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Ultimate Guide to Camping on the Channel Islands National Park (Santa Cruz Island)

Camping on the Channel Islands is an outdoorsy experience that all adventurers should check off their California bucket list. Enjoy the excitement of traveling by boat to get to your campsite, and discover the abundant marine life that surrounds the islands. Pitch your tent on the island, and explore all the hiking, kayaking, snorkeling, and wildlife that awaits!

Hiking Out to Potato Harbor on Santa Cruz Island
Hiking Out to Potato Harbor on Santa Cruz Island
Site #12 at Scorpion Canyon Campground
Site #12 at Scorpion Canyon Campground

What you'll find in this camping guide:

What are the Channel Islands Known for?


The Channel Islands, are one of California's least visited national parks, and is renowned for its diverse marine ecosystems, adorable island foxes, whale watching, and breathtaking coastline vistas. There are 8 individual islands that make up this archipelago, but only 5 of them are designated as part of the National Park System: San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara.


Fun Fact: Catalina Island is also part of the Channel Islands and is one of the most inhabited with locals and visitors, but it is not a National Park!

Experience a Kayaking Tour on the Channel Islands
Experience a Kayaking Tour on the Channel Islands

How to get to the Channel Islands?


To get to the Channel Islands you will need to book a boat reservation in advance with Island Packers. I highly recommend you book your boat reservation immediately after you reserve your campsite. We booked both our campsite and boat reservations 6 months in advance!


Expect to arrive 1 hour early from when you make your reservation. Initially we booked our boat for the 10am time slot, but we received emails from Island Packers notifying us that this could change and to be flexible. Our boat time was actually moved up to 9am just a few days before our departure.



If you are traveling in from somewhere other than Southern California to camp on the Channel Islands, it's best to book a night in Ventura before your boat departure.


We stayed at the Four Points by Sheraton on the Ventura Harbor, and it was a great place to be close to the Island Packers location and made us feel prepared for our trip. Plus, Ventura is a super cute beach town, and we enjoyed grabbing drinks at Ventiki Tiki Lounge and dinner at Rumfish Y Vino.


Hotels in Ventura:

We hiked in with our backpacking gear. About 1 Mile Each Way to our campsite.
We hiked in with our backpacking gear. About 1 Mile Each Way to our campsite.
View overlooking Scorpion Anchorage and Beach for Swimming on Santa Cruz Island
View overlooking Scorpion Anchorage and Beach for Swimming on Santa Cruz Island

Where to Camp on the Channel Islands?


There are several different campgrounds to choose from on the Channel Islands, so here is a summary of the islands to help you choose which is best for you. All campgrounds are available year round, have picnic tables and pit toilets, but remember you have to take your trash with you when you leave.


If you prefer video, you might enjoy our Camping Vlog from camping on Santa Cruz Island. See our full recap on YouTube.


Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz Island offers the most outdoor activities opportunities, including hiking, swimming, snorkeling, diving, kayaking, and observing wildlife and wildflowers. Due to its accessible beach access and generally favorable weather, it is one of the easiest and most family friendly Islands to camp on. Traversing the island's valleys and peaks is a must while on the island, and your likely to spot some of the adorable island foxes too!


Scorpion Canyon Campground

Distance: 0.5 mile - 1 mile walk to campsite


San Miguel Island

San Miguel Island has a number of trails that offer breathtaking hiking opportunities for campers. A few places of the island are open for visitors to explore, but many are off limits to preserve the island's fauna, delicate vegetation, and geological characteristics. Swimming, snorkeling, diving, and kayaking are restricted and only advised for seasoned tourists because to the persistently strong wind (up to 30 knots!).


San Miguel Island Campground

Distance: 1 mile/ 400 ft elevation hike to campsite



Santa Rosa Island

The topography in Santa Rosa exhibits significant differences. High mountains with sharply cut gorges are followed by expansive beaches, coastal wetlands, and gently sloping hills. This location is 1,589 feet above sea level. Additionally, the island has a plethora of archeological resources. Numerous significant Chumash Native American archeological sites can be found there, and pygmy mammoth remnants and other long-extinct animal remains have also been found.


Water Canyon Campground

Distance: 1.5 miles walk to campsite


Anacapa Island:

As a result of the volcanic island's erosion by waves, Anacapa is home to Arch Rock, a forty-foot-tall rock that serves as one of the symbols of the Channel Island National Park, as well as other towering sea cliffs, sea caves, and natural bridges.


Anacapa Island Campground

Distance: 0.5 mile / 157 Stair Incline hike to campsite


Santa Barbara Island:

Explore the highest peak on Santa Barbara Island, Signal Peak, is 635 feet above sea level, surrounded by sheer cliffs above looming over the rocky shorelines. Enjoy five miles of hiking trails and proximity to the water, Santa Barbara Island offers a variety of recreational activities, including hiking, swimming, snorkeling, diving, kayaking, and wildlife/wildflower viewing.


