Santa Cruz Island is easily the best backpacking trip in Southern California. From its epic ocean views, crips coastal breeze and gorgeous landscape that is full of marine and wildlife — you really can’t go wrong when backpacking and camping on Santa Cruz Island.
Santa Cruz Island is part of the Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and Ventura counties in Southern California. Dependent on what time of year, which campground is available, and how many days you’re planning to camp — this can be a great beginners backpacking trip.
How To Get to Santa Cruz Island
We backpacked Santa Cruz Island in July, 2020 as a safe getaway option during the coronavirus pandemic. We got to Santa Cruz Island via the Island Packers ferry. It’s about a 1.5 hour trip (one way). The ride out was super choppy, but absolutely beautiful. We saw tons of dolphins! The Island Packers ferry is spacious with outdoor and indoor seating. There’a mini bar that sells food and beverages, including beer and wine!
We felt very safe on the ferry as the Island Packers team all were wearing masks due to the coronavirus pandemic, and all passengers were required to wear mask as well. There was sanitizer on top of the bar and no eating was allowed inside the cabin. Passengers were allowed to eat and drink on the outside decks.
Backcountry Camping at Del Norte Campground
Upon arriving at Prisoner’s Harbor, we immediately began our trek to Del Norte Campground. It’s a gorgeous and remote campground. There are only four camp sites at the Del Norte Campground. This offered a very safe and comfortable weekend getaway during the coronavirus pandemic; however, getting there is not for the faint of heart.
All the camp sites at Del Norte Campground on Santa Cruz Island are awesome. Some of the campsites offer plenty of shade from coastal oaks, while others offer the most sweeping ocean views (but no shelter from the sun). We scored campsite #4 at Del Norte Campground. It was surrounded by the coolest Tim Burton-esque coastal oaks with a partial ocean view.
Expect to see many little furry friends at the campground! The island is full of endemic dwarf foxes. They are seriously so cute and have no fear approaching you. You can look, but do not touch. And do not feed them! Also, be sure to store all your food in the provided “Bear Box.” If you don’t do this, the foxes will literally steal your food.
The Hiking Trail to Del Norte Campground
The hike to Del Norte Campground is 3.5 miles. That may seem like nothing, but once you factor in 45-50-pound backpacks, and blistering early afternoon heat with little-to-no respite from the sun — your short hike can quickly turn into a grueling trek. You gotta work for it if you want to experience this gem of a campground.
While most backpackers hike up to Del Norte Campground and stay for just one night, we opted to camp for two nights and explore for three full days. There are so many things to do and see on Santa Cruz Island, two nights was not even enough.
Things to do on Santa Cruz Island
To make the most of our backpacking and camping adventure on Santa Cruz Island, we hiked to-and-from Prisoner’s Harbor multiple times. Sure, you can spend your time lounging and soaking in the beautiful space that is your camp site, but we wanted to explore.
There are so many things to do on Santa Cruz Island. From morning to afternoon and night, there’s a great deal of options to keep you satisfied. Here’s what we did during our camping trip to Santa Cruz Island:
- Hiking – Duh! This one is a given. There are miles and miles of remote, beautiful landscape to explore on Santa Cruz Island. From the coast lines to the inland explorations, there is so much hiking to be done. You can find a hiking map of Santa Cruz Island and all its trails here.
- Kayaking – We hiked back down the mountain to Prisoner’s Harbor to join our kayaking group. It was such an amazing experience full of beautiful open water, history, caves, seals, sea lions, fish, hidden coves and more. You can rent a kayak at Prisoner’s Harbor or join a guided kayaking tour . Our guide was John, and he was awesome!
- The Beach — The beach at Prisoner’s Harbor is a great place to take a refreshing dip after a long sweaty hike. Don’t expect soft white sand though, it’s more of a Mediterranean style beach with rocks and small stones. Grab a beach blanket (love this one) or a lightweight camping chair (we have this one — only 2 lbs!) and have a picnic or read a book to the natural white noise of the Pacific Ocean.
