Day Trip to Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands NP (from Ventura)

Wondering where to go on a weekend? Head over to Santa Cruz Island, a part of Channel Islands National Park, for an unforgettable day adventure. 

Last updated: April 17, 2024

Channel Islands, one day on Santa Cruz Island | Roads and Destinations
Day trip to Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park (from Ventura)

A Day on Santa Cruz Island?

Had I ever wanted to spend one day on Santa Cruz Island, one of the islands included in Channel Islands National Park? To be completely honest, the first time I heard about it years ago, my immediate response was no. I didn’t know anything about the Channel Islands.

How to get to Santa Cruz, moreover, spend a day on a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean was an even bigger mystery for me. Apart from it, the idea of going somewhere on a boat, a trip that would last nearly an hour or more, didn’t seem too appealing to me.

Yet the more I heard about Santa Cruz Island, the more often I was pondering over the idea of spending a day there. One day out of curiosity, I turned to Google for the answers. It didn’t take long before my interest turned into a mini obsession.

How to Get to Santa Cruz Island

There are not many ways to get to Santa Cruz for a day excursion. The island is accessible only by Channel Islands National Park concessionaire boats (Island Packers) or private boats. The main visitor centers on the mainland are nestled in Santa Barbara and Ventura. Yet the ferries to Santa Cruz Island depart only from Ventura Harbor.

The latter has an additional advantage for us. Located a little bit over one hour north, it works perfectly for a day trip or weekend getaway from Los Angeles that requires minimum driving.

There is no transportation available on Santa Cruz Island. You can reach different parts of the island only on foot or by kayaks or boats.

Day Trips from Santa Barbara | Roads and Destinations
Spending one day on Santa Cruz in Channel Islands National Park

What is Channel Islands National Park?

Created on March 5, 1980, Channel Islands National Park consists of five ecologically diverse islands: San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Anacapa, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz, the largest island in the park. The chain of islands is located off the coast of Southern California, in the ocean area between Point Conception near Santa Barbara and San Pedro, a coastal neighborhood of Los Angeles.

The California Channel Islands span more than 100 million years. The newest history dates back some 13,000 years. All these years, the islands were occupied by Chumash and Tongva Native Americans. By the early 19th century, Spanish immigrants removed the Native Americans from the islands and used the area mainly for fishing and agriculture.

Today the Channel Islands are known as one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world. Nicknamed the Galapagos of North America, the islands harbor more than 2,000 species of animals and plants. Out of these, 145 species are indigenous to the area and can’t be found anywhere else on Earth.

The Best Time to Visit Channel Islands National Park

The unique fauna and flora of Channel Islands National Park attract more than 300,000 people a year. Most of the visitors explore the islands in summer when the weather is the warmest. Thanks to the calmer ocean conditions, the boat ride to the Channel Islands is also the smoothest and most enjoyable during this time.

  • Water Activities. The summer season, from June through August, is considered the second best time for snorkeling, diving, kayaking, and even swimming. The best time for these activities is early fall when the ocean temperatures can reach up to 80°F. In September, the visibility underwater is often 100 feet.
  • Whale Watching. The summer marks the beginning of the blue and humpback whale watching season. It comes to an end in the early fall. Gray whales swim in the warmer waters of the Channel Islands National Park from the end of December until April.
  • Seal Watching. A variety of seal species haul out on the shores of the Channel Islands throughout the year. Sea lions and northern fur seals can be spotted here as early as March. In the summer, California marine mammals begin pupping. Northern elephant seals arrive at the rookeries on the islands as well as the mainland (the biggest of them is the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery near San Simeon) in late fall. Finally, in the winter, you can watch harbor seals lying on the beaches or swimming near the Channel Islands.
  • Wildflowers. After rainy winters, the Channel Islands showcase a thick veil of green vegetation dotted with seasonal wildflowers, normally yellow coreopsis. The blooming season lasts from late January through March.
Hiking on Santa Cruz Island | Roads and Destinations
Day hiking on Santa Crus Island

How and When to Visit Santa Cruz Island from Ventura

  • Boat Tours Starting Point: Ventura Harbor
  • Santa Cruz Island Operator: Island Packers
  • Time of the Trips: Boat tours to Santa Cruz Island run year round, 5-7 day trips per week.
  • Travel Time from Ventura Harbor: 1 hour 45 minutes
  • Landing Sites: Scorpion Anchorage or Prisoner’s Harbor

Day Trip to Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park

Like other islands in the park, Santa Cruz is a perfect place for a day excursion or overnight camping trip. After leaving Los Angeles around 6 am, our second part of the day trip to Santa Cruz started at the Ventura Harbor where we boarded a park concessionaire boat at 9 am. About 1 hour 40 minutes later, the tour boat arrived at the shore of Santa Cruz Island.