Santa Barbara Island Campground

Distance: 0.25 mile / steep incline hike to campsite


Tip: Check out my camping gear packing list to make sure you have everything you need for your trip!


View of Scorpion Canyon Campground Upper Loop
View of Scorpion Canyon Campground Upper Loop

Best Time to Camp on the Channel Islands?

Since the Channel Islands provide year-round camping, you can take advantage of the chance to experience the many stages of each season and all that it has to offer. While the summer months are undoubtedly the busiest because of the warm weather and the availability to enjoy water sports, camping is enjoyable year-round thanks to the area's diverse flora, fauna, and wildlife.


Spring


A trip in the spring is ideal for viewing wildflowers in bloom, lush vegetation, Island Fox pupping season, bird nesting (Peregrine Falcons, Western Gulls, Seabirds), cooler weather, and greener and grassier conditions.


Summer


One of the best seasons to visit the Channel Islands is during the summer, when the weather is ideal for water activities, whale watching for blue and humpback whales, and sighting California sea lion pups.


Fall


Clear skies, pleasant weather, autumnal bird migrations, northern elephant seals, and warm ocean temperatures are all hallmarks of the fall season on the Channel Islands. Fall time is one of the best times to visit the Channel Islands if you want less crowds and fair weather for water activities!


Winter


The winter season is ideal for spotting gray whales, stunning sunsets, northern elephant and harbor seal pups, lush greenery, and the beginning of the spring wildflower bloom.


Stunning Views of Crystal Clear Water at Potato Harbor
Stunning Views of Crystal Clear Water at Potato Harbor
Exploring the Hiking Trails on Santa Cruz Island
Exploring the Hiking Trails on Santa Cruz Island

Things to Do on Santa Cruz Island


Explore the Hiking Trails


Beautiful hiking trails can be found on Santa Cruz Island, but the hike out to Potato Harbor was by far our favorite. When you get to the overlook, you can see the stunning ocean water, which is a vibrant blue color. Even if you can't physically swim in the harbor, it's still a beautiful location for photography. If you can make it up there for sunset time, I hear the sunsets are incredible at this view!


The Scorpion Canyon Loop Trail is an another great day hike, and I recommend going counter clockwise so you can end up with views of harbor at the end. Definitely go for an ocean swim afterwards!


Smugglers Cove Trail is an uphill challenge for expert hikers, but it rewards you with magnificent views and seclusion. Make sure to check out the current trail restrictions as some parts of the island were closed off due to a previous fire.


Go Kayaking & Snorkeling


Kayaking and snorkeling are definitely some of the most popular activities on the Channel Islands because of the abundant marine life and sea caves to explore. If you are camping on Santa Cruz Island there is a small tour stand run by Island Kayaking, to discuss and find available tours. Although I would highly recommend making kayaking tour reservations in advance as this is a very popular activity!


Tip: Bring your own snorkeling mask and gear with you!



Beach Swimming


One of my favorite things about camping at Scorpion Canyon Campground was access to the beach for swimming. A post-hike swim at the Scorpion Anchorage beach was a necessity for us, but make sure to pack water shoes as the beach front is very rocky.


Spot many Island Foxes roaming the island! They don't pay any attention to humans!
Spot many Island Foxes roaming the island! They don't pay any attention to humans!

Spot the Wildlife and Flora & Fauna


The Channel Islands is famous for the inhabitance of Island Foxes, which are significantly smaller than regular foxes, and make for very cute sightings! The island foxes can only be found here on the Channel Islands, and won't be spotted anywhere else in the world! They are very common on Santa Cruz Island and you are bound to see them roaming the campgrounds, canyons and like to come out on the beach once all the day tours have left for the day!


Even though the island's hillsides and landscapes are quite dry in the summer, there are still some beautiful flowers to be found there. Although viewing wildflowers is best in the springtime!


If you love wildflowers, you might consider timing your trip to visit the Calla Lily wildflower bloom in Big Sur!


Tips for Camping on Santa Cruz Island

  • There is the possibility of having to stay an extra night camping if you miss your boat, or the seas are too rough for the boat to pick you up. Make sure to pack enough for an extra day.

  • Although we packed light, many campers brought large rolling coolers and rolling carts! Check size requirements first on Island Packers.

  • Bring sun protection (Hat, Sunglasses, Sunscreen) as the island has very little shade.

  • Santa Cruz Island (Scorpion Anchorage Sites) has drinking water so need to pack it yourself!

  • Bring water sandals for the beach

  • Pack your own snorkeling gear to save money

  • Bring trash bags to pack out your trash

  • Lock everything up in your Fox Box

  • Make reservations for boat, campsite and kayak tours far in advance

Thanks for reading this guide for camping on the Channel Islands, I hope it helps your plan your future trip!


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Welcome to the Brittsbellavita Blog, a California based travel and adventure community geared towards inspiring others to find their "Bella Vita." I am a Licensed Drone Pilot and Content Creator with a passion for exploring the outdoors, finding hidden gems, and getting off the beaten path. I live in Northern California, and love showcasing the Golden State, West Coast, and beyond!

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