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5 Things to do at Prisoners Harbor

At Prisoners Harbor, peer down into crystal clear waters to see abundant marine life.

Prisoners Harbor, named for the convicts kept here in the early 1800’s, will only hold your heart captive (learn more about the story of Prisoners Harbor here).

Prisoners Harbor lies on the border of the Channel Islands National Park and The Nature Conservancy on north coast of Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the eight Channel Islands.

If you’ve never visited Prisoners Harbor or are searching for new activities to do on the islands, look no further because we have you covered for Prisoners Harbor’s top 5 activities:

Kayaking through a sea arch west of Prisoners Harbor, Santa Cruz Island.

1. Kayak the Coastline

Kayaking at Prisoners is a dream! If you want to see pristine coastline and learn about the local history and wildlife from an experienced, passionate guide, check out Channel Islands Adventure Company and select a date for your Prisoners Harbor kayaking tour (available for a limited time!).

2. Hike the Pelican Trail

A view of lush vegetation, Prisoners Harbor, and pier from the Pelican trail.

All the locals and those who work on the Channel Islands will tell you some of the best views on Santa Cruz Island can be seen from the Pelican trail, which starts at Prisoners Harbor. Please note that you may only explore the Pelican trail with a trained naturalist from Island Packers, which is also your ferry ride to the islands (they’re amazing!). The Island Packers naturalist will lead your guided hike, identify local plants and animals, and share stories of Prisoners’ history.

The trail to Pelican Bay is a 8.6 mile trail with moderate hiking difficulty. The trail can be used to hiking or even trail running (for the adventure seeker–some parts are quite steep!), and the trail is accessible year-round.

3. Enjoy the Wildlife

harbor seal on rock
A harbor seal hauls out on an algae covered rock to relax and warm up.

Prisoners Harbor boasts incredible wildlife viewing, in large part due to its relatively low visitation and the protection of both land and sea. While you kayak, you’ll be in the NOAA Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, as well as in the Channel Islands National Park.

On the boat ride to the islands or while you’re at Prisoners Harbor, you can expect to see an abundance of creatures, including: harbor seals, California sea lions, dolphins, whales, Brown Pelicans, Western Gulls, cormorants, Garibaldi, Giant Kelp, and so much more. Your guide will help you to find more wildlife and learn about the animals too!

4. Camp at Del Norte

A highlight of Del Norte campground is to get away from those crowded camps where your tent is only a few feet away from your neighbor’s. Although you will need to climb a 3 mile hike from the pier at Prisoners Harbor to get there, the solitude and views are well worth it. Del Norte is backcountry-style camping (think: pack it in, pack it out; BYO water; #LeaveNoTrace). Book your campsite on Recreation.gov!

5. Learn About the Local History

Giant Coreopsis flowers bloom along the coastline near Prisoners Harbor in the spring.

While visiting Prisoners Harbor, you’ll learn about the local history from knowledgeable and friendly guides. From the origins of the Chumash natives on the island to the ranching era, Santa Cruz Island carries a unique and rich history. Along with the incredible photos you inevitably take at Prisoners Harbor, it’s likely you’ll also leave with a sense of what the islands used to be like since going to Prisoners is almost like going back in time…

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