A Trip to Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park

Growing up in Southern California I took the Channel Islands for granted. They literally blended into the background every time I was near the ocean and, aside from Catalina, I had no desire to visit them. Catalina had amenities like restaurants, shops and hotels and the others had nothing (or so it seemed). Then I visited the Channel Island Visitor’s Center in Ventura and everything changed. Once I learned about their incredible biodiversity I decided I had to visit them. It took me a few years but in 2022 I finally made it to Santa Cruz Island.

Santa Cruz Harbor

The Channel Islands consist of 8 islands just off the Southern California coast and five of these (San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara and Anacapa) form Channel Islands National Park. As far as national parks go this one’s not that accessible as it requires a boat trip to reach. Luckily, the National Park Service has partnered with Island Packers Cruises to provide ferry service to visitors. Based in Ventura Harbor, they offer access to all five islands in the park (although visits to Santa Barbara are temporarily suspended).

Ventura Harbor

The five islands vary in accessibility due to their location and terrain with San Miguel being the most difficult to visit and both Santa Cruz and Anacapa being the most accessible. As this would be my first visit, I opted for Santa Cruz since it’s relatively large and easy to navigate. When booking my passage (advance reservations are necessary) I discovered the multi port day trip which included a visit to Painted Cave, a large sea cave. Obviously, this was the one I chose.

Painted Cave

The route to Santa Cruz takes about 1.5 hours and, luckily, my trip occurred during calm weather. It was an overcast morning and it felt wonderful to sit on the deck of the boat and take in the sea air. Even more wonderful was a chance encounter with a pod of several dolphins. We happened upon them during feeding time and it was magical to have them surround us as we traveled.

Island Packers Dolphin

Before I knew it, we were approaching the island and it looked beautiful emerging from the mist.

Santa Cruz Island

A brief stop at Prisoner’s Harbor allowed single port riders to disembark and soon we were off to the Painted Cave.

Painted Cave

Painted Cave is actually one of the largest known sea caves and consists of several chambers. The first chamber is large enough to fit a boat so we soon headed inside.

What an otherworldly experience! The cave was humongous and the voices of the ferry passengers bounced off its many chambers. The water was crystal clear and as we traveled at a snail’s pace I could observe numerous sea anemones just under the surface. And the walls were hued with many different colors from red to green to yellow and more. They don’t call it the Painted Cave for nothing.

Painted Cave

It was such a fun experience and I was very glad that I decided to opt for the multi port trip. The route back to Prisoner’s Harbor was equally lovely as the island is covered with several interesting outcroppings including a rare three sea arch formation.

Santa Cruz Island

Add to that several sea birds, rare flora found only on the island and a bald eagle sighting and the journey was one to remember.

Santa Cruz Island

Back at Prisoner’s Harbor it was finally time to disembark and explore the island itself. But first, hunger called and I opted for a picnic on the beach.

Santa Cruz Island

It was so lovely sitting there enjoying the sunshine, ocean breeze and birdsong that I ended up spending quite some time enjoying the peace and quiet. But, I couldn’t visit the island without doing a little hiking and soon started on a nearby trail.

Santa Cruz Island

When it comes to landscape, the island’s is very similar to that of the mainland with one significant difference – the quiet. The majority of hiking trails in SoCal come with a background soundtrack of traffic. No matter how far you go out you’ll inevitably hear the sound of a car and, if not that, an airplane. On Santa Cruz there was none of that. All I heard was rustling leave, crashing waves and birdsong. It was heaven.

Santa Cruz

All too soon it was time to catch the boat back to the mainland.While brief, my visit to Santa Cruz Island was a perfect introduction to Channel Islands National Park and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. On Santa Cruz alone there are so many more trails to traverse and even opportunities for kayaking and snorkeling. Then there’s the four other islands with their own unique landscapes and experiences. I have a feeling I’ll be back sooner than later and can’t wait to see what I discover next.

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