Backpacking, Channel Islands National Park
Backpacking, Channel Islands National Park
Backpacking, Channel Islands National Park

Backpacking, Channel Islands National Park

Backpacking, Channel Islands National Park

Twenty-five miles off the coast from Ventura, Santa Cruz is the largest island off the coast of California.  The island is a tableland of lush grasses and wildflowers, with 77 miles of jagged, rocky coastline dotted with sandy and cobbled beaches. The Channel Islands’ largest land mammal, the island fox, can be seen frequently on Santa Cruz.  Lying directly on the boundary between cold northern and warm southern waters, this island hosts unique plant, animal and marine communities’ representative of nearly 1000 miles of California coastline.  

Our goal is to introduce you to Channel Islands National Park backpacking by selecting a route that offers challenge, good scenery and excellent camping.  We will spend our time learning Leave No Trace skills and numerous backpacking techniques as we traverse 21 miles, up and down, of Santa Cruz Island.  This trip is a great opportunity for first time backpackers and visitors to the Channel Islands. However, our packs will start off being heavy as we each will be carrying 8 liters of water in addition to the rest of our gear and food.

“I was very impressed with the leadership. My experience was incredible and I will for sure go on another Aztec [Adventures] trip”

“Awesome.  Period.  Just awesome”


Backpacking, Channel Islands National Park

Pre-Trip Meeting

Pre-Trip Meetings are required and are held the Monday, the week of your trip, from 6-7:30pm in the AMC rooms, right outside the ARC. You will meet the leaders and other trip members, as well as cover all details such as weather, menu, safety issues, and clothing requirements. You will also be issued all of your equipment at this time (sleeping bags, pad, tent, etc.).

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Day 1: Depart SDSU by 6 p.m. and we will drive approx. 2.5-3 hours to Ventura where we will camp for the night.

Day 2: Wake up early to take the Island Packers ferry and be taken 25 miles across Pacific to our trailhead at Prisoner’s Harbor.  Once we unload the gear, we will have lunch then proceed 3.5 miles to the Del Norte campsite which is located in a beautiful pine and oak forest protected from the frequent winds.  Our campsite is a short walk from the “vault” toilets and our amenities include plenty of tent space, picnic table and animal proof boxes for storing all of our food and toiletries.  The only drinking water will be that which we carry in.  So after setting up camp, our first challenge includes cooking dinner with one burner stoves—an essential skill for all backpackers.  After dinner, for those that still have energy, a sunset hike to the top of the island is in order. 

Day 3:  Wake up early Saturday morning and cook a nutritious and filling breakfast before loading up our backpacks for the slow, steady and scenic island traverse to Scorpion Anchorage.  Our day will start with a steep climb, but once we reach the ridgeline it will be mostly downhill to our campsite at Scorpion 11 miles away.  There will be opportunities to drop our packs for side hikes with the favorite being Smugglers Cove on the south side of the island. The plan is to reach our reserved group site in Scorpion Canyon with plenty of daylight for setting up camp and cooking our second dinner together.  Drinking water and vault toilets will be available.

Day 4:  Sleep in and enjoy a late breakfast.  Pack up one more time and enjoy a 6 mile hike to Potato Harbor and Cavern Point before ending our visit at the Scorpion Anchorage.  Trip members can explore the Visitor Center/Museum before our Island Packers boat arrives at 4pm.  Weather permitting the boat ride takes an hour and we should have the van loaded and on our way by 6:00pm.  Plan to arrive back at SDSU by 8:30pm.

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Backpacking, Channel Islands National Park

Packing List

We are limited on space, and the less stuff you bring, the less you have to carry around. Ask yourself…What would I want in the coldest weather or the hottest weather? Pack to be prepared for both!

