This post covers everything you need to know for planning a trip to any of the five islands in California’s Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary.
The Channel Islands are comprised of eight islands (Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Nicolas, San Clemente, Santa Barbara, and Santa Catalina) off the coast of Southern California. You’ve probably heard of Catalina Island, but most people have never heard of the other seven islands.
Five of these islands are part of the Channel Islands National Park and each of these islands has at least one designated campground. We were first introduced to this set of islands during a day trip to Anacapa Island from Oxnard, where we spent the afternoon hiking around and got lucky with an unforgettable Orca and Gray whale encounter on our ferry ride back to the mainland.
We experienced a second day trip to the islands — this time to Santa Cruz Island — during a trip to Santa Barbara a few months ago. This day trip is what sparked our interest to finally pull the trigger on booking a campsite here in July.
Booking a camping trip to the islands is easy enough, but preparing for the trip requires a little more planning — especially for those who don’t have the right camping gear. Due to the lack of information online, we’ve decided to put together this helpful travel guide for those considering an overnight camping trip to any of the five islands that are part of the Channel Islands National Park.
This post will focus mainly on the Scorpion Ranch campground on Santa Cruz Island because that’s where we stayed, but these tips will be helpful for planning a trip to any of the campgrounds or islands in the park.
Channel Islands National Park Travel Guide
Booking the Ferry to Channel Islands National Park
According to the National Park’s website, you must book your ferry ticket before you reserve a campsite at any of the campgrounds. The ferries fill up quicker than the campsites because of day trippers, so be sure to check Island Packer’s availability first.
The ferry to Santa Cruz leaves from Ventura Harbor. If you are traveling from out of town and want to take a morning ferry trip, I highly recommend booking a hotel near the harbor the night before. We stayed at the Country Inn & Suites By Carlson, Ventura, CA — about a five minute drive from the harbor. They provide breakfast in the morning and we were able to fill up our cooler with fresh ice from their ice machine, which made things extremely easy for our early morning departure.
You need to check in at the harbor one hour before your ferry departs in order for them to load the camping gear. The ferry trip to Scorpion Anchorage takes about an hour and you will likely see some wildlife.
Booking a Campsite in Channel Islands National Park
Even during the busy summer months, it’s not impossible to find an open campsite on Santa Cruz Island. We booked our campsite about three months in advance, which is unheard of for National Parks in California. However, I would still try to book well in advance if you are looking to stay on a Saturday night in the summer or over a holiday weekend. You can reserve a site on Recreation.gov.
At Scorpion Ranch, there is an upper loop and a lower loop of campsites. The lower loop is about a 1/2 mile hike in and the upper loop is about a mile, depending on where your site is located inside the loop. There is potable water, pit toilets, picnic tables, and food storage bins at this campground.
If you have some backpacking experience, the Del Norte Campground is 3.5 miles each way from Prisoners Harbor and has views of the ocean from the campground. Keep in mind, there is no running water at Del Norte Campground, so plan to bring about one gallon of water per person for each day of camping.
Pack In, Pack Out
There is no garbage service on the islands so whatever you bring with you, you must pack out — just like any backpacking trip. This means you probably don’t want to bring food with a lot of packaging and I recommend planning your meals in advance.
In order to keep these islands in pristine condition, we all have to work together to keep it clean. Please be considerate and don’t litter. The sea life and island foxes will thank you.
Speaking of island foxes, you will see plenty of them on Santa Cruz Island. They are very friendly and they will pull at your heart strings with their cute little faces, but please don’t feed them! You have to be extremely diligent about keeping everything in the food storage bins. Even if you turn away for a moment, those sly foxes will be creeping up on your food. Apparently, they like dirty socks and underwear too — so keep those locked up!
Channel Islands National Park Camping Packing Tips
Before you start packing, make sure your gear meets these guidelines.
The key here is to pack light. Island Packers allows three bags up to 45 pounds per person, plus a carry on. Now, just because they allow four bags per person doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to pack that many bags.
I personally would rather live without a few comforts than try to deal with carrying all that gear to the campsites. We saw plenty of people struggling with stacks of plastic storage containers on the dock and along the trail. Unless you are staying for a week or longer, do you really need that much stuff?
Stove: This backpacking stove is tiny, weighs next to nothing and heats stuff up fast.
Cookware: We just bought this tiny cookware set for backpacking trips and it’s extremely compact.
Tent: We love this lightweight Marmot 2-person tent.
Cooler: If you have a cooler on wheels, this is ideal. A small soft cooler that can be carried over your shoulder works too.
Sleeping Pads: These ones are amazing!
Backpacks: If you are looking for a durable, light, and inexpensive backpack, we recommend the Teton Scout.
Windbreaker & Warm Layers: It gets windy and cold at some of the campsites.
Tarp: You may want something to put over your gear if you plan to check out of the campsite in the morning and take the 4pm or 5pm boat home. The ravens are smart and they know how to open zippers on bags. They especially like shiny things — like car keys and credit cards!
Portable Charger: We carry this portable charger to charge our phones and camera batteries.
Food & Drink: In order to cut down on prep time while camping, we pre-cut and seasoned veggies and a rib eye steak and placed these items in a sealed ziplock bag.
Lunch was easy; a bagel with sliced deli meat.
For breakfast, we packed a few bagels, an avocado, and a small tupperware with eggs. (Keep in mind, your ice will only last for two days, maximum.)
Waterproof Camera: We use the GoPro Hero4 Silver with LCD.
Snorkeling Equipment (Optional)
Wetsuit (Optional): The water is chilly!
Camping Chairs (Optional)
Kayaking off Santa Cruz Island
I highly recommend kayaking at some point during your stay on the island. During the summer, the days can get pretty hot and it’s nice to get out on the water. I’m constantly amazed at how clear the water is in the Marine Sanctuary that surrounds the five islands in the National Park, so it’s the perfect place to kayak and snorkel.
We booked a kayaking tour with Santa Barbara Adventure Company for Sunday morning. This was my second tour with them on Santa Cruz Island and I love that each trip is unique — depending on the ocean conditions, the wildlife sightings, and each guide has their own bit of knowledge to teach about the area.
We toured more sea caves this time since the swell was a little calmer and, thanks to our guide, I learned how to make a loud whistle out of kelp, just in case I’m ever in trouble out on the ocean. They provide wetsuits, water shoes and snorkeling equipment (for use before or after kayaking). We wanted to snorkel on the island, but we didn’t have room for our wetsuits and snorkel gear in our bags, so booking the tour was absolutely worth it.
For more beautiful places to camp in California, see our recent post with some of the best places to camp in California.