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The Perfect Channel Islands Itinerary: 2 Days on Santa Cruz

March 21, 2024

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Channel Islands National Park is located just off the coast of Southern California, but feels world’s away. The five islands that make up the park are overflowing with biodiversity and natural beauty. In fact, they are home to 2,000 species of plants and animals, and 145 of those species cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

During a visit to this magical park, you can paddle into sea caves, admire towering cliffs and look for huge pods of dolphins as you travel to and from the mainland. If you’re lucky, you may get to see harbor seals, miniature foxes, whales and more. The Channel Islands are one of the best national parks to see wildlife!

This blog is all about my experience spending 2 days and one night camping and exploring Santa Cruz Island (the largest island in Channel Islands National Park). This Channel Islands National Park itinerary includes information on how to camp in the Channel Islands, along with other tips for visiting. Plus, you’ll read about the best things to do in the Channel Islands (such as kayaking, hiking and more!).

I visited the Channel Islands in April 2023, and it quickly became one of my favorite US national parks! As with any US national park, be sure to check the national park website for the most up to date conditions before you go.

A beach area near the dock on Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz Island

Overview of Channel Islands National Park

The Channel Islands can only be reached by boat, so you’ll need to plan ahead!

Channel Islands National Park is made up of 5 different islands: Santa Cruz, San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Anacapa and Santa Barbara. Santa Cruz and Anacapa are the only two islands open year round and are the most popular for day trips.

Pro Tip: You’ll have to pay for the ferry to reach the Channel Islands, but no additional entrance fee is required for the park.

How to Visit Channel Islands Islands National Park

If you’re flying in to visit Channel Islands National Park, the closest airport is the Santa Barbara Airport. However, it is a smaller airport with more limited options. The closest major airports that most will travel through are the Hollywood Burbank Airport or the Los Angeles Airport (LAX).

A beach area near the dock on Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz Island

No matter which airport you fly into, I recommend renting a car to reach the Channel Islands. You could utilize rideshare, but the distances are far enough that it is typically cheaper to just rent your own vehicle. This also gives you a lot more flexibility, especially if you’re planning to visit more than just the Channel Islands during this trip!

Compare Rental Car Prices in Los Angeles

If you’re wondering how to actually reach the Channel Islands, you’ll need to take the Island Packers Ferry. You can book tickets on their website. You’ll have several choices when you go to book. First, you can either depart from Oxnard or Ventura. Island Packers has more ferries going out from Ventura than Oxnard, so you’ll likely have limited choices if you want to book from Oxnard.

You will also get to decide between a ferry visit to the islands, or a whale, wildlife or specialty cruise. The specialty cruises do not actually land at any of the islands in Channel Islands National Park. For those, you will stay on the vessel the entire time. Options include a whale watching cruise, a bird watching cruise, and more.

If you want to visit one of the islands and be able to get out and explore, you’ll need to select which island to visit, and book round trip ferry tickets. If it’s your first visit, I recommend visiting Santa Cruz or Anacapa (or both on separate days if you have time!).

If you decide on visiting Santa Cruz and want to see as much as you can, I recommend maximizing your time by booking the earliest ferry time and the latest return time. That way, you may have time to enjoy sea kayaking and a hike in one day. If you have the time, I recommend 2 days and spending one day kayaking, and one day hiking.

When to Visit the Channel Islands

Channel Islands National Park can be visited any time of year. Southern California has mild winters, so you won’t find snow if you visit during the winter. However, high winds are a bit more likely in the winter and late fall (wind could cause the ferries to be canceled).

Summer is the most popular time of year to visit and the best time to enjoy water activities such as kayaking, snorkeling and sailing. Summer offers more ferries heading out the islands, especially for the less popular islands. Similarly, there is also warm weather if you visit in the fall.

Summer and fall also tend to be the best time to see blue and humpback whales. However, you can see gray whales in the winter and spring.

Spring brings wildflowers and is a great time for bird watching.

Overall, each season offers something a little different, and you can’t go wrong. In my experience, I had originally planned my visit for February, but the ferry was canceled due to high winds. I rescheduled for April, and had beautiful weather. I also saw plenty of wildlife, which I’ll talk more about below!

Camping on the Channel Islands

The only way to stay on one of the islands in Channel Islands National Park is to camp. Primitive camping is available on each of the five islands, and some additional backcountry camping is available on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa.

A campground with large trees on Santa Cruz Island
Scorpion Canyon Campground

There are no services on the islands. You’ll need to bring your own food, water and other camping gear. Potable water is only available in the Scorpion Canyon campground on Santa Cruz Island and the Water Canyon campground on Santa Rosa Island. You will also want to bring some extra food and water in case you get stranded for an extra day (this can occur if conditions make the ferries unable to travel).

I camped at the Scorpion Canyon Campground on Santa Cruz Island. Keep in mind that you’ll need to be able to transport your camping gear about ¾ of a mile from the ferry to the campground. Some people bring rolling carts. Personally, we brought backpacks and a duffle bag.

