The first thing campers and day-trippers to Channel Islands National Park notice on the boat ride from mainland Ventura, CA, is how quickly one can leave the bustle of Southern California civilization behind. The ride with Island Packers, the national park’s official transportation, is only one hour and 15 minutes (or 20 nautical miles), but once passengers are deposited in any of the five remote islands that comprise the national park, the sole amenities consist of pit toilets, campsites, and well water (if you’re lucky). No matter which island you stay on, Channel Islands camping is sure to be an adventure you’ll remember.
If you’re camping with kids, they’ll love the passage over. On our trip, we spotted dolphins and various boats and oil rigs, and the waves were choppy enough to transform the lower deck into a “splash zone.” Bring sweatshirts or windbreakers; you can expect blue skies in Channel Islands National Park in summer, but a marine layer of fog is usual in the mornings, and boat rides are windy.
Camping on Santa Cruz Island
On the day of our Channel Islands camping adventure, we set out from Ventura Harbor for Santa Cruz Island, the Channel Islands’ largest and most easily accessed island for campers. Santa Cruz offers Scorpion Cove Campground, with 24 “walk-in” campsites approximately .2 to .8 miles from the pier where passengers are dropped off. The sites are relatively set apart from each other, but still arranged in campground style, so you’ll see and hear your neighbors.
The upper campgrounds (with sites 21-24) offer more privacy, but do include several group sites that can get lively. Amenities at Scorpion Cove include pit toilets, running water, and food lockers to protect your dinner from the island’s native fox population. Shade is plentiful, though you’ll still feel the ever-present breeze. The nearby beach adjacent to the pier is perfect for snorkeling (bring your own gear, or rent it at the Ventura Harbor) and sea kayaking (Island Packers will bring rented or owned kayaks over, or campers can arrange for a guided tour on-island).
We spent our day time enjoying great Channel Islands snorkeling amid the day-trippers on the beach. If you’re not up for an overnight, a day trip to Channel Islands is worth the time and expense for this purpose alone: we swam with a friendly harbor seal, spotted garibaldi and other marine life, and counted purple sea urchins and sea stars into the dozens. When you’re not in the water, take in ocean vistas and canyon views from the Santa Cruz hiking trails. The Cavern Point Trail, a two mile loop, promises both. Campers will also have time to take the Potato Harbor Road west to an additional beach cove. Backpacking is also available on Santa Cruz at remote Del Norte Camp, 3.5 miles from the drop-off pier on the west side of the island.
Backpacking on the Channel Islands
If you seek further isolation from day trippers, camping and backpacking is available on the additional four Channel Islands. On small Anacapa Island, less than a dozen sites are available at Anacapa Island Campground, which is .5 miles from the drop off. No water is available so be sure to pack in your own for drinking and cooking. On Santa Rosa, an island known for its sand and driftwood coves, a 1.5 mile hike takes campers to Water Canyon Campground; backcountry beach camping is also available, though no facilities exist. Santa Barbara Island and San Miguel Island both have limited sites with no facilities (bring water, and be ready for the brunt of the open-water wind, especially on exposed San Miguel).
Planning Your Channel Islands Camping Trip
Reservations for Channel Islands camp sites must be made in advance, and fill up quickly in the summer months. While campers cannot book sites directly through Island Packers, they do have the most up-to-date information on Channel Islands campgrounds, sites, and amenities. Once you’ve picked the right campground for you, follow the Island Packers links to reserve.
Transportation to the islands is arranged by Island Packers and fare varies by island and whether you’re camping (and carting gear) or day-tripping. For our overnight on Santa Cruz Island, fare was $75 per adult and $54 per child. Boats come and go several times daily from Santa Cruz. We arranged for a 9 am drop off, and a 5 pm pick up the following day, but wished we had arrived later in the day. Be sure to ask for the day’s schedule to pick your time accordingly. During busy summer days, Island Packers will not allow for time changes once you’re on-island.
What to Pack for Your Camping Trip
No matter which island or campground you visit, your camping list will include shelter (tents are fine), all food, water containers, and any other standard “car camping” equipment (plus snorkeling gear… you won’t be sorry!). For sites less than .5 miles from the beach, backpacks are not necessary; gear can be carted from the dock with totes, bags, or boxes. On Santa Cruz, rangers are available to help transport gear, though it’s not guaranteed. For the more remote campgrounds, full backpacking gear (plus water) is crucial.
Learn how to pack light before your next trip.
A Channel Islands camping trip is one you will be sure to remember. Camping at Channel Island National Park is fun for families with children too.