refugio State Beach
    • Lodging in the Ventura Harbor Area

      (Listed by closest to Island Packers in Ventura Harbor)

      • Holiday Inn Express Ventura Harbor
      • Four Points Sheraton Ventura Harbor
      • Ventura Beach Marriott
      • Comfort Inn Ventura Beach
      • Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach
      • Food and Beverages

        • Brophy Bros Restaurant Ventura Harbor– Lunch and Dinner – Harbor-side Dining and Cocktails
        • Boatyard Cafe – Serving Breakfast and Coffee
        • Surf Brewery – Local craft beers
        • Spencer Makenzies’ Fish Tacos – Lunch and Dinner beer and wine

        • Santa Barbara Area

          If you are traveling from the Santa Barbara area, please depart 1.5 hours prior to the departure time on your itinerary. We ask that you arrive 45 minutes prior so that we can check you in and board the ferry for a prompt departure. The driving time from Santa Barbara to Ventura harbor is 30-40 minutes. Traffic is unusual but check upon waking to make sure you don’t get stuck in a jam!

          Suggested Packing List for Day Adventures

          • Water (reusable water bottles preferred)
          • Bathing suit (you will wear this under the wetsuit). It is best to have on under clothing upon arrival.
          • Towel
          • Warm clothing (for the ferry ride in the morning)
          • Water shoes that cover the whole foot or that have a heel strap (these are included if you don’t have your own)
          • Hat or Visor
          • Synthetic layer for extra warmth such as rash-guard, polypro top or other synthetic top
          • Sunscreen/Lip Balm
          • Sunglasses w/ safety strap (example: Chums or Croakies)
          • Waterproof camera or dry case for camera
          • Personal medication
          • Waterproof Headlamp/s (optional, just for fun!)
          • Hiking Boots if you plan to walk around the island
          • If you have other questions or need assistance in finding something in the area, you can call us anytime. Your guide will also be able to help you with local favorites as well.

Our Partners

Local and National Companies that we work with
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It is our mission to save the oceans and natural places by fostering an understanding of them through education, adventures and outdoor experiences.