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Santa Cruz Island


Santa Cruz Island is the largest island off the continental United States. Located 23 nautical miles (nm) off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, the island is 22 miles long, from 2 to 6 miles wide, and is 97 square miles in area. The Chumash that inhabited this island for well over 11,000 years call this island ‘limuw,’ meaning “in the ocean.” The island Chumash consider this island to be the cradle of their civilization; the birthplace of their people. The scenic beauty of Santa Cruz is reflected in its many landforms including its two rugged mountain ranges. The highest peak on the island is Devil’s Peak, at 2450 feet. Deep canyons, year-round springs and streams, plus 77 miles of craggy coastline cliffs, giant sea caves, pristine tide pools, expansive beaches, and a central valley are features of the unique island. The central valley splits the island along the Santa Cruz Island Fault with volcanic rock on the north and older sedimentary rock on the south. Lying directly on the boundary between cold northern and warm southern waters, this island hosts unique plant, animal, and marine communities representing nearly 1000 miles of marine diversity from California’s coastline.


Diving at Santa Cruz Island is probably the most diverse of all eight Channel Islands. Being on the break of the warm southerly and colder northern currents creates marine habitat for many different species. Being the largest of California’s Channel Islands, there is a wide variety of different dive spots to explore around Santa Cruz Island, each with its own unique characteristics.

The northwest section of the island is volcanic with steep faces and hosts some of the world’s largest sea caves. The southeast section is more sedimentary with large plateaus and thick kelp beds. Santa Cruz offers more places to find good diving during rough weather periods than any other island due to its size and many coves. Seals, sea lions, bat rays, and many schools of fish are common sights while scuba diving with Channel Islands Expeditions along this island’s shores.


Given it’s ample 77-mile coastline, Santa Cruz Island has vast number of kayaking destinations that you are able to visit with Channel Islands Expeditions. In fact, traveling with CIX is the only way to see a vast majority of the island’s scenic shoreline, as most of the island itself is closed to conventional tourism.

Santa Cruz Island has huge variety of flora and fauna that live on and around it’s craggy cliff lines and giant sea caves. The west end of Santa Cruz Island is where you’ll find one of the world’s biggest sea caves, Painted Cave – so named for the vibrant lichen growth on the cave walls. Measured at a towering 160 ft at its entrance, Painted Cave stretches back into the basalt cliff for over a quarter-mile before you reach its terminus. Expect to see plenty of playful sea lions and seals as well as a host of bird life here or anywhere else you paddle on Santa Cruz Island.


There are several hiking trails and roads that traverse the eastern portion of Santa Cruz Island that is part of the Channel Islands National Park. While visitors may explore this section, no hiking is allowed beyond the national park boundary onto The Nature Conservancy property to the west without first obtaining a permit. Landings onto Santa Cruz are either by pier or by skiff. Potential landing areas include Prisoners Harbor and Smugglers Cove.

Once on the Santa Cruz, a well-marked trail system will take you to several scenic overlooks of the island’s coastline, as well as to areas of natural and historical significance. Consult your Channel Islands Expeditions trip leaders as to what may be possible on your expedition, as there is such a vast array of options to explore on this island. Wherever you go, be sure to keep a sharp eye out for some of the island’s many endemic species found here and no where else in the world, including the Island scrub jay and the Island fox.


Human History

Archaeological investigations indicate that Santa Cruz Island has been inhabited for at least 10,000 years. Chumash of limuw had their largest village, swaxil, located near present day Scorpion Anchorage. The island had over 10 villages and was home to over 1,200 people. They developed a highly complex society dependent on marine harvest and craft specialization. The island Chumash produced shell-beads that they used for currency. This formed the backbone of an intricate inter-island and cross-channel trading system with the counterparts on the mainland. Their trade was made possible by tomols, plank canoes constructed from driftwood and sealed with tar and pitch. In teams of as many as ten people, the Chumash would paddle across the channel and trade shell-bead money and island goods for food staples and other goods from the mainland.

