When viewed from Ventura or Santa Barbara shores, Santa Cruz Island doesn’t look that big. However, hike a trail up to one of the commanding east isle promontories and the island appears massive: row upon row of mountains alternating with deep canyons, as well as a seemingly endless series of stark bluffs extending to the horizon.

The first time I took in this view I figured I was looking at a neighboring island but no, it was all Santa Cruz, all 96 square miles and 62,000 acres of it. For you city-slickers, the isle measures about four times the size of Manhattan.

On a recent trip I was reminded of the size—and considerable natural attractions—of California’s largest island. It was truly a perfect day on the island. In the dead of winter, the temperature was in the mid-70s with a mild breeze. “Perhaps the best day out of the last 365,” a park naturalist characterized it.

Even the two teenagers I took along could find nothing to complain about—and if you know teenagers that’s really saying something. In fact, Huck and Daniel wanted to schedule a return trip as soon as possible to hike more trails and campout on the isle.

Santa Cruz definitely offers hikers plenty of room to roam, as well as a far-reaching trail system composed mainly of old ranch roads. The only limitation on the hiker seems to be time: day-trippers are allowed about five hours on the island before it’s necessary to catch the boat back to Ventura Harbor.

Learn more about Hiking Santa Cruz Island and get The Trailmaster’s suggestions for the best trails to take.

For more time on the island, consider camping near the anchorage in Scorpion Canyon. Many campers contend that the eucalyptus-shaded campground is the national park’s best because it’s the only one with shade, and because it’s a convenient base for so many excellent hikes.

A short walk from the Scorpion Anchorage leads to picnic tables, restrooms and a historic two-story ranch house In the 1880s, a colony of French and Italian immigrants led by Justinian Caire began a Mediterranean-style ranch here, raising sheep and cattle, growing olives and almonds, and even making wine. The Gherini family, descendants of Caire, owned the east end of the isle until 1997, when the property was added to the national park.

The old ranch house was recently transformed into a visitor center with some fascinating displays about the island’s natural attractions and colorful history.

The Traveling Hiker

Getting to the island can be half the fun with Island Packers (805) 658-5730, the Channel Islands National Park primary concessionaire. The ride from Ventura Harbor to Scorpion Anchorage on the eastern end of Santa Cruz Island takes about an hour non-stop, 15 minutes or so longer if the captain pauses for a bit of whale-watching or to observe the many dolphins, seals and other marine life.

If your last trip to the island took place during the 20th century or early 21st, and you’re prone to seasickness, you’ll be pleased to know the newer Island Packers vessel makes the trip in about half the time required by the company’s earlier, slower craft. And it’s a pretty darn smooth ride across the channel, too.

Island Packers offers plenty of free parking, a gift shop and restrooms.

For more information contact Channel Islands National Park or stop in at the visitor center

 (805) 658-5730 in Ventura Harbor at 1901 Spinnaker Drive

. The natural history displays are particularly good and the visitor center has a bookstore.

Note: Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center and the Island Packers dock and departure center are located a short drive apart, each with its own parking, but are NOT next to each other.