Backpacking the Channel Islands

For our third (dating) anniversary, my partner and I decided to put 40-60 pounds on our backs and hike across an island over the course of three days. Romantic! We elected not to do a big fancy honeymoon and instead are going on a bunch of 2-4-day adventures throughout the year. Next up? Yosemite! We will be honeymoonin' forever. 

Lots of people, even locals, have no idea that there are TWO national parks in LA's backyard - Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and Channel Islands National Park. Pair the beauty of the natural world with our beautiful, sunny Mediterranean climate and you have everything you need for a day trip or long weekend away. 

The Channel Islands are composed of five islands, all of which contain remarkable biodiversity and rich cultural history. They are often referred to as the Galapagos of North America due to the diverse plant and animal species endemic to the islands. The largest and most accessible is Santa Cruz, which you can get to via ferry. The 20+ mile, hour long ride over is an adventure in itself. Depending on the time of year, you can see grey whales, bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins, sea lions, humpback whales and more. It's magical. Take dramamine. 

I planned our trip about 4 months in advance in order to get campsites (you reserve them on We wanted to start on one side of the island and hike to the other, spending the night on two sites.   For our first night, I reserved a backcountry campsite at Del Norte. We planned to hike the 11 miles across the island on our second day and set camp for our second night at Scorpion Anchorage, which is located next to another harbor and where we would catch our return ferry. Reservations are absolutely necessary - sites fill up quickly and rangers check, even in the backcountry. I would imagine you'd need to plan even farther in advance if you want to go in summer months (we went in March).

One important thing to note that will impact your planning and packing is that there is no potable water and no water source at Prisoners or at the backcountry site, so we had to plan accordingly and bring enough water for the afternoon/evening of our first day, and for the second day which involved a difficult hike. We ended up taking 4 liters per person for 1.5 days, which was perfect. Luckily, there is potable water at Scorpion, so we were rewarded with fresh water (and lighter packs) on the other side of the island. 

The easiest way to get there - and the only unless you have a friend with a plane or a boat - is via ferry managed by Island Packers. We made round trip ferry reservations and arranged to be dropped off at Prisoner's Harbor and picked up at Scorpion Harbor. The ferry aint cheap - $79 per person. However, you do not need a National Park pass or pay to get into the park. And as mentioned before, the ferry ride can also be a whale watching trip depending on the time of year. If they see a pod of dolphins or whales, they will slow down or stop. Their amazing naturalists share fun, interesting information about any species you might see. 

We were dropped off at Prisoners, and elected to leave our packs down by the harbor and join a naturalist for a hike in Nature Conservancy owned land. Fun fact! Over 75% of the island is owned by the Nature Conservancy (the remainder is owned and managed by the National Park Service). The only way to get on Conservancy land is to go on a guided hike. We took the Pelican Trail and got a small taste of what we would see on the rest of the island. We turned back about halfway because we were anxious to get to our site. We returned to our packs and hiked 3.5 miles uphill to the Del Norte campground. The first mile or so was on a road. We then took a left onto the Del Norte Trail for the remainder. The trails are really well marked, so you won't get lost! We pitched our tent, ate a surprisingly delicious dinner (we brought dehydrated food from Good to Go in order to save weight in our packs), opened a bottle of wine from Carhartt, our favorite winery, and looked at the stars before going to bed. While there was no potable water, there was a pit toilet, picnic tables and food storage box. The views from the moment we got on the ferry to watching the sunset that first day were all incredible. 

The next morning we woke up around 9, ate breakfast, packed up our tent, and started the 11 mile trek to the other side of the island around 10:30. I should mention at this point that this was Bennett's first backpacking trip, and my second - we both were fairly clueless and blissfully ignorant about how difficult our journey would be, especially with all the water we were carrying. We got on the Del Norte trail and for the first 5-6 miles, we enjoyed a fairly moderate hike, with about 1500 feet elevation gain. The chaparral, sage, fennel and Island Pines were green and aromatic. The mountain range loomed in the distance, and before we started the climb we took a nice long lunch break and enjoyed the views. The last mile or so up to Montañon Ridge was difficult. My fear of heights was exacerbated by the steep drop offs and loose rocks. In addition to these rugged conditions, the trail wasn't very well marked during this portion of the trail. But we made it and were rewarded by the most beautiful views at the top of the ridge. 

From there, it was all downhill! The topography was drastically different on the other side of the ridge, lots of red soil and rocks. Just when we thought we couldn't hike another step, we dropped down into Scorpion Harbor, found our site, and set up camp (including my trusty camping hammock). We arrived around 5:30pm. Including a long lunch break and a few short breaks, it took us about 6 hours to go from Prisoners to Scorpion. 

The next day our boat was scheduled to depart at 4:00pm. We slept in, packed up, dropped our bags at the Harbor and hiked up to Potato Harbor, one of the most beautiful vistas on the Island. When all was said and done, we'd hiked about 24 miles in 3 days. On the boat home, we saw three grey whales. It was the perfect, magical ending to our weekend celebration.