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and his men made first contact with the Chumash of limuw in 1542. The journey would eventually be Cabrillo’s demise, as he is rumored to have died in the winter of 1543 on San Miguel Island, though some postulate we very well could have died on Santa Cruz. The explorers and missionaries that visited after him discovered the complex aboriginal society of the Chumash. Legend has it that on one such visit during a gift exchange, a staff with an iron cross atop of it was forgotten. The next day, the Chumash paddled in a tomol to the expedition’s ship and return it. From that day, the island was called “La Isla de la Santa Cruz,” meaning “the island of the sacred cross.”

By the early 1800’s the Chumash were said to have ‘voluntarily’ moved to the Santa Barbara and Santa Buenaventura missions. Thus ended 10,000 years of habitation by the Chumash on Santa Cruz Island. The Mexican government claimed the island as its own territory in 1821 before California’s independence movement began in 1838. Santa Cruz Island was gifted to Andres Castillero for his role in brokering a shaky peace in California. He would be the first of many private owners who would shape the island into what it is today.

The ranching period on Santa Cruz began with a small sheep ranching operation managed by James Barron Shaw and grew to be one a well-recognized operation by the 1860’s. Ownership of the ranch passed on to the businessman Justinian Caire in 1886, who had a vision to establish both sheep and cattle ranching on Santa Cruz Island as well as one of California’s first commercial vineyards. Caire’s legacy of ranching and land husbandry would remain until the National Park Service bought the east end of Santa Cruz Island from Caire’s descendants in 1980 and the last of the flocks of sheep were taken off the island in 1999. The Nature Conservancy came into full ownership of the west end of the island, including Main Ranch in the central valley in 1987.

Natural History

Today, Santa Cruz Island is divided between The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service. The Nature Conservancy owns and manages the western 76% of the island; the eastern 24% is owned and managed by the National Park Service.

Permanent and seasonal water sources, plus a number of microclimates, support over 650 species of plants and trees in ten different plant communities, from marshes and grasslands to chaparral and pine forests. Owing to millions of years of isolation, eight of these plants are “endemic”-they grow nowhere else in the world. Springtime is a patchwork of blooming annuals, sometimes seen from the mainland as bright splashes of color. Over 140 land bird species have been identified here. The Island scrub jay (Aphelocoma insularis), a Santa Cruz Island endemic, is a living example of “gigantism,” whereby some island animals evolve to a larger form. This bird is one-third bigger and much bluer than the mainland scrub jay. Other animals, like the Island fox (Urocyon littoralis) and Island spotted skunk (Spilogale gracilis amphialus), tend toward “dwarfism,” growing smaller over the ages. Eleven other mammal species including nine bats, deer and harvest mouse, three kinds of amphibians including the Channel Islands slender salamander (Batrachoseps pacificus), five reptiles including the Side-blotched lizard, Southern alligator lizard, Western fence lizard, Western yellow belly racer, and Gopher snake, might be seen by visitors.

Bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) were once numerous on California’s Channel Islands, but because of eggshell thinning caused by the illegal dumping of the pesticide, “DDT,” and other factors, the last known successful Bald eagle nesting in the northern Channel Islands was in 1949. By the 1960’s, Bald eagles could no longer be found on any of the Channel Islands. Soon after, Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) began nesting on the islands, and began hunting Island foxes until native fox populations declined to a threatened status. After successful trapping and relocating of the Golden eagles, the Institute for Wildlife Studies started a program in 2002 to reintroduce Bald eagles to the California’s Channel Islands funded by money from a $25 million fund to deal with the lingering effects of DDT dumped by the Montrose Chemical Corporation into the ocean near Los Angeles.

Between 2002 and 2006, 61 young bald eagles have been released on Santa Cruz Island. On March 17, 2006 wildlife biologists for the Institute announced that for the first time in over 50 years there has been a successful hatching on Santa Cruz Island. In April 2007, the Nature Conservancy announced another successful chick hatching. The chick broke free of its shell on April 13, 2007. The parents were one of the two nesting pairs who had returned to the island after making history the previous year. Both pairs were born in captivity. This second birth represented a turning point in the struggle to return the eagles to their former habitat on the island. Three nests have now been documented on Santa Cruz island as of the 2008 breeding season.