An amazing sunset on our Channel Islands backpacking trip. Sun is setting in the left corner casting an orange glow.

Channel Islands Backpacking Trip: A How to Guide & Hiking Itinerary for Santa Cruz Island

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Are you planning a Channel Islands backpacking trip? Channel Islands National Park is an underrated destination just a short ferry ride from the coast of Southern California.

This hidden gem is home to five unique islands that offer endless opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts, including backpackers.

With miles of pristine and untouched coastline, stunning vistas, endemic plantlife, and diverse wildlife- backpacking on the Channel Islands is an experience unlike any other.

We camped two lovely nights out on Santa Cruz Island, finding solitude with amazing ocean and coastal views.

In this guide I go into detail about how to get to the Channel Islands, the best islands to backpack, the exact itinerary we used, links to book your ferries and campsites, and a packing list! contains affiliate links and is a member of the Amazon LLC Associates Program. If you make a purchase using one of these Amazon links, I may receive compensation at no extra cost to you. I only recommend products I believe in. Read my disclaimer for more information.

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Where Are The Channel Islands, California?

The Channel Islands are located off of the coast of Southern California. The town of Ventura is where all the ferries depart from.

Ventura is 1 1/2 hours North from Los Angeles and 30 minutes South of Santa Barbara.

What time of year is best for a Channel Islands Backpacking Trip?

You could make Channel Islands a year round destination, but the seasons do vary and there are some ‘better’ times to go.

According to the National Parks website: Dec-March are the coolest months and July-October are the warmest months. However, it is relatively mild all year.

Winter months bring temps from 53-59 degrees Farenheit and the summer months average 62-70 degrees Farenheit.

Wind can play a factor too- which are more intense Sept-Dec, and March.

The rainiest months are Nov-April.

When is peak season in the Channel Islands?

Keep in mind that peak season in the Channel Islands is June through August- so be sure to book your ferry and campsites well in advance if this is when you’re planning to go.

Can you camp in Channel Islands National Park?

Yes you can camp, and backpack, in Channel Islands National Park!

There are five islands apart of Channel Islands National Park. Some are easier to access than others and have more amenities, which can be a big factor into planning your backpacking trip.

Santa Cruz Island

This is the island we chose since it is the largest in the National Park and the most accessible, making it the easiest to backpack. So this may be the best option for you too!

The ferry from Ventura to Santa Cruz Island is only about 1-2 hours each way.

The ferries also run year round, though weather dependent, unlike some of the other islands which may not be accessible year round.

The Del Norte Campground is Santa Cruz’s backcountry campground with only 4 sites- and ocean views! There is no potable water available at this campground.

While the Scorpion Canyon Campground has 25 sites available and only half of a mile from the main ferry dock.

Santa Rosa Island

The year round ferry to Santa Rosa Island takes approximately 2 hours. Santa Rosa Island features high mountains, white sand beaches, canyons, and grasslands. There are also colonies of seals here.

There is one main campground open year round on the island with 15 sites, about a 1.5 mile flat walk from the pier. This island offers potable water for day trippers and backpackers.

You can also go backcountry beach camping mid August- December- something that is very high on my own bucket list!

San Miguel Island

San Miguel Island is known for its pristine beaches and huge seal colonies.

You can backpack on San Miguel Island July – October as this is the only time that Island Packers offers ferries to the island. The ferry typically takes 3-4 hours.

There are nine campsites on this island and you must sign a waiver and have a permit before going. It is a little over one mile of an uphill hike from the ferry drop off to the campground. Book your campsite at this website.

Anacapa Island

Anacapa Island is the second smallest island in the park and the shortest ferry from the mainland. This island is unique in that it is comprised of three small islets.

There are just two miles of trails on this island, but what Anacapa is really known for are the many nesting sites for birds. West Anacapa is home to the largest colony of the endangered California brown pelican.

There is one campground here with 7 sites; no potable water is available.