- Bird Watching – There are seriously so many unique birds on this island. There’s even bald eagles! We saws so many beautiful birds: Grasshopper Sparrows, Island Scrub-Jays (they’re blue), Peregrine Falcons, Rufous-crowned Sparrow (seriously so cute with a little red mohawk), Owls, Merlins and a lot more.
- Star Gazing – The star gazing is stellar on Santa Cruz Island! No light pollution, no buildings — just straight up layers and layers of stars and galaxy. We saw so many shooting stars, satellites and we were lucky enough to catch Comet NEOWISE. And I’m pretty sure I saw an U.F.O. . .
- Photography – Do not forget your camera on this trip! It would be a shame not to capture any photos of this surreal landscape and capturing your moments of joy (and struggle). My husband and I were thrilled to get some photos of just the two of us. We have an adorable toddler who usually camps with us, but this trip was just for us and we took full advantage of it.
- Hammock — If you score our campsite #4, you can string up a hammock. We brought our lightweight hammock, but we were having so much exploring the island that we never used it!
- Night Hikes — Each night after dinner, we wandered into the night for a lil hike. The moon was fairly bright to guide us, but we also made sure to bring our headlamps. The landscape of Santa Cruz Island during the starry night hours is otherworldly. Watch out for big ole owls and bats!
Pro Tips for Camping Santa Cruz Island
Want to make your trek easier to Del Norte Campground? We learned a few things while backpacking Santa Cruz Island and are thankful we researched the hell out of our trip to make it all the more enjoyable.
Don’t Skimp on Water
It’s so important to stay hydrated, especially if your’e backpacking during the summer months. Yes, it will make your backpack heavier, but you will need it. These four-liter water bladders were crucial on our backpacking trip. They conveniently and easily hung from the tree.
Bring pre-made meals and opposed to instant meals that require water. My husband had the genius idea of bringing all instant meals (he swears by the Mountain House). Sure their beef stroganoff and breakfast skillets are pretty damn good, but we could have done without the extra water weight. Next time I would bring one instant meal and the rest would be pre-made (sandwiches, quesadillas, pancakes, tacos, etc.).
Bring a trash bag so you can easily pack it in and pack it out. Leave no trace! This means packing out everything down to that tiny gum wrapper, and your fresh wipes (we used our daughter’s WaterWipes for “showers.”). At the end of our trip, we tied the near-empty trash bag to a backpack and hiked out with it. In fact, we did’t dispose of it until we got home. That’s how you do!
These are so damn important, especially if you’re carrying heavy backpacks. My hiking poles saved me a few times from some gnarly falls. The hiking trail to Del Norte Campground can be steep and slippery with lose stones all over the place. Not to mention, trekking poles provide a good lean when you need a break from the endless climb.
I don’t know about you, but music motivates me (duh). Follow and download this dope playlist so you can play it offline on your hike. If you love discovering new music, this playlist features all the best new songs of the month with a focus on indie bands and lesser known artists — across all genres.
Respect the land, respect wildlife, respect Pachamama — or don’t come at all.
More Camping & Backpacking Photos from Santa Cruz Island
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One of my favorite views from our recent camping trip. #realtalk – this wasn’t our campsite. Ours was gorgeous under a trippy coastal oak that looked like it should be part of a #TimBurton movie, however, the campsite next to us had the best view — but absolutely no shelter from the sun 😓 . We chose the shady paradise and floated over to the empty spot next door for some ocean view chill times. Peep my Stories to see how we managed to double dip. 🤪 ⛺️ ⛺️ ⛺️ #campvibes #backpackingculture #tentview #sunisshining #coupleswhohike #latinxoutdoors #latinaswhohike #santacruzisland #channelislands #islandcamping #epicview #viewfrommywindow #feet #hikingshoes #toes #animationvideo #videoedit #pixaloop #videoleap #oceanviewcampground #pandemicroadtrip #weekendgetaway #vacationstyle #thatview #oceanlover #tent #cloudscape #soulful_moments