You should also note that you will need to lock up all of your food in the lockers provided by the park service at each site. This is to ensure that the island foxes don’t steal it (they love trying to swipe your food).

When you book your ferry, be sure to select the camping option. Campers must arrive one hour before departure so that the camping gear can be loaded onboard. You’ll also need to separate your water and your fuel from the rest of your gear for the ferry ride.

Finally, make sure to bring a trash bag and bring your waste back with you to the mainland. There are no trash cans on the island.

Read my Channel Islands camping packing list to help plan what to bring!

Channel Islands Itinerary: 2 Days

When it comes to how many days you need to see the Channel Islands, it really depends on how much you want to explore. A full day trip to one of the islands is a great way to get a feel for what makes these islands so special. However, I thought that two days on one island was perfect for me. If you want to see more than one island, you may want to spend even more time.

Here is my itinerary for spending two days on Santa Cruz Island! I stayed in hotels in Ventura the night before and after my visit, and camped for one night on Santa Cruz.

I highly recommend this exact experience for anyone who loves adventure and wants to experience both kayaking and hiking.

Alternatively, if you don’t want to camp, you can either visit two days in a row, or do a shortened version of both kayaking and hiking on a single day trip. Either way, you’ll have a great time!

Day Zero

Since you’ll want to catch an early ferry, you’ll probably want to drive to Ventura the day before and stay in a hotel. If possible, I recommend visiting the Robert J. Lagomarsino Visitor Center located at the Ventura Harbor (right next to the Island Packers Ferry).

Green plants in front of the Channel Islands visitor center
Robert J. Lagomarsino Visitor Center
A whiteboard that lists recent numbers of whales, dolphins and more seen from the Channel Islands ferries
April Wildlife Sightings

The Channel Islands Visitor Center has a lot to see and is a great place to learn about the flora and fauna of the islands. There is an impressive garden outside full of plants that are native to the islands. There is also an observation deck (you can see the islands from here on a clear day), a movie about the park, information on each of the 5 islands and a gift shop. I personally loved that they keep a sign inside that mentions all of the recent wildlife sightings from the ferries!

Whether you go before or after your visit, the visitor center is certainly worth a stop on your itinerary.

Day One

On your first full day in the park, book the earliest ferry available, head out to Santa Cruz, take a sea kayaking tour with Channel Islands Adventure Company, and enjoy the evening camping on the island.

What to Expect on the Ferry between Ventura and Santa Cruz

The ferry ride is a huge highlight in itself when you visit Channel Islands National Park! Of course, this can vary a lot day to day, but you’ll likely get to see wildlife during your ride.

A boat labeled 'Island Adventure' sitting at the dock
An Island Packers Ferry

During my visit in April, we saw 100’s of dolphins, a few humpback whales and some sea lions. It was incredible to watch huge pods of dolphins swimming alongside the boat and jumping out of the water. And seeing whales made the trips truly awe-inspiring.

Even though we weren’t on the wildlife cruise, the captain made a point to look for wildlife and bring us a bit closer to where we might see whales. It was an amazing experience!

The Island Packer ferries have indoor and outdoor seating, concessions and restrooms. You can buy sodas, snacks, beer, candy and more.

The ferry ride may take shorter or longer depending on wildlife sightings, but each way took about 1 hour and 45 minutes for me.

Take a Sea Kayaking Tour

The sea kayaking tour from Santa Cruz Island is one of my favorite national park experiences to date! Ocean kayaking offers an incredible way to see the park, but it can be dangerous and difficult. If you have experience and own a kayak, you can look into transporting it using the ferry. However, there are no kayaks to rent on your own when you reach Santa Cruz, you’ll need to book a tour.

A line of kayaks heading into a sea cave
Kayakying into a sea cave

The Channel Islands Adventure Company (also known as Santa Barbara Adventure Company) is the only authorized concessionaire operating guided sea kayak tours on Santa Cruz Island, so you’ll need to book through them. They have a few different options of varying lengths, and also offer a tour that includes snorkeling during the summer.

The most popular tour is the Adventure Sea Caves Kayak Tour, which is the one that I did. We went into so many sea caves that I lost count. Plus, the guides were very knowledgeable on the various sea and plant life on the island. We saw several harbor seals and navigated our way through some narrow caves.

The tours are typically done on tandem kayaks and the ocean conditions can be intense. During my tour, we navigated over some giant wave swells and it was definitely nerve-wracking. However, each portion is optional, conditions vary day to day and the guides did a great job of teaching us how to paddle correctly and telling us what to expect. You’ll need to listen carefully during some portions. My kayak did not flip, but a couple others did. You’ll want to be prepared to get wet.

Whether you camp on the island or visit on a day trip, I highly recommend the sea kayaking tour. In my opinion, it’s the number one thing you should do during a visit to the Channel Islands!

Camp on Santa Cruz Island

If you booked a campsite on Santa Cruz, enjoy the rest of the day by setting up your campsite, cooking dinner and doing a bit of exploring. There is a small visitor center on the island that shares information on the history and geology of the area.

