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Visiting Catalina vs. Santa Cruz Island

Whether it’s for learning or pleasure, both islands have so much to offer…

Many travelers are familiar with Catalina Island’s many attractions, and a week of outdoor school at Catalina is almost a given if you grew up in Southern California, but we have reasons to believe the “grass is greener” on Santa Cruz Island (especially after a good rainy season 😉).

Spring at Prisoners Harbor, Santa Cruz Island

Before even arriving on the island, visitors to Santa Cruz are guaranteed sights of an amazing array of marine life in Ventura Harbor and the Santa Barbara Channel, expertly guided by the ferry staff, our own Adventure Company staff, and certified naturalists on-board every boat. Though there is only one departure harbor to the island (relative to several departure points for Catalina), it’s nice to know that you and your fellow passengers will be the only people at the country’s most exclusive National Park.

View from the ferry: orcas against the backdrop of the Santa Ynez Mountains

One of the biggest differences between the two islands is amenities available on each island. Catalina offers a full spectrum of options, from luxury resorts and restaurants in the city of Avalon to primitive, hike-in campsites and everything in between; it all depends on what you’re looking for. Santa Cruz Island offers two options for accommodations on land: Scorpion Harbor and Del Norte Campgrounds. Both locales are picturesque primitive campgrounds, but only Scorpion Harbor provides drinking water. For any adventure at Santa Cruz Island, all visitors must bring their own snacks and meals with them, and remember to protect your food from the island wildlife!

Avalon Harbor, Catalina Island
Photo by Emma Svalstad on Unsplash

The California Channel Islands (an archipelago of eight islands, including both Catalina and Santa Cruz Islands) are frequently compared to the Galapagos Islands in terms of natural endemism—plants and animals that are found no where else in the world. A landmark achievement of international conservation, the Channel Island fox is now a common sight on Santa Cruz Island, and sustains a population of about 2,000 individuals on Catalina, though they are less-frequently spotted around the developed areas.

Santa Cruz Channel Island fox

Unique to Catalina is a small herd of American bison originally introduced for the purposes of filming a movie in the early years of Hollywood; and while these creatures are generally gentle giants and have been adopted into the island culture, they can be extremely dangerous and disrupt the native ecosystems.

Bison at White’s Landing, Catalina Island
Video still by Party Shirt Productions

Snorkeling, kayaking, and hiking are the most popular activities on both islands, but each destination offers a different flavor. Catalina offers 165+ miles of hiking trails, whereas Santa Cruz Island hikers have access to about 100 miles of canyons, hills, and ridges. Both islands are international snorkeling and diving destinations, and offer one-of-a-kind ocean kayaking experiences, however the main attraction of kayaking at the Channel Islands is sea cave kayak tours on Santa Cruz Island! Scorpion Harbor is host to dozens of navigable sea caves, and many of our knowledgeable guides have been sharing their wonders with guests for over a decade.

Sea cave kayak tour at Scorpion Harbor, Santa Cruz Island

In addition to the activities mentioned above, there are countless learning opportunities to be appreciated on both islands, and a variety of options to fit the needs of any group. Catalina offers a plethora of pre-programmed science camps to choose from, whereas a trip for a school or other group to Santa Cruz Island will be completely customized to your group’s needs by our Outdoor Education team. Both islands offer similar opportunities for studying marine biology, island ecology, geology, anthropology, or oceanography—it just depends on how you want to experience it.

Guide Jose leads a group of students on a hike, Santa Cruz Island

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