Only one-quarter of Santa Cruz Island is national park land; the rest belongs to the Nature Conservancy. But since Santa Cruz is the largest of all the Channel Islands, measuring 96 square miles/248 square km and 20 miles/32 kms long, that park-protected 25 percent covers a whole lot of territory. The boat ride to the island is a quick a beautiful 1-hour cruise across turquoise sea—so you can get there and back and have plenty of time on the island all in one day. Trails take you to windy bluffs, wide vistas, and secret coves.
From Scorpion Canyon Campground, walk the rewarding 1.2-mile/1.9-km round-trip to Cavern Point, a high promontory where you can scan the sea for passing whales. A 4.6-mile/7.4-km round-trip takes you to an overlook above Potato Harbor, a potato-shape cove edged by rugged cliffs. Look for sea lions frolicking in the kelp forests below. For an excellent 7-mile/11.3-km hike, set off for the cobble- and driftwood-covered beach at Smuggler’s Cove. While you’re hiking, keep an eye out for the Santa Cruz Island scrub jay, a bright blue bird that lives on this island and nowhere else in the world. For an unforgettable experience, consider staying overnight at Scorpion Canyon Campground, with 25 sites shaded by eucalyptus. It’s close to Scorpion Bay, a great put-in site for kayakers who want to explore this island’s remarkable cave-riddled shoreline.