Things that should be packed inside your personal day pack and kept with you inside the van:

  • Small day pack
  • Money for road meals
  • A warm layer
  • Headlamp
  • Travel size
  • Water
  • Snack food
  • Camera


  • Sunglasses w/retainer strap
  • Personal stuff- extra contact lenses, chap-stick, sunscreen, baby wipes, ear plugs baby powder, hand lotion, medications you usually take…
  • 2 durable crush proof one liter water bottles or a hydration pack
  • Toilet paper in a Ziploc bag
  • Small, light weight fast drying camp towel


  • Wide brimmed shade hat
  • Beanie/ stocking cap
  • Bandana
  • Cotton or synthetic blend hiking shirt (breathable layer)
  • Cotton or synthetic camp shirt (a clean shirt to wear at camp)
  • Synthetic Long Sleeve Top(s) – Polypro, Capilene, or polyester.
  • Fleece jacket or sweatshirt
  • Sports bra
  • Windbreaker
  • Nylon shorts
  • Light weight long pants/ cotton or synthetic hiking pants
  • Rain Pants (Aztec Adventures can provide this if you don’t have your own!)
  • Sweatpants
  • Underwear
  • Synthetic long underwear (top & bottom)
  • Bathing suit
  • Gloves
FEET: No Flip Flops!!!!
  • Tennis shoes with good ankle support
  • Hiking Socks
  • Hiking Shoes/ Boots

Personal Equipment Provided by Aztec Adventures:

  • 20˚ sleeping bag and Thermarest sleeping pad
  • Ground Tarp
  • Tent with rain fly (sleeps 2-3)
  • Head lamp
  • Camp chair
  • Rain gear (if you don’t have your own)
  • Coffee mug, bowl, and utensils
  • Trekking Poles
  • Gregory Backpack (+5500 cubic inches)

Group Equipment that Aztec Adventures will provide:

  • Expedition First Aid Kit Ground Tarp
  • Stoves, fuel and all cooking gear-pots, pans, utensils, spice kit etc.
  • Repair kit for tents, stoves, packs, etc.
  • Water bags -2+ gallon bags for camp use
  • Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and desserts
  • Satellite Phone
Backpacking, Channel Islands National Park

Physical Challenge

Trip Members must be comfortable camping in a primitive environment and have a desire to challenge themselves both physically and mentally throughout the weekend. Trip members should be in good physical condition for hiking on very steep terrain and capable of carrying a backpack of approximately one third one’s body weight filled with your personal gear as well as group gear (covered at pre-trip meeting). From now until the trip begins, we highly encourage you to get in shape. Locally speaking, if you can comfortably hike up and down Cowles Mountain with a 25 pound pack twice in a matter of a few hours, consider yourself prepared for the hiking portion of this trip.

TRIP RATING 3 out of 3 – This is a physically demanding trip covering rough terrain. On average you will be hiking 7 miles per day for 6 hours per day.  Pace of travel is moderate as you will be on a designated trail or dirt road. Plan on carrying your pack for two hours the first day; six hours the second day, and three hours the third.

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Backpacking, Channel Islands National Park

Risks/ Hazards/ Safety

There are numerous risks and hazards associated with Santa Cruz Island. Because of its location in the open ocean, it is subject to high winds and lots of fog. Steep rocky terrain requires extra caution when hiking. Not dressing appropriately can result in heat or cold illnesses (Hyperthermia or Hypothermia). Not drinking enough water results in dehydration and not being in adequate physical condition can result in sore muscles. Trip members must make a conscious effort to be safe. One person’s disdain for safety will always result in more hardship for the group. If we do have an accident or injury that requires medical attention beyond the scope of our leader’s experience, the trip is immediately over without refund. Our leaders are trained to administer first aid in an outdoor environment; however, while they may be able to treat injuries they cannot always prevent them.

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Backpacking, Channel Islands National Park

Hygiene & Comfort

No showers will be available. Pit toilets are available both nights with running water only available on night two.   The remainder of the trip is without restrooms, requiring everyone to practice the Leave No Trace Principle of Disposing of Waste Properly (see Leave No Trace Principles).  Light weight tents, warm synthetic sleeping bags, foam pads and ground tarps will be provided to ensure a comfortable night’s sleep. We will have a reserved camp ground on hard packed soil both nights on the island.

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