A miniature fox on Santa Cruz Island
A miniature fox
A picnic table under a tree at the Scorpion Canyon Campground on Santa Cruz Island
Scorpion Canyon Campground

And the best part about camping here? You’re likely to see several miniature foxes! These foxes are about one third of the size of regular foxes and this is the only place in the WORLD where they’re found.

The foxes were super active around dusk at the campground, and they weren’t afraid to get close. Please do NOT feed them and make sure to lock up your food in the lockers provided. Our food is not good for them!

Overall, my stay at the Santa Cruz Scorpion campground was quite peaceful.

Day Two

On day two, pack up your campsite, store your things in a locker, and hit the trails! In the late afternoon or evening, catch your ferry ride back to the mainland.

Hiking on Santa Cruz Island

Recommended Day Hikes on Santa Cruz:

Please leave no trace while you’re hiking! Stay on the trails and do not trample vegetation, do not feed wildlife, and pack out all of your trash.

White flowers and green hills in the distance seen while hiking on Santa Cruz Island
The Smuggler's Road Trail

Spend your second day on Santa Cruz Island hiking! There are a few day hike options leading from Scorpion Anchorage and the campground. I combined a couple different trails for an 8-mile loop.

I started with hiking up Smuggler’s Road. This trail has some nice views and involves hiking among a lot of tall grass. It’s a great place to look for wildflowers in the Spring and Summer. You can also hike from here down to Smuggler’s Cove, which is a secluded beach area. However, this adds a lot of elevation to the hike.

After a portion on the Smuggler’s Road, I hiked down into Scorpion Canyon and through the campground. From there, I climbed up the other side of the canyon and headed to Potato Harbor.

Looking down at a harbor shaped like a large potato
Potato Harbor
Looking down at a sea cave and a giant cliff from a trail in the Channel Islands
The View near Potato Harbor

Potato Harbor was easily the best part of the trail for me! The viewpoint overlooks a large harbor that will remind you of the shape of a potato. There is a small, rocky beach area in the center (not accessible by hiking) and the harbor is surrounded by steep, green cliffs. Plus, the color of the water is a brilliant, clear blue.

Right next to Potato Harbor, you can even see another, smaller harbor. On this side, you’ll see a giant sea cave.

After Potato Harbor, I continued the loop to Cavern Point. This is a very scenic part of the trail, as you won’t be far from the cliff edge and will get to enjoy lots of ocean views of sea caves. It’s also neat to see where you kayaked the day before!

A view of the ocean and a cliff seen from hiking on Santa Cruz Island
Cavern Point

Cavern Point offers a beautiful view of the ocean and surrounding cliffs. If you only have a short time, going up here is a great option.

No matter which route you choose, it’s worth taking some time to hike on Santa Cruz during your visit! It’s a great way to see the various landscapes around this small portion of the island, and enjoy ocean views from multiple perspectives.

Take the Ferry Back to Mainland

After a day of hiking, catch your ferry back to the mainland. Remember that campers need to arrive early and help load all of the gear onto the boat. On your way back, keep your eyes open for more wildlife!

Other Things To Do in Ventura and Nearby

If you have a little bit of extra time before or after your visit, there is a lot to do in Ventura and the surrounding area!

For dinner in Ventura, check out:

A jukebox inside of Busy Bee Cafe
Busy Bee Cafe
A burrito cut in half from Beach House Tacos
Beach House Tacos
  • Beach House Tacos: A beachfront taco restaurant with outdoor seating and a delicious range of tacos and burritos. I really enjoyed the burrito with crispy potatoes. Plus, you can enjoy ocean views at this casual spot!

  • Busy Bee Cafe: This 50’s themed diner is sure to make you feel nostalgic for another time. The jukebox, red and white striped awning and checkerboard floor all add to the ambiance. Plus, they have an extensive menu of sandwiches, breakfast food, classic milkshakes and more. I enjoyed a veggie burger and a spiked coffee.

For more things to do in Ventura and Nearby:

A close up view of many yellow flowers in VenturaLydia posing among flowers at Serra Cross Park
Serra Cross Park
  • Visit Ventura Botanical Gardens and the Serra Cross: These hilltop gardens offer amazing views of the city and ocean, along with over 100 plant species. When I visited in April, the area around the Serra Cross was blooming with an incredible display of wildflowers.

  • Hike near Ventura in Arroyo Verde Park or Harmon Canyon Preserve.

  • Shop in Ventura. I loved Plum Gift Boutique and Findings Market.

  • Visit the charming town of Ojai (25 minutes away).

  • Visit Santa Barbara (located 30-40 minutes away): The best things to do in Santa Barbara include visiting the Santa Barbara Courthouse, Hendry’s Beach, eating at the Santa Barbara Food Hall and checking out the murals, restaurants and shops in the Funk Zone.

Final Thoughts

I hope this guide helps you plan an amazing trip to Channel Islands National Park! From the adorable miniature foxes to the epic sea cave exploration, this park really blew me away. Whether you visit as a day trip or spend a night camping, this park is truly magical and deserves a spot on your USA bucket list.

For more National Park Guides, check out these blogs:

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