One Ideal Day on Santa Cruz Island

How I wandered into the perfect itinerary for one day on the Channel Islands.

You know that feeling when you take a spontaneous adventure and whether it's true or not, you're certain you couldn't have done it better because how could you possibly ask for more? Yeah. That was today.

The Last California National Parks

So I have this goal... it involves finishing the last six national parks that I've yet to visit — Pinnacles, Redwood, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Lassen Volcanic and Channel Islands — all in 2017. Welp... knock one off the list! After my boyfriend and I watched the (successful) SpaceX launch from Vandenberg on Saturday January 14, it was a no-brainer to stay put for Sunday and journey across Santa Barbara Channel to one of the seven parks on my list.

The Journey Begins

Santa Cruz will steal your heart before you even arrive. The journey begins at the Island Packers dock (1691 Spinnaker Dr #105B, Ventura CA), a little over one hour from Los Angeles, making this arguably the closest National Park to the city. Adult tickets are $59 for a day trip and $79 for overnight round trip and boats depart seven days a week April through October and Tuesday, Friday Saturday and Sunday in the winter. Reserve a trip or show up 30 minutes to an hour before the boats depart to check availability for the 9am or 10am to Scorpion Anchorage. We had no issues showing up and buying tickets on a Sunday morning in winter.

Getting to Santa Cruz

The trip across the Santa Barbara Channel is one hour long. Stand at the front of the boat. It's here where you're likely to get a spectacular look at dolphins as they swim up and race you and where you can keep a close eye on the horizon, which helps to prevent sea sickness (think of it like being the driver in a car vs. a passenger with wandering or occupied eyes). 


Arriving at the island, you'll walk across a metal platform and find yourself on a small beach with kayaks for rent. 

On the Trail

In search of the endemic species (and a "lifer" for my bird-obsessed boyfriend) the Island Scrub Jay, we aimed straight ahead for the Scorpion Canyon Trail where we passed bathrooms, the visitors center and a flat sizable campground. Here we saw our first foraging Island Fox, a species unique to the Channel Islands with a distinct subspecies for each of the six islands they occupy. 


We veered off down into a water bed and did some climbing up stream before returning to the trail and turning around—just before the trail hooked left up a hill. Instead of heading all the way back to shore, we turned left just before reaching the campsites again, onto Potato Harbor Road. This climb offers premium views of the rolling green hills and eventually meets up with the North Bluff Trail.

Coming up over the hills, you're but a few minutes from Potato Harbor. With its Big Sur-like cliffs and white beaches outlining turquoise blue water, this is a great place to grab a snack or sit and eat your lunch amongst raw, chaotic beauty. 


Head back along the coast and scan the water for whale tails. Eventually you'll come to Cavern Point which offers an awe-inspiring lookout of the caverns far below. 


Despite the more volcanic-looking earth beneath your soles, your back is still turned to rolling green hills and patches of happy yellow wild flowers.


Before you know it, you'll be heading back down hill and arriving at Scorpion Anchorage once again, just in time for the 4pm boat back to the mainland.

When to Visit

One of a handful of National Parks that offers decent weather year-round, Santa Cruz has unique offerings that change by the season. Here are a few of the highlights to help you decide when to visit.

  • Winter - Migrating Gray Whales can be seen from Cavern Point.
  • Spring - Wildflowers are abundant and the plains are a beautiful bright green.
  • Summer - Consistent weather makes snorkeling a no-brainer and both Blue and Humpback Whales can be seen in the channel.
  • Fall - Water temperatures are still ideal for snorkeling, kayaking and swimming.

If you're in Los Angeles you have zero reason not to visit any and all of the Channel Islands. In fact, make the trip regardless. You won't be sorry. I can't wait to come back and camp... I have a funny feeling it will be within the year.

Published: January 23, 2017

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Leigh Maneri

Hermosa Beach

Writer, content strategist, explorer, ponderer. Always go.