Santa Cruz Island Camping and Hiking Adventure

King of the Channel Islands National Park

santa cruz island camping

(c) ABR 2016

Santa Cruz is the largest of the Channel Islands, and it is one of the most accessible islands, with both day-trips and overnight trip options. There are miles and miles of trails open to visitors, making this bit of California the perfect destination for hikers looking for some quiet places to explore. The island is also home to some of the world’s most beautiful sea caves, which can be viewed by kayakers, and some lucky people will also get to check out the Painted Cave from an Island Packers boat (they sometimes stop there on the way back from Santa Rosa or San Miguel). In any case, Santa Cruz Island camping is the best way to enjoy the many things that the island has to offer.

Scorpion Anchorage

santa cruz island camping

(c) ABR 2011

Scorpion Anchorage is going to be your primary landing for Santa Cruz Island camping, kayaking, and hiking. This has the best access to the parts of the island that is open to National Park users, and thus it is the perfect spot for explorers that are looking to freely wander the trails of Santa Cruz.

When you land here, you will come upon a pebbly beach, and campers will need to lug their gear up the trail from the landing, past the beautiful, green roofed ranch homes that the NPS currently uses for its personnel. The campground is past here, tucked away in a calm canyon that is still lined by the massive eucalyptus trees that were brought to the island by ranchers. Unlike Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz is a much less windy place to camp, making this verdant camping place a serene location to relax and pitch your tent.

santa cruz island camping

(c) ABR 2011

From here, if you rent a kayak or bring your own, you can walk back out to the beach and explore the coast of the island. There are beautiful sea caves on Santa Cruz and some of them are accessible to sea kayakers. You should check with local rangers for details about this, and follow all safety precautions. Remember, your safety is your responsibility.

Santa Cruz Island camping will also allow visitors to spend more time on the trails and explore deeper into the interior of the island. Since Santa Cruz is so large, there are some varied landscapes that you are sure to find if you hike for long enough, but expect rolling hills and rounded mountains covered in grasslands similar to those found on the mainland nearby.

santa cruz island camping

(c) ABR 2011

Prisoner’s Harbor

santa cruz island camping

(c) ABR 2016

Prisoner’s Harbor is a small landing where you can access part of the Nature Conservancy’s claim to Santa Cruz when accompanied by a guide. This is one of the most special places for Santa Cruz Island hiking, and worth the trip for any fan of the Channel Islands.

There is a small wetland here that is close to the landing, and which is a great place for island fox and bird watching. From here, the trail into TNC’s land curls up a steep hill to the west and then starts a tiring but enchanting hiking in and out of several washes that run out from the island to the sea. Larger trees fill the areas where water funnels to the ocean, and the more dry-adapted giant coreopsis crown many of the hills. So, while you are huffing and puffing, you get a great sample of the island’s flora.

santa cruz island camping

(c) ABR 2011

The end of the trail leads out to a beautiful beach, where you can relax for a while, and gather your strength back for the trek back to Prisoner’s Harbor.

Tips for Visiting

santa cruz island camping

(c) ABR 2011

You will need to book a boat ride with Island Packers.

To learn about camping permits, be sure to read through the National Park Service’s info page.

And if you are curious about the other Channel Islands, look through our guide!


Camping on Santa Rosa Island


Anacapa Island: Gateway to the Channel Islands


  1. THIS LOOKS EPIC!!!! Camping and hiking are honestly two of my favourite pastimes haha. I hadn’t actually heard of Channel Islands National Park, and certainly had no idea it was in CA, but this looks epic. That photo with the kayak tucked into that pristine cove is so awesome – I’d love to make it here one day soon!

    • waitingforrain28

      I’m glad I could spread the good news about this national park. Hopefully you can visit soon!

  2. Beautiful!! I love all the photos. This looks like an amazing place to camp, you gave some really great details here.

  3. The beach on Santa Cruz is beautiful! It almost looks more like the Mediterranean coastline than (what I think of when I think of) California! Did you do any swimming?

    • waitingforrain28

      I can totally see what you are saying! That’s so true. I did do a little swimming there and it was way too cold for me. hahaha.

  4. I love breaking my hikes up over multiple days with camping in between. I feel like you get so much deeper than you would if you had to turn around same day.

  5. I want to find the island foxes!!! So adorable.I love any good camping spot, so thanks for sharing!

  6. It looks so beautiful! With such a clear sky and super blue sea, it seems like an ideal destination to go camping.

  7. How have I never heard of this place!!! It looks amazingly peaceful, your photos are amazing and make me want to hop on a plane with a tent and camping gear as soon as possible 🙂

    • waitingforrain28

      It is amazing how few people know about it! I guess sometimes that is a good thing. It is an amazing place and it would be sad to have crowds there.

  8. This is such a happy coincidence. I am planning a trip during Thanksgiving to visit Santa Barbara and make the trip to the Channel Islands. Wonderful pics!

  9. Jean

    Looks like an amazing place to explore. Well worth the effort to get here.

  10. Melissa Douglas

    Ah such a beautiful place! I used to live in California (Santa Barbara) but unfortunately never made it over to the Channel Islands. Some day!

    • waitingforrain28

      Aw! I hate that! I’ve done that before too. Missed out on something great nearby.

  11. I’ve never heard of Santa Cruz Island. What an interesting place to visit and it looks super secluded. Thanks for sharing!

    • waitingforrain28

      It is definitely secluded; I think that’s what I love most about it. 😉

  12. Michelle

    WOW! I live in CA and had never heard of Channel Islands. They are on the list to visit now, for sure! Thank you so much for such a wonderful post!

    • waitingforrain28

      Yeah! If you live in CA anyway, it is definitely a great national park to visit.

  13. It is so beautiful! If I could convince my husband that time outdoors is good for us, I would love to visit just such a destination.

    • waitingforrain28

      You might just need to go on a solo adventure if he isn’t interested in nature!

  14. This reminds me quite a bit of the Oregon coast. I’m glad that you mentioned the wind factor, as so many people don’t even think about that when planning their trips.

  15. candy

    We enjoy trips like this but we hadn’t heard of this island before. Like how detailed you were in promoting this island. Something to look into.

  16. Looks like an incredible place to hike. I have yet to do any hiking in CA but I really would like to do travel there soon.

  17. elizabeth o

    What a beautiful place to visit and commune with nature. I am adding this to my list.

  18. Sheena Moncatar

    Your photos would make me want to visit this place right now. They are gorgeous. I just love National parks, hiking and camping. Thanks for sharing your adventures!

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