Santa Cruz Island is the largest island in the state of California. Found off the southern coast, this member of the Channel Islands chain measures more than 96 square miles to be more exact. Its terrain is very reminiscent of mainland California, with beaches, cliffs, and mountains characterizing much of the landscape. The Nature Conservancy manages the western 76 percent of Santa Cruz Island, while the National Park Service manages the other 24 percent. Most visitors stick to the National Park side, and they come to do more than just bask in the beautiful scenery. There are a multitude of recreational activities to partake in on Santa Cruz Island, and they cater to a wide variety of ages and interests.
The Channel Islands are where North America’s oldest dated human remains have been found. Some of these remains are more than 13,000 years old. Santa Cruz Island itself is believed to have been occupied for at least 9,000 years. The early inhabitants, Chumash Native Americans, first came into contact with Europeans in the 1500s. A Portuguese explorer named Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was the first European to pass through the area. He arrived in the 1540s and observed at least six villages on Santa Cruz Island. Expeditions that visited the island subsequent to Cabrillo’s arrival didn’t accomplish much in the way of settling. In fact, Santa Cruz Island had no European contact from 1602 to 1769. It was a Spanish expedition led by Don Gaspar de Portola that re-visited the island in 1769. The Spanish considered establishing a Catholic mission on the island, though this never occurred, thanks in part to the founding of Mission San Buenaventura on the mainland. The last of the Chumash left Santa Cruz Island in the early 1800s, and for some time thereafter, it was home to 40 Mexican prisoners who lived in an area that is now known as Prisoners Harbor. In 1839, the island became a Mexican land grant, falling under the ownership of Captain Andres Castillero. It was then sold to an American businessman and changed hands several times thereafter, with ranching being a major industry under American ownership. In 1987, Santa Cruz Island became property of The Nature Conservancy. The portion that is part of Channel Islands National Park was transferred to the National Park Service in 2000.
There aren’t any hotels on Santa Cruz Island, so if you wish to stay overnight, you’ll have to camp. Among the available campsites are the 31 primitive sites at the Scorpion Ranch Campground. The facilities at this campground include water, food storage boxes, picnic tables, and pit toilets. Backcountry camping can also be enjoyed on Santa Cruz Island for those who wish to go that route. Advanced camping reservations are required for all of the campgrounds in the Channel Islands, and campers must also secure transportation for an overnight trip to the park before they actually arrive. No island transportation is provided, so campers must carry all their gear to the site. The Channel Islands National Park Headquarters is located on the mainland in Ventura. This helps to make Ventura the most popular jump-off point for Santa Cruz Island trips.
Hiking and Kayaking
Hiking and Kayaking Image: mikebaird (flickr)
Santa Cruz Island’s rather rugged terrain makes it a hiker’s dream. If you’re not up for the more rugged and challenging trails, however, there are more leisurely paths to enjoy. Either way, the scenery is sure to impress along the way, and chances are good that you will spot some resident wildlife as well. Channel Islands National Park visitor centers offer trail maps, guides, and other info that come in handy for those who wish to hike on Santa Cruz Island and the other Channel Islands. It should be noted that hiking outside of the National Park boundaries on Santa Cruz Island is prohibited. Much like hiking, kayaking is a popular Santa Cruz Island pursuit. Other activities that can be added to the agenda include, but aren’t limited to, snorkeling and surfing. No wonder the boats to Santa Cruz from the mainland can fill up fast.