The ride was rather bumpy. I ended up getting seasick halfway throughout the trip. As much as I enjoyed observing sea lions swimming near the boat in the Pacific Ocean, I couldn’t wait to step on the solid ground.

I noticed quite a good number of people also fell victims to sea sickness. Catching the first sight of Santa Cruz was a great relief for all of us.  An hour of excruciating travel was finally coming to an end. Honestly, after this ride, spending the entire day hiking on Santa Cruz Island was the last thing I wanted to do. But there was no way to get back to the mainland before evening.

One Day on Santa Cruz Island | Roads and Destinations
Cave exploring on Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park

How to Spend One Day on Santa Cruz Island: Best Things to Do

TIP: Once ashore, we were on our own. There was no accommodation, food, or water available on the island. The visitors had to plan ahead of time and bring their own food, water, and anything they needed.

1. Check out Scorpion Ranch Visitor Center

The Scorpion Ranch Visitor Center is located in the historic Scorpion ranch house that was built in 1886-1887 and renovated in 2004-2005. Today the area is equipped with many interactive exhibits that tell the visitor about the history of the island, its biodiversity, and current resource issues.

2. Spend a Day Hiking on Santa Cruz Island

After catching our breath at the Scorpion Ranch Visitor Center, we were ready for our big Santa Cruz Island hiking day. Except for climbing to the top of the island right near the center, the hiking trails were relatively flat and easy. Boasting incredible coastal views, they made the trip more enjoyable than we had pictured before that early morning bumpy ride.

There are some of the trails you may want to explore if hiking is a part of your Santa Cruz day trip itinerary.

  • Cavern Point Loop Hike. A moderate 2-mile, round-trip hike from Scorpion Beach with beautiful coastal view
  • Potato Harbor Overlook Hike. A moderate 5-mile, round-trip hike from Scorpion Beach. There is no access to Potato Harbor from land, only by boat or kayak.
  • Scorpion Canyon Loop Hike. A strenuous 4.5-mile, round-trip hike from Scorpion Beach to explore the inside areas of Santa Cruz Island.
  • Smuggler’s Cove Hike. A strenuous 7.5-mile, round-trip trail that takes you from Scorpion Beach to picturesque Smuggler’s Cove.
  • Yellowbanks Hike. A strenuous 3-mile, round-trip trail from Smuggler’s Cove to a secluded beach and a viewpoint overlooking Yellowbanks Anchorage.
  • Prisoner’s Harbor Hike. An easy, 0.5-mile (round trip) hike to view the historic Prisoner’s Harbor building, with a trailhead at Prisoner’s Harbor.
  • Del Norte Trail Overlook Hike. A moderate 3-mile (round trip) hike that starts at Prisoner’s Harbor.
Kayaking near Santa Cruz Island | Roads and Destinations
Kayaking | Day trip to Santa Cruz Island

3. Kayak and Explore Sea Caves

At one point during our Santa Cruz hiking journey, we strayed off the designated trail and got pretty close to one of the sea caves. This was the first time we regretted not being able to kayak and explore the shores, inaccessibly on foot.

Kayaking is an excellent opportunity to reach Santa Cruz’s secluded coves, including Potato Harbor, and view more of marine wildlife that comes close to the island.

When it comes to exploring Santa Cruz’s caves, you may need to join a kayak tour. The tour lasts anywhere between 2.5 to 3 hours. Alternatively, you can bring your own kayak.

TIP: Make sure to contact Island Packers before your day trip to Santa Cruz Island to make sure they have room to transport your kayak. Transportation fee is not included in the ferry ride to the island.

4. Have a Picnic

On our way back to the visitor center, we decided to have a little picnic. You had to eat at one point or another while spending the entire day on Santa Cruz Island. The only problem we had was the lack of shaded areas. But in the wild places like Channel Islands National Park you had to compromise with some “luxuries”.

Despite strong winds, food tasted amazing, which is normally the case when you burn your calories and replenish them right there, surrounded by nature. Probably nature itself is that magical element that brings out all the flavors.

We could sit and philosophize longer and take more photos of Santa Cruz Island, but our boat was scheduled to take us back to Ventura in less than two hours. We still had about 1 hour and 30 minutes to hike back to the harbor.

One Day on Santa Cruz | Roads and Destinations
About to leave for Ventura | Day trip to Santa Cruz Island

Back to the Mainland

Back at the shore in dreadful anticipation of our ride to the mainland, I was sure sea sickness would hit me again.  And certainly it did… Once on the boat, I placed my head on a table and patiently waited for all other passengers to board. It took more than an hour before the boat finally started sailing away and two more hours to get back to Ventura Harbor.

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