Santa Cruz Island is the largest one in Channel Islands National Park.

Explore one of the largest sea caves in the world on Santa Cruz Island.

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Santa Cruz Island

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Santa Cruz Island is the largest in Channel Islands National Park. It dominates the ocean horizon from the shores of Santa Barbara County (find it on the map). It's about 20 miles offshore and travel time from Ventura Harbor is 1 - 1.5 hours.

Santa Cruz Island features one of the largest sea caves in the world, plus one of the best hikes in the entire park. You can visit Santa Cruz Island for the day or campout over the weekend. Here's what you need to know to plan your island trip.

The National Park Service owns and operates only the eastern 24% of this island. The rest of the island is privately owned by The Nature Conservancy. Access to the west end of the island is by permit only.

Kayaking Santa Cruz Island© Doug Mangum Scorpion Anchorage

Santa Cruz Island is home to several species found nowhere else in the world.

Island Fox on Santa Cruz Island© Doug Mangum

The endemic Island Fox is the smallest North American canid. The average adult male weights 5 - 6 pounds, about the size of an average house cat.

Island Scrub Jay© Doug Mangum

Another endemic species is the Island Scrub Jay, found only on Santa Cruz Island. It's a little larger than the mainland blue jay.

Bald Eagle Nest on Santa Cruz IslandPhoto NOAA

After a long absence, Bald Eagles are successfully nesting in the Channel Islands again. This island is home to several Bald Eagle nests. There are even bald eagle web cams installed above a few of them.

That the internet makes it possible for so many people around the world to have a bird's-eye-view of a bald eagle's nest. Amazing!

Watching little bald eagle chicks grow up & learn to fly? Priceless!

Water Sports

This island is a popular destination for swimming, snorkeling, SCUBA diving, and kayaking. Easy beach access is available at Scorpion Anchorage, Smugglers Cove and Prisoners Harbor.

Sea Lion Swimming in a Kelp BedPhoto NOAA

Scorpion Anchorage is a world-class kayaking destination. The rugged coastline is full of sea caves and cliffs to explore. The water is clear and marine life is everywhere. It's so beautiful there!

Kayaking the clear water at Scorpion Anchorage© Doug Mangum

Kayaking around the rocky shore and into sea caves can be hazardous. It's best to go with an experienced tour guide for your first kayaking trip to the Channel Islands.

Kayaking In Sea Caves of Santa Cruz Island© Doug Mangum

Never been ocean kayaking? Neither had my friends Angela & Michael from Read all about their first trip to explore sea caves in a kayak at Santa Cruz Island.

Painted Cave on Santa Cruz Island© Doug Mangum

One of the star attractions of Santa Cruz Island is Painted Cave, on the northwest coast of the island. This is among the largest sea caves in the world.

Formed along the Santa Cruz Island fault, Painted Cave measures 1215 feet (more than four football fields!) long, and is almost 100 feet wide. A waterfall flows over the 160-foot tall entrance in the springtime.

The Nature Conservancy Property

The Nature Conservancy owns the western 76% of this island. For over 30 years the Conservancy has worked to reverse the harm caused by domestic livestock. You may not go ashore there without a landing permit.

Permits are granted to private parties only, for a maximum of ten people per permit. They are not granted to commercial vessel operators or commercial charter parties. The Nature Conservancy permit is for day use only. No camping is allowed on their property.

A 30-day pass costs just $30. Annual landing permits are $70 each. Order your Nature Conservancy landing permit at least 10 days in advance to allow for processing.


There are 14,500 acres for hikers to explore on East Santa Cruz Island. Hikers can see historic buildings from the 1800s and archaeological evidence of ancient Chumash civilization on this island.

Several hikes are available from each of the three beach landings. Download your island hiking guide here. From Scorpion Anchorage you can...

Scorpion Ancorage on Santa Cruz Island© Doug Mangum

...take an easy stroll through historic Scorpion Ranch...

Scorpion Ranch House on Santa Cruz Island Photo NPS
Cavern Point, Santa Cruz Island © Doug Mangum

...or hike up from the beach along the coastal bluffs from Cavern Point...

Potato Harbor, Santa Cruz Island © Doug Mangum Potato Harbor.

Hike inland along the Scorpion Canyon Loop to try and spot the Island Scrub Jay.

Scorpion Canyon Loop Trail, Santa Cruz Island © Doug Mangum

Or, follow Smugglers Road to Smugglers Cove.

Smugglers Cove, Santa Cruz Island Photo NPS

From Smugglers Cove the hikes are all off-trail and unmarked. Moderate to strenuous hikes take you to scenic overlooks and through steep canyons. These treks are recommended for experienced off-trail hikers only.

One of the best trails on the island begins at Prisoners Harbor.

Prisoners Harbor, Santa Cruz Island © Doug Mangum

The Pelican Bay Trail runs along the coast from Prisoners Harbor to Pelican Bay on The Nature Conservancy property. Hikers must have a permit and/or be with an Island Packer naturalist to be allowed access to this very special trail.

Pelican Trail, Santa Cruz Island © Doug Mangum
Pelican Bay Trail© Doug Mangum

Most of the hikes from Prisoners Harbor are too long to be done in a day-trip. Download an Interpretive Trail Guide for Prisoners Harbor for more information about the history of this cove.

Wilderness Camping

There are two campgrounds on this island, and reservations are required for both of them. If you plan to camp, make your transportation arrangements first, then reserve your campsite. It costs $15 per night to camp in the National Park, and campsites fill up quickly. So plan ahead.

Scorpion Canyon Campground © Doug Mangum Scorpion Canyon Campground

Scorpion Canyon Campground is the largest campground in the whole park. There are 31 campsites in a grove of shade trees about a half-mile from the landing pier. Use this link to reserve your Scorpion Canyon campsite.

If you're an experienced backpacker, you may be interested in Santa Cruz Island's backcountry camping. For more information, download this Santa Cruz Backcountry Camping Guide.

Campo Del Norte is in a shaded oak grove 700 ft above sea level. The views from up there are spectacular! It's a moderately strenuous 3.5-mile hike to the Del Norte Campground from Prisoners Harbor and conditions there are primitive. If this sounds like fun to you, reserve your Del Norte Campsite here.

Be prepared for adverse conditions. The weather can be hot and sunny or foggy and damp. Campers should bring supplies for an extra day, in case ocean conditions prevent boats from picking you up.

If you don't have your own boat, check the Island Packers schedule and boat fares to begin planning your trip. After arranging your transportation, if you want to camp, reserve your campsite. And, have fun!

Santa Cruz Island History

Wild BoarPhoto BLM

Over 10,000 years of human occupation had a disastrous effect on the delicate island ecosystem. The introduction of non-native plants and predatory animals is to blame for the extinction of some endemic island species. For the first time in over 150 years, the island is now free of non-native animals and native species are flourishing.

Ranching and fishing activities throughout the 1800s are responsible for the local extinction of sea otters, bald eagles and other species. Learn more from this 20-minute video about the eradication of wild boars and the restoration of Santa Cruz Island.

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Channel Islands National Park California

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