Santa Barbara Island

Santa Barbara Island is only one square mile making it the smallest Channel Island. The ferry ride takes about 3 hours. But unfortunately in 2015, the island’s pier was damaged and hasn’t been repaired since so there is no public transportation access to the island at this time.

You won’t find any beaches on this island as it is mostly cliffs, and there are colonies of Elephant Seals here. Private boats still do go to the islands shores to scuba dive.

Channel Islands Backpacking Cost

Whichever island you choose to camp on you will have to pay for both round trip camper ferry transport and your campsite reservation.

You do not need to factor in the cost of a pass from the National Park service or any other fees.

What is the best island to camp on Channel Islands?

I think this answer depends on your hiking/camping style and what time of year you’re going. For example, if you’re going in the winter or spring you can rule out San Miguel Island since there are no ferries that go there.

If you want more white sand beaches, Santa Rosa Island may be for you. If you don’t want to pack in all of your water, rule out Anacapa Island since there is no water available.

We chose Santa Cruz Island since it is accessible year round and one campground has potable water. But you get the best of both worlds since the other campground on the island is more isolated and has spectacular ocean views.

How to Get to Santa Cruz Island

The easiest and cheapest way to get to Santa Cruz Island is with the Island Packers ferry service.

Book your ferry in advance from Ventura to Prisoner’s Harbor. As of 2023, the ferry roundtrip for one adult camper is $84.

For the specific itinerary below you must CALL Island Packers at (805) 642-1393 to arrive at Prisoner’s Harbor and depart from Scorpion Cove. You cannot book online to arrive/depart from different ferry docks.

Pro Tip: Be sure to arrive to the ferry in Ventura about an early to check in for camping. Keep your water and fuel separate because they will have you separate it prior to boarding. Put your initials on your water bottles and fuel canisters!

Make sure to keep an eye out on your email and phone calls the morning of for any information from Island Packers. They could reschedule or cancel your trip due to rough seas.

Follow The 7 Leave No Trace Principles

  • Plan ahead and prepare
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  • Dispose of waste properly
  • Leave what you find
  • Minimize campfire impacts
  • Be courteous of others

Find out more about Leave No Trace here.

Santa Cruz Island Backpacking Itinerary

  • Day one: Depart from the ferry, hike to Del Norte Campground, spend the night.
  • Day two: Hike from Del Norte Campground to Scorpion Cove Campground, spend the night.
  • Day three: Day hike to the potato harbor trail and take the afternoon ferry back.

Day One: Ferry from Ventura to Prisoner’s Harbor & Camp at Del Norte Campground

Enjoy the ferry ride over, hopefully you’ll see some dolphins like we did! And enjoy the stunning views of the island as you get nearer. The ferry ride will take 1.5-2 hours from Ventura to Prisoner’s Harbor.

selfie before we go on the ferry to Santa Cruz Island
approaching santa cruz island from the ferry
seeing santa cruz island from the ferry
picture of the ferry dock at prisoner's harbor

After arriving to Prisoner’s Harbor, the hike to Del Norte Campground is about 3 miles with 1250ft elevation gain. It is steep but at least its short!

After the short hike, we set up our tent at the campground and relaxed the rest of the day.

Book your reservation for the Del Norte Campground on this website. Keep in mind, there is no source of water at this campground. There are actually no water sources on the island until you get to the Scorpion Campground at the end of day two.

If you want more detailed information about backcountry camping at Del Norte- visit this website. You will need to carry 6-7L of water each person for the ~15 miles of hiking over 2 days.

There is one pit toilet at this campground, but I would recommend bringing your own toilet paper. At each campsite there is a storage box to put your belongings, especially food. There are native island foxes that won’t hesitate to eat your food- so be sure to store it properly.

We were in Site #2. There are only 4 campsites here. Sites 1 & 2 have perfect views of the island and ocean, while sites 3 & 4 have large lovely trees and shade.

