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Best Hikes in the World

Hiking & Camping Channel Islands National Park (Santa Cruz)

  • 7.5 miles - Easy Effort
  • Or: 5.2 miles
  • 2 Days (Total)
  • Expect to See Some Other Hikers
  • No Dogs Allowed

Figuring out how to camp, backpack, and hike Channel Islands National Park can be intimidating. Each island has its own deal, and it can be overwhelming between permit regulations, water supplies, and boat schedules. In this guide, I'll show you the easiest way to make your first visit to the Channel Islands National Park and experience all it has to offer.

In this Guide:
  • The Easiest Way To Visit
  • How to Book & Plan
  • Best Camping & Hikes

Before You Start Planning

Chanell Islands Maps
Let's cover some basics first. The Channel Islands are a group of eight islands off the coast of Southern California, just miles from Los Angeles. The northernmost five islands comprise Channel Islands National Park.

If it's your first time planning a trip to Channel Islands National Park, understanding which island to visit when can be very confusing. There's a reason why, despite its proximity to LA, Channel Islands NP is one of the least visited National Parks in the USA. Some challenges include:

Channel Islands National Park Campground
The campsites on my recommendation are a great mix of primitive and developed. Each site has a picnic bench, running water, and bathrooms. But you can sleep in your tent and enjoy a backcountry feel.

Based on the challenges involved, I recommend a two-day itinerary that makes planning as easy as possible and minimizes the possibility of closures (but just know they can happen anytime, anywhere, blame Mother Nature). We'll be visiting Santa Cruz Island, the largest and most popular destination and an excellent place for a first visit. Some advantages of this itinerary are:

The Best Itinerary

Channel Islands Beach
My plan combines camping and hiking with plenty of time to relax and enjoy the views.

Day 1

Day 2

Booking & Logistics

It's simple to make this itinerary work:

  1. Check the boat schedule
  2. Book the campground
  3. Book the ferry ticket

Check the Boat Schedule

Channel Islands Boat
Island Packers has the concessions for all the ferries to the islands. They offer service to all the islands, as well as whale and wildlife watching trips.

First, go to the ferry page and ensure boats leave and return for the dates you want. Look for the ferry to Santa Cruz Island and then for Scorpion Anchorage overnight. If you click on a departure, it will show you the return times of the boat.

Generally, if you're booking in advance, grabbing the campsite first and then the boat ticket makes sense. If it's a last-minute booking, you must do both as quickly as possible.

Booking Santa Cruz Scorpion Campground

Scorpion Camp Map
The campgrounds at Scorpion Harbor are only a 10-15 minute walk from the ferry dock. On the left, the upper camp, on the right, the lower camp.

To book a tent site at Scorpion Cove, visit the reservation page at Recreation.gov. Reservations open up six months in advance on a rolling basis. So on January 1, you can book for July 1. And while this is not the easiest campsite to book, it's nowhere near as challenging as securing a permit for Half Dome or Whitney. Usually, spots linger open for a while.

If you can't get the date you want, I'd recommend using the Outdoor Status service, which, for a small fee, will check for cancellations every 30 minutes and text you with the link to the reservation page if a spot opens up.

There are two camping areas, the upper and the lower. I prefer spots 24 and 25 in the upper area, which offers more solitude. Both sites provide bathrooms with toilet paper and a running water spigot.

Channel Islands Santa Cruz Campsite
This is site 24 in the upper camp. Not too shabby.

Booking Your Ferry Ticket

Once the campsite is confirmed, return to the ferry page and pull the trigger on the boat tickets. You'll get an email confirmation with the next steps. As your departure date gets closer, Island Packers with follow up with another email or two.

Gear Recommendations

Gear for this trip is pretty simple. Here's what I'd recommend (for specific gear recommendations, check the camping section on my gear page).

Gear That I Love Right Now

Nothing is sponsored or promoted, just the actual gear that I use.

Gear Inreach Mini 2
Garmin InReach Mini 2If you are out of cellphone range the Mini 2 will reliably allow you to hit SOS via satellite. You can also send non-emergency texts to just say that you're late, let friends and family follow along, and check the weather. You can see my review here.
Gear Topo Pursuit
Topo Pursuit 2The wide toe box means no blisters, an aggressive tread is great on the trail, it dries very quickly, and it has lots of cushion for long days. It combines everything I love about every other shoe into one.
Gear Epix Pro Up Ahead
Garmin Epix ProThese watches are pricey, but I use them 24/7 for sleep tracking, workouts, heart rate, and tracking my hike. It has preloaded hiking maps that help me navigate the trails and is a backup to my smartphone navigation. The Epix Pro has a great battery life, a screen similar to an Apple Watch Ultra, and works in harsh conditions when just using the buttons. See my review here.
Hikelite 26 Gear
Osprey Hikelite 26This updated version of the Hikelite 26 offers incredible value for the money. It's got a wide trampoline back, so your back doesn't get sweaty. It's under 2lbs, has deep side pockets, and is a great balance of what you need without what you don't.

Check out the complete list here. ( Updated June 2024)

Santa Cruz Trail Maps

There are several trails and off-trail adventures on the island, and I recommend doing the Smuggler's Cove and Potato Harbor Overlook hikes. They're both unique and offer a variation of scenery that you won't find anywhere else on earth.

