What to Do at Channel Islands National Park – Santa Cruz Island Trip

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Just off the coast of Santa Barbara lie the 4 islands that make up the Channel Islands National Park. With only about 300,000 visitors last year, the Channel Islands truly are considered a hidden gem among national parks. With my limited schedule, I was only able to book a Santa Cruz Island trip. I saw more than I could ever imagine in a park. I want to show you everything this island has to offer – the rainbow cloud, dolphins, wildflowers, snow fox, and the chance to fulfill a dream to be in the Sound of Music.

Scenery at Channel Islands National Park – Santa Cruz Island

Shoes and cliffside view at Channel Islands National Park

Just doing some shoe modeling

Cliffs at Channel Islands National Park

Scenery at Channel Islands National Park

Scenery at Santa Cruz Island

Transportation: Getting to Channel Islands National Park

Unfortunately, you can’t swim to Channel Islands National Park… But you get to see lots of dolphins and maybe whales on the ferry to Santa Cruz Island!

There are 2 ways to travel to Santa Cruz Island: by boat or by plane. I picked the boat option with Island Packers. This company offers Inter-island hopping between Venture and the four Channel Islands, and they also have whale watching ferry trips in the summer.

These are the routs the boat will take you:

Island Packers boat schedule Channel Islands National Park

Ticket prices vary depending on the season.

  • Peak season (June – August) ~ $80 roundtrip for adults / ~$60 roundtrip for children under 12
  • Off season ~ $60 roundtrip for adults / ~$40 roundtrip for children under 12

Here are a few tips for traveling to Channel Islands National Park:

  • Make the reservation 3 weeks ahead of time to get your desired departure and arrival times
  • The ocean weather of Channel Islands is unpredictable. Expect high wind and ocean swell. The boat ride could be challenging if you have motion sickness. Be sure to take some medications
  • Although next to California, this island does have 4 seasons. Make sure to pack warm clothes for night time and the boat ride, especially if visiting in winter.

You can also go with charter flights to Channel Islands. This option is more deluxe. You get a chance to land on a secluded beach, where you can have a picnic and your pilot will be your park guide. The price is no less than $1000.

The hills are alive with the sound of music
Tall grasses dancing with the wind, gentle hills and wide valleys behind me; I truly felt like I was in the Sound of Music. I had to improvise but you get the point

What to See on Santa Cruz Island

The boat to Santa Cruz Island will arrive at Scorpion Pier. When you get off, a ranger will give you a brief talk about the island: where to hike, where to use the bathroom, how to store your trash, and what to see. Be sure to grab a hiking map at the ranger station on the island.

1) Historic Ranch

Not far from the ranger station on Santa Cruz Island is the Historic Ranch. This is a great place to get in-depth knowledge on what life was like on this island. There is also a guest book you can sign. I found it interesting to see where all the visitors are from.

Solo female traveler at Channel Islands National Park

I tell ya, this little girl is a champ! She is the future of female explorer. She would hike ahead of her family, and would occasionally stop to wait for them. LOVEE HERRR!!! Solo female traveler in the making!

2) Cavern Point Loop Harbor (2-mile roundtrip)

Just on the right of the ranch, there is the trailhead of Cavern Point Loop. It’s a little steep going up with the rocky stairs. As you past the first half a mile, the trail flattens out. This is a great trail to get an overview of Santa Cruz Island.

3) Potato Harbor (5-mile roundtrip)

Not a place to harvest potato…

Potato Harbor overlook Santa Cruz Island

Potato Harbor at Santa Cruz Island

After you pass the Cavern Point, you can go back through the loop, or keep hiking to Potato Harbor. Once you reach the sign of Potato Harbor, you can stop and have a quick picnic. Or you can follow the not well-marked trail half way down the cliff. You get a closer look at the seals chilling on the rock. Return to the pier through Potato Harbor road and pass through 2 campgrounds.

Camping at Santa Cruz Island

Campground at Channel Islands National ParkThere are 3 campgrounds on Santa Cruz Island. Camping reservation can be made online, and the fee is $15. Campgrounds have basic amenities and access to all the trails.

If you are staying for more than a day, there are 12 other hikes you can explore on Santa Cruz Island. Most of the hikes are strenuous and longer than 4-miles roundtrip. Make sure to pack enough food for your whole trip, as there are no stores or restaurants on this island.

Try your best to scout for snow foxes, that is all I will say. 😉

Non-hiker Activities at Channel Islands National Park

Beside hiking and camping on this refreshing island, there are other water activities you can try.

1) Snorkeling

Late March is a good time to start snorkeling if you have a body suit. If not, then you might want to wait until June. Check out the swell and talk to the park ranger before you head in.

2) Kayaking

This is something I found out when I actually got to the island. The Santa Barbara Adventure Company offers kayaking on Santa Cruz Island. This is the only island where they offer their guided tours, on which you get to explore the nearby sea caves and hang out with curious dolphins.

  • Cost: $149 for adult, $139 for child 12 and under (The ticket includes your boat ride to the island).

Whether it is a quick getaway or a week camping under the stars, Channel Islands National Park is a great choice to experience the ocean, land, and wildlife without heavy crowds and traffic.

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