Shaped like a dolphin as it faces the Southern California shoreline, Santa Cruz Island is part of the five-island group called the California Channel Islands National Park, and it lies just 19 miles off of the coast between Santa Barbara and Ventura. With its unique species and virtually untouched ecosystem, Santa Cruz Island is a microcosm of ancient California, allowing visitors the opportunity to travel back in time to experience what the coast might have been like before the introduction of exotic species.

Natural Wonders and Unique Species

Small though it is, Santa Cruz supports a number of unique species found nowhere else. Avid birdwatchers should keep an eye out for the Island Scrub Jay, Santa Cruz’s unique blue jay species and only bird currently in North America that claims an island as its original habitat. There’s also the Island Fence Lizard, a species that is unique to California’s Channel Islands.

Another Channel Island native is the Island Fox, a speckled gray and white version that has a unique subspecies on each of the main Channel Islands. There are also several unique shrubs and flowers native to the area that a knowledgeable island guide can point out to visitors. Bald eagles once thrived on the island and were recently reintroduced. Lucky viewers may be able to spy them soaring the warm air currents or roosting in the craggy rock faces of the island’s cliffs.

The island is home to more than 600 species of plants, 140 bird species and at least 11 animal species. Many animals use its protected coves to breed and raise their young. Its remote location and the commitment of its caretakers ensures that its unique wonders will be shared with generations of visitors.

Activities on the Island

The island contains very little infrastructure, which is the main selling point of its unspoiled beauty. This does require that visitors plan ahead and pack whatever clothing, food or supplies they think they will need during their day trip. The main activities on the island include hiking, snorkeling, scuba diving, sea kayaking and camping. Any equipment must be brought along from the mainland and there are several local mainland outfitters that can provide visitors with scuba or snorkeling equipment and kayaks.

There are countless trails to explore, although only avid hikers should attempt the more strenuous ones, which are more than a dozen miles in length and have climbers scrambling over rocks at certain points. There are lovely coastal views to be had from even the easiest trails, with the opportunity to spot some of the unique flora and fauna of the island.

Those who love to kayak will find themselves enthralled with the clear water and nearly 60 miles of island shoreline to explore. Santa Cruz’s Painted Cave, so named because of the colorful lichens that flourish on its steep rock face, is a popular destination for kayakers eager to explore its stunning beauty. At 100 feet wide and a quarter mile in length, this sea cave is one of the largest in the world. Ducking beneath the waves with snorkel or scuba equipment allows visitors the opportunity to observe countless underwater species in the glass-like water.

Whether visitors come to view its breathtaking scenery, boat in its clear waters or hike across its pristine landscape, Santa Cruz offers a wealth of opportunities to observe, learn, enjoy and create unforgettable memories in this mystic and beautiful place.

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History of the Island

The Santa Cruz Island has been inhabited for some 9,000 years according to archaeological investigations. The Chumash Indians inhabited the island during much of that time. In 1602, a boat full of Spanish explorers passed by the island and took note of it, but it would be another 169 years before explorers would set foot on Santa Cruz. When they did, it was a group of missionary priests who began the task of converting the native peoples. In 1822, the last of the Chumash left Santa Cruz to be near the mission on the mainland.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo granted Santa Cruz, then a territory of Mexico, to the United States. Ranchers moved in, grazing sheep and cattle. In the 1970s and 1990s, The Nature Conservancy and the federal government acquired the land, turning it into a national park and nature reserve. Areas of the island still bear the remains of its rich and varied history, from the ruins of Chumash villages to the historic ranch houses that speak of the island’s recent past.

Names of locations along the island’s coastline, such as Smuggler’s Cove and Prisoner’s Harbor hint at a darker history, when the island was the refuge for coastal pirates and brigands who used the craggy coves of the island to hide their ships and stolen goods.

How to Get to Santa Cruz Island

Santa Barbara is just a 30-mile drive from the Santa Ynez Valley, and Santa Cruz is  an hour-and-a-half boat ride from the mainland at Santa Barbara Harbor. Visitors can use Island Packers Cruises, the commercial outfit that brings visitors from the mainland. Island Packers Cruises, which also offers whale watching trips, has two sites, one in Oxnard and one in Ventura and also arranges kayak equipment for visitors to use in the island’s coves. Visitors could also charter a private boat or private aviation to the Channel Islands.

When you are ready to relax after your long and fulfilling day-trip to Santa Cruz Island and the Channel Islands National Park, you can return to the comfort and relaxation of your vacation rental home in the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley.

(For another day-trip idea while visiting the Valley, check out our article on Los Alamos – A Day Trip off the Beaten Path.)