How to Spend Your Next Adventure at Santa Cruz Island
Written and Photographed By: Ben McBee Santa Cruz Island
Islands are exciting, encapsulated worlds that inspire some of the greatest stories ever told—”Gulliver’s Travels,” “Swiss Family Robinson” and “The Odyssey,” to name a few. Growing up an avid reader, my imagination often wandered to outlandish, far away locales in the middle of the sea. I even sketched many of my own treasure maps, complete with erupting volcanoes and lurking sea serpents. Years later, I finally got the chance to realize my childhood fantasies of nautical exploration, just off the Southern California coast in Channel Islands National Park.
My girlfriend and willing adventure partner, Mallory, and I arrived at Ventura Harbor an hour early for our 11 a.m. departure. The morning sun was gentle and a soft breeze carried with it a hint of salt, the perfect recipe for an excursion on the high seas. We joined a queue of bird watchers and sugar-rushed kids outside of Island Packers Cruises, all of us anxious to board the double-decker catamaran docked below. For almost 50 years Island Packers has been the facilitator of education, recreation and scientific research on all five of the Channel Islands. We were about to set sail for the largest, Santa Cruz, where we would be camping for one night in Scorpion Canyon Campground.
Once everyone shuffled on and the all clear was given, the twin engines rumbled to life and we scooted our way out of the port. A sea lion lounging on a buoy lifted a fin as he rolled over, undoubtedly wishing us bon voyage. The shoreline grew fainter and the motor really opened up, sending strong gusts ruffling through my hair. White splashes erupted from the ocean surface as dolphins played in our wake, much to the awe of every passenger. The captain’s voice scratched over the intercom, informing us that for every visible dolphin, there were likely four more concealed beneath in this enormous pod. Nutrient rich waters that surround the Channel Islands create a sanctuary for biodiversity and the largest concentration of marine mammals on Earth. In addition to several different dolphin and porpoise species, 27 different whales have been seen there, offering a year-round spectacle for nature lovers.
An hour passed by and the boat anchored in the azure waters of Scorpion Anchorage, where you can rent kayaks and paddle around rocky spires. After retrieving our gear, we set out on the quarter mile hike to the campground, taking in the towering sea cliffs and ranch house relics of a bygone era. We were carrying provisions for the next 24 hours, along with sleeping bags and a tent, so the straps of our backpacks weighed especially heavy on our shoulders as the temperature rose. While both day trips and camping are an option on all of the islands, only Santa Cruz is equipped with running water; be extremely prepared if you plan to stay overnight and if you pack it in, pack it out.
We stopped to grab a map and check out the air-conditioned visitor center, where exhibits tell the story of Santa Cruz’s rich, layered history. For over 9,000 years before European contact, the Chumash people occupied the island and traversed the channel in plank canoes to trade valuable shells and pelts with other tribes on the mainland. During the Civil War, an estimated 24,000 sheep roamed the surrounding hills and valleys as ranchers strained to meet the skyrocketing demand for wool. Smugglers even exploited the desolate coastline to stockpile their loot, adding intrigue and lore to the region as only pirates can.
Papery bark crinkled softly underfoot as we reached our campsite in a welcoming grove of eucalyptus trees. Not long after setting up, we received our first visitor, a sniffing island fox with a creased left ear. Santa Cruz is home to a resurgent population of this native canid, found nowhere else in the world. After being nearly wiped out, they now spend the day scavenging for scraps of careless campers, so we locked our food up before heading out on a hike.
From the campsite, there are several trails that branch out to various extents of the island, like Montañon Ridge and Potato Harbor, but those were a huge time commitment, so we opted for the short loop to Cavern Point, a picturesque climb high above the shore. It was the ideal spot to watch the sun set along the length of the coastline, as vibrant orange shifted to a deep fuchsia, and pinpricks of light began to appear in the heavens. The sky darkened and we made our way back to the beach to settle in for an hour or two of stargazing. There, 20 miles from the nearest city lights, the cosmos could be appreciated in its full splendor. The Milky Way rose out of the southern sky like the arm of a glimmering colossus, its band a complete arc across the inky darkness. Some easily recognizable constellations peered down at us as well: Orion’s Belt, the Big Dipper and Sagittarius.
The next morning, Mallory and I set out on a trek across the island to Smugglers Cove, determined to make the most of our remaining time. Though strenuous, the views along the way were unmatched; the rich earthen hues of the mountains clashed with vivid aqua blues and green swaths of vegetation. A dip in the waves was a refreshing reward, but the cobblestone beach made sunbathing an uncomfortable endeavor.
In the waning minutes of our island excursion, we lounged by the rocks at Scorpion Anchorage, soaking our tired feet while awaiting the ferry’s return. There’s something humbling about sitting on the shore, waiting to see a boat materialize on the horizon. It strengthened my appreciation for the remaining wild places on the planet. Whether you choose to visit for a day or stay for a week, Santa Cruz Island is an extraordinary opportunity to create your own story.
Most Instagrammable Sights
- Potato Harbor
- Smugglers Cove
- Montañon Ridge
- Scorpion Ranch
- Prisoners Harbor
-Don’t venture too close to the cliff edges; they can be unstable and crumble.
-Water is only available at the campgrounds, so if you plan on hiking, make sure to pack enough.
-Bring sunglasses, a hat and sunscreen to protect against the heat. Wear layers and bring binoculars to help spot marine wildlife in the distance.
-Plastic grocery bags are prohibited on lands within Channel Islands National Park, along with pets and campfires, to protect the health of endangered species.
-Follow the “Leave No Trace” guidelines and give all wildlife plenty of space when viewing them.
Look at All Those Eagles: With over 60 native and unique animal and plant species, Santa Cruz Island boasts the largest number of both in all the Channel Islands. This includes species that are only found on the island.
What’s in a Name? Santa Cruz Island’s name came from a Chumash Indian who found a staff and returned it to the priest who had left it. To show their gratitude, the Spaniards called the island “La Isla de Santa Cruz,” which translates to the Island of the Sacred Cross.
Santa Cruz Island
1901 Spinnaker Dr
Ventura, CA 93001
Island Packer Cruises
1691 Spinnaker Dr, Ste 105B
Ventura, CA 93001
Throw on Your Backpacking Gear and Head to Santa Cruz Island