Click Here To View

Use This Map:
View in CalTopo | PDF Map | GPX File

Summgers Cove Hike Directions 2
The trail junctions on this part of Santa Cruz Island are well-marked with metal signs that include (approximate) distances.

Smuggler's Cove Hike Directions

Summgers Cove Hike Map
On the hike to Smuggler's Cove, we'll cross the island from one secluded cove to another.

The hike to Smuggler's Cove is a perfect way to get a feel for Santa Cruz Island, stretch your legs, and work up an appetite for dinner. This version of the hike starts on the Scorpion Canyon Loop Trail, which is a quiet single track that climbs a few hundred feet and eventually joins Smugglers Road. We'll take Smuggler Road downhill, through the old ranch and grazing lands, to the secluded Smuggler's Cove. From there, just return the way you came.

Smugglers Cove Hike Start
Keep following the trail that goes by the campground.
Summgers Cove Hike Directions 3
Soon it will turn into a single-track trail heading up Scorpion Canyon.
Summgers Cove Hike Directions 4
At the sign, hike left and start hiking uphill.
Summgers Cove Hike Directions 5
The climb is about 0.75 miles with 600 feet of climbing: nothing too crazy, but enough to sweat.
Summgers Cove Hike Directions 6
At the top of the climb (1.4 miles), there's a big intersection; make the hard left.
Summgers Cove Hike Directions 7
When you reach Smugglers Road, hike right. It's mostly downhill to the cove from here.

The area we are hiking through has been used for ranching from 1844 until 1998 when the NPS bought the ranch and incorporated it into the park. Why was it used for ranching? The ocean is your fence, and there are no predators.

Summgers Cove Hike Directions 8
You have about 2 miles of downhill. In the distance is the western end of Anacapa, which is closed to humans to protect critical bird nesting sites.
Summgers Cove Hike Directions 1
And here you are at Smuggler's Cove. There are picnic benches, a park sign, and a toilet. From here, just return the way you came.

The Channel Islands have been used for smuggling since when the Mexicans owned California. Before the federal income tax was introduced in 1913, the primary source of government income was import tax, and smugglers would use this protected cove to transfer their cargo to smaller boats that would take contraband to the mainland. Later, during prohibition, it was used to smuggle alcohol into the USA. Even today, the odd smuggler is found in the area, usually a panga (an open fishing boat) used for human trafficking. In 2012 a Coast Guardsman was killed off Santa Cruz when a panga rammed his vessel during a stop.

Potato Harbor Overlook Hike Directions

Potato Harbor Hike Map
The hike to the Potato Harbor Overlook follows the bluffs on the north side of Santa Cruz Island, offering incredible views across the Pacific to the high peaks in Los Padres National Forest.

This 5.2-mile route combines a few popular shorter routes into one spectacular cliffside hike. Starting at the Visitor Center, we'll do a short climb and then spend the rest of the hike along the bluffs, enjoying ocean views and dramatic cliffs. We'll take in Cavern Point and then continue to the Potato Harbor overlook, with postcard-perfect views of the secluded cove.

Potato Harbor Hike Directions 3
Start hiking uphill on the Cavern Point Loop Trail next to the Visitor Center.
Potato Harbor Hike Directions 4
There's a small and steep climb to start, but it's not long.
Potato Harbor Hike Directions 5
Enjoy the ocean views at the top of the climb as you hike the easy-to-follow trail.
Potato Harbor Hike Directions 6
At about 0.7 miles, you'll reach the junction at Cavern Point. Do the short side trip on the right to visit the point, then continue left down the trail.
Potato Harbor Hike Directions 7
After enjoying Cavern Point, continue on the trail along the bluff.
Potato Harbor Hike Directions 8
Keep hiking straight, past the connector trail to the lower campground.
Potato Harbor Hike Directions 9
There's a short downhill and a dramatic view to the right. We'll continue up to the right eventually.
Potato Harbor Hike Directions 10
Make the right onto the North Bluff Trail.
Potato Harbor Hike Directions 11
Hike along the North Bluff Trail.
Potato Harbor Hike Directions 12
Join Potato Harbor Road.
Potato Harbor Hike Directions 13
Continue left when you reach the first viewpoint.
Potato Harbor Hike Directions 1
At about 2.6 miles, you'll reach the Potato Harbor overlook. You can't go down to the beach, but you can admire the views here. Once you're done, just return the way you came.

Why is it called Potato Harbor? Because it's shaped like a potato.

Need More Info?

  • Have a question about the guide or want to see what other people are saying/asking? View the Youtube comments for this video. Leave a comment and I will do my best to respond.
  • When planning, always check the park website and social media to make sure the trails are open. Similarly, check the weather and road conditions.

This Guide Was Written by Cris Hazzard

Cris Hazzard 4 Mile Trail Yosemite
Hi, I'm Cris Hazzard, aka Hiking Guy, a professional outdoors guide, hiking expert, and author based in Southern California. I created this website to share all the great hikes I do with everyone else out there. This site is different because it gives detailed directions that even the beginning hiker can follow. I also share what hiking gear works and doesn't so you don't waste money. I don't do sponsored or promoted content; I share only the gear recommendations, hikes, and tips that I would with my family and friends. If you like the website and YouTube channel, please support these free guides (I couldn't do it without folks like you!). You can stay up to date with my new guides by following me on YouTube, Instagram, or by subscribing to my monthly newsletter.