We were treated to a really dreamy sunset the first night!

starting on the trail after we got dropped off at the ferry
Golden hour on the first night of our Channel Islands backpacking trip
An amazing sunset on our Channel Islands backpacking trip. Sun is setting in the left corner casting an orange glow.

Day Two: Hike Del Norte Campground to Scorpion Cove Campground

Wake up with the sun and drink some coffee and fuel up at camp- this will be your longest hike of the three days.

The hike is about 12 miles, with one small scrambling section that gets a little tricky with a heavy backpack on. Trekking poles would have helped maintain balance in this section.

Other than that, the hike had a pretty steady grade and wasn’t too difficult. There is NO shade on this trail so make sure you pack sunscreen.

I downloaded and used an offline map from AllTrails to make sure we were on trail, though it is rather easy to follow. The map was reliable and helpful though, and it is highly recommended to have an offline map on hand for safety reasons.

Me on our Channel Islands backpacking trip. On the trail with a large backpack on in the early morning light. Light grass surrounding, ocean in the background.
Tyler walking on the trail on our Channel Islands backpacking trip. Early morning light on the island, ocean in the background.
View of the ocean and rest of mountainous Santa Cruz Island

The hike took about 7 hours with lots of breaks to take in the views. When we got to Scorpion Canyon campground, we ate dinner and set up camp for the night.

Book your campsite at the Scorpion Canyon campground on the website. There are also pit toilets at this campground as well.

The campground has 25 sites, each with a storage box to keep your food and belongings secure from the island foxes. They are adorable though!

Scorpion Canyon Campground on our Channel Islands backpacking trip
Scorpion Canyon Campground
Island fox found on our Channel Islands backpacking trip
Cute Island Fox

Day Three: Hike Potato Harbor and take the Ferry back to Ventura

On our third and final day, we ate breakfast and packed up our camp.

After breakfast, we walked to the ferry dock area where there are multiple large storage boxes. We utilized these to keep our backpacking gear in while doing a day hike before taking the ferry back.

We hiked the 5 mile Potato Harbor trail. It was a relaxing walk and the best way to end our 3 day trip.

After the hike we relaxed on the pebble beach while waiting for the afternoon ferry back to Ventura. Then we got celebratory tacos and churros on our drive home to San Diego. 🙂

Hiking the potato harbor trail in early morning light. Deep blue ocean and with coastal cliff views.
Potato harbor with turquoise beautiful waters on santa cruz island
On the trail to Potato Harbor. Bright yellow wild flowers with deep blue ocean and green coastal cliffs with mountains in the background
Girl sitting out near cliff on the trail, deep ocean blue in the background, wildflowers in the forefront.

Packing list for your Channel Islands Backpacking trip

Did you know? While Channel Islands is one of the least visited National Parks in California, Yosemite sees the most visitors every year!

Wrap up: Backpacking the Channel Islands

There are 5 islands to choose from when making your backpacking and camping plans.

A few factors can play into your decision making such as: time of year, if you’re looking for backcountry camping, and how many amenities you are used to.

In general, all of the Channel Islands aren’t an easy place to make camping plans on. You must reserve campsite reservations and ferry reservations well in advance, especially during the peak summer months.

The biggest island that is accessible year round is Santa Cruz Island. You can access their popular Scorpion Canyon campground by just walking 1/2 mile from the ferry dock. Del Norte Campground on Santa Cruz Island is an excellent option if you’re craving a more backcountry feel.

Santa Rosa Island and San Miguel Island are options if you’re looking for white sand beaches.

Anacapa Island is small with only 2 miles of trails, but has a unique view and lots of birdwatching options.

Unfortunately, the Santa Barbara Island has been closed to public transportation via Island Packers due to ferry dock damage since 2015.

Whatever island and campsite you choose to pick- you’re sure to have a fantastic time in this unique National Park!

Looking for more California content? Check out my post on Joshua Tree vs Anza Borrego or a winter road trip in the Sierras!

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