Why: Santa Cruz Island offers an undeveloped, virtually uninhabited wilderness with staggering scenery and biodiversity that might make Charles Darwin weep. The beach at Scorpion Ranch is an ideal spot to marvel at life beneath the waves (especially the shoreline kelp forests) and view sea cliffs, coves and caves by kayak.
What: Santa Cruz is one in a chain of eight Channel Islands that lay beyond the populated shores of Southern California. Five (including Santa Cruz) are part of Channel Islands National Park. At just 11 miles from Ventura Harbor, Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island offers the best introduction to the park. Most visitors arrive via one-hour boat ride. Ashore, there's potable water, picnic tables, some of the islands' best weather and plenty to do. You can visit for a day or camp for several.
Often referred to as "the Galápagos of North America," the archipelago is home to 145 species of flora and fauna found nowhere else. On Santa Cruz, keep an eye out for the highly visible (and tiny) island foxes and island scrub jays. Also, though it seems so far from civilization, the island has a 10,000-plus-year history of Chumash habitation, along with half a millennium of European exploration and nearly 200 years of ranching. The visitor center at the historic Scorpion Ranch house offers information on all these topics, guided hikes and other free interpretive programs. (Also, back on the mainland, check out the park's Robert J. Lagomarsino Visitor Center at Channel Islands National Park in Ventura.)The summer and fall are ideal times to kayak, snorkel and swim at the beach at Scorpion Anchorage. Kayak transportation must be arranged before departure (use Channel Island Kayak Center for rentals). Guided tours and snorkel gear rentals are available through Channel Islands Adventure Company. Reservations are recommended, but walk-ups on the island may be available, especially for snorkel gear. If water sports aren't your thing, Santa Cruz island offers superb hiking from Scorpion Anchorage, from a two-mile loop along majestic sea cliffs to an eight-mile trek into the island interior.
The island offers no food service (except for a few snacks on the boat), so bring your own, and pack out all of your trash. Depending on weather, boat departures may be canceled, so always check the status of your trip before you travel. Also, wind, currents and weather can make for rough boat crossings, so make sure to take some Dramamine if you are prone to seasickness.