People always ask us what our favorite island is. That would be like a parent choosing a favorite child… you just wait until the rest aren’t around and say, “you’re my favorite”. Seriously, this writer has been to all 8 off the coast of Southern CA, the island I’m on is always my favorite. Suffice to say, if you can get to all of them, do it! But if you can only get to one, go to Santa Cruz Island.
Of the 5 in the National Park, Santa Cruz Island is the most diverse and offers the most frequent and comfortable access. Anacapa and Santa Barbara Islands are very small islands (you can hike all of the trails in under and hour on each). Kayaking/snorkeling around Anacapa is really nice, but the ferry schedule is designed for hikers, and if you can hike all the trails in an hour, people don’t generally stay long (which is why it departs late and returns early). Kayaking/snorkeling around Santa Barbara Island is also very nice, but the ferry ride takes 2 and a half hours, so day trips are not possible, and camping trips are great, but you are usually left out at the island for 2-3 days before the ferry comes back to retrieve campers. Therefore, those two island offer some nice kayaking/snorkeling options, they require some special consideration and aren’t best for first time visitors.
The outer island of San Miguel is currently closed.Santa Rosa Island, just to the West of Santa Cruz Island has a very nice campground (wind included) and some great hiking options. Kayaking to Carrington Point is a beautiful journey. Visiting Santa Rosa and spending a night or two is highly recommended. The beaches are open to backcountry camping from Aug-Dec for experienced paddlers/backpackers. The National Park Service is currently in the process of approving a new General Management Plan (GMP) that would make outfitting at this island a bit easier. As it is now, if you require a guide service or outfitter, you’ll need to contact us and we’ll put you in touch with our Head Guides to discuss what is available.
And this leaves us with Santa Cruz Island (my favorite!).The National Park Service (your tax dollars) owns 1/3 of the land at Santa Cruz Island. The remaining land is owned by the Nature Conservancy. The Eastern Portion of Santa Cruz Island is called Scorpion Ranch. There is a beautiful beach and gentle canyon with flat areas for camping under eucalyptus trees. Several hiking trails leave from the beach and the camping areas. There are short hikes to beautiful views and there are long hikes to even better views!
The beach is sandy at times and the snorkeling from the beach is very nice. To the East is an off-shore rock called Scorpion Rock which is just North of Little Scorpion Anchorage.Scorpion Rock has some amazing cave systems in it, most notably “Green Room” named that for the emerald green water that lights up from below. To the West lies 22 miles of coastline with sea caves almost the entire length. We only paddle as far as Coche Point (5.5 miles from the beach), and most adventures only get to Cavern Point, which is a little less than a mile from the beach.
We operate 230 days a year at this area in the National Park. Don’t try to pick the weather, you won’t win. The weather changes very frequently, we cannot even rely on weather forecasts that are more than 24 hours out. So, when you are thinking, “what will the weather be like in 2 months?” remember, we don’t know what the weather is going to be like in 2 days. Special Note About that last sentence: we usually have a good idea of when very bad weather is coming at least 5 days prior. We have many years of experience which tells us two things; 1) be prepared 2) stay positive. Honestly we’ll take good care of you no matter what the weather is, and if you don’t enjoy your special day at the islands… come back, we guarantee it will be slightly different!
Here is a check list for planning your adventure at Santa Cruz Island, Scorpion Ranch:
First decide if you are going to go for the day or camp.
Second, plan your adventures. We suggest going on a guided adventure on your arrival day if you are camping so that you can talk with your guide and get some suggestions for your stay. All of our adventures fall into the “Caves and Coves” heading. Caves and Coves adventures are like our special recipe. We have been doing this for over 2 decades and we have a special method, that is unique to our company, for exploring and showing you the area.
If you are coming for the sea caves, the Classic is your dish. If you love caves but also really enjoy snorkeling and diving, we created the Kelp Combo just for you. The Classic will kayak to both the West and East of the beach, the Combo will only go to either West or East. The Classic provides you with snorkeling gear, but you will not be guided for the snorkeling. The Combo also provides you with 5mm dive suits and slightly nicer fins and booties. The EPIC is just that, pretty amazing! If you are looking for the bees knees of adventure and really want to tickle all of your senses, choose the EPIC (we only run 1 per day so space is limited on these). And last, we have our Campers adventure, which is only available for… you guessed it, CAMPERS! Why you ask? Because we get on the water earlier than the ferry arrives, and we paddle to a remote beach called Potato Harbor and have lunch. It takes all day and is a very unique island experience, do it if you can!
If you are camping, the itinerary we suggest is (if you can only do 2 days, then you will have time for a hike in the afternoon on Day 1, but not enough time to comfortably get to Smugglers, sorry you’ll have to come back!)
Day 1: Caves & Coves Kelp Combo
Day 2: Caves & Coves Campers
Day 3: Caves & Coves Self Guided hike to Smugglers Beach (7 mile round trip)
If you want to do a more strenuous hike, you can get shuttled to Prisoners Harbor and walk back to Scorpion in one day (14 mile hike one way). You’ll want to camp that night, but call us to talk about this if you think it’s in your wheel house.
Next select your lunch. We provide a very healthy, delicious sandwich/wrap and snack. Our chicken is the highest quality organic Jidori chicken (like the Kobe Beef of chicken) and our vegetables are sourced from the Santa Barbara farmers market each week. It took us over a decade to source the quality of food for our adventures that we desired.Thanks to Channel Islands Provisioners, we are able to get you a mouth watering belly filler that aligns with our environmental mission. Visit our Food page to learn more about this!
Last, start determining who you’re going to invite! We offer group discounts, and if you get a group of exactly 8, you’ll be with your own private guide for the whole day. Since the Channel Islands National Park has been getting more publicity, space is filling up faster than ever before. We recommend at least 2 weeks of planning for day trips and up to 4 months for camping.
Now you’ve got your check-list and hopefully we’ve helped with some of those big questions. When you plan your trip with us, we provide you with packing lists, reminders, and friendly support by phone 7 days a week. With water temperatures reaching 70 degrees, it’s time for you to get it together and come visit us at Santa Cruz Island!