a female hiker sits on the edge at potato harbor in california.

Potato Harbor: The Best Place to Watch Sunset on Santa Cruz Island

Channel Island National Park and Potato Harbor are foreign to many as they are hard to reach and aren’t as well known. This then creates a doom loop of not that many people visiting because no one talks about it because no one visits. 

But it’s a magical place, and Jaimie and I visited while living in Santa Barbara in 2022. We camped overnight, which is the way to go if you can land a reservation. 

Not being rushed on the island and getting to experience its slow nature was fantastic. Plus, we got to spend a morning kayaking through sea caves, which was a joy (even though we got flipped inside a cave, and I tore up my hands.)

And because we could spend the night, it allowed us to watch the sunset from Potato Harbor, one of the best sunset views in the National Park system. You have the wide open swath of ocean, the rest of Santa Cruz Island, and the gorgeous California coastal mountains. 

In all, it is a truly majestic view! 

Hiking Guide: Explore the Channel Islands’ Potato Harbor Overlook

Potato Harbor Hiking Stats

  • Distance: 5 miles from Scorpion Ranch
  • Elevation Gain: 600 feet of gain
  • Estimated time on the trail: 3-4 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate
the view of potato harbor overlook on santa cruz island
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Trail Report: On the Trail to Potato Harbor

Because we were camping, we set up our campsite at the Lower Campground and relaxed a bit. It was still early afternoon, and our goal of watching the sunset at Potato Harbor Overlook meant we didn’t have to rush out.

After eating some lunch, we packed up and headed towards Cavern Point. The rangers had made a big deal about it, and we figured we’d check it out. 

It was totally worth it and offers super cool views of the cliffs and the ocean below. 

From here, Jaimie and I headed along the cliffside towards Potato Harbor. There was only a small uphill section before it leveled off for the remainder of the hike.

In early March, the hills were a deep green with tons of wildflowers through the hike. Picturesque was an understatement. 

flower and coastline views near cavern point on santa cruz island
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

After taking photos and meandering on the trail, we reached the overlook. It was magical (and very windy).

We were a bit early for sunset, so we hunkered behind a ridge to escape the wind. We opened small wine bottles, shared laughs, and soaked in the views. 

As the sun began to set, the wind died down. With this, we emerged from our hiding spots and watched the sunset over the open ocean. 

Of the hundreds staying overnight on the island, only one other couple was at Potato Harbor for sunset. We felt like we won the lottery here and couldn’t have been happier to spend the evening here. 

Related: How to Camp on Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park

Planning your trip to Potato Harbor

Where is Potato Harbor Located?

Potato Harbor is on the north side of Santa Cruz Island, the most popular and visited of the Channel Islands. It is likely the most hiked destination on the island as it offers gorgeous views and is achievable for post guests. 

Getting to the Potato Harbor Trailhead

Once you are dropped off the ferry, you are at the trailhead. You’ll get a little speech from the National Park Ranger and then be cut loose. 

Follow the signs towards Cavern Point and continue following the trail (along the cliffs) away from the dock. 

a hiker on the trail towards potato harbor overlook
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Potato Harbor Overlook Hike Difficulty

This is an easy hike that almost all people should be able to achieve. There is a steep climb from Scorpion Ranch up to Cavern Point. But after that, it’s pretty much flat until you reach Potato Harbor. 

How Long is the Potato Harbor Trail?

The hike to Potato Harbor is around 5 miles round trip if you start and end at Scorpion Ranch. If you start at one of the campgrounds, it’ll be slightly less. 

We were camping overnight, so our trail began at the Lower Campground, went to Cavern Point, and then doubled back to Potato Harbor Overlook. 

the hiking route on santa cruz island with a single hiker
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

What route should I take? 

For most people reading this, you’ll hop on the Cavern Point Trail, which will be on your right. You’ll follow this to Cavern Point, which offers awesome views of the Islands, the far-off California coast, and mesmerizing kelp below. You might even see some kayakers.

After you’ve enjoyed the view, keep walking along the cliff edge for another 2.5 miles. It’s predominately flat, and you’ll have a great time!

When is the best time to hike?

Most guests on Santa Cruz Island are only there for a day trip. They hop on a ferry in Ventura, visit for the day, and then leave. So, your best time to hike is whenever you are on the island. 

I would make this the priority hike as it offers gorgeous views of the water, island, and flowers. 

If you plan to camp on the Channel Islands, I recommend hiking to Potato Harbor for sunset. Pack some snacks, bring a little wine/beer, and enjoy the gorgeous views of the Channel Islands. 

Now, what month is the best time to visit? 

Thankfully, California’s coastal weather is fantastic year-round, so you should have much to worry about. Yes, the winter can be a little more rainy, but it shouldn’t be anything overly concerning. 

Still, I would say visit in the spring and early summer if you want to go kayaking or snorkeling while on your trip. 

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Do I need a pass to visit Santa Cruz Island?

While visiting a National Park, your ferry ticket covers any need for a National Parks Pass. So you can leave it behind when you visit Santa Cruz Island. 

What gear should I bring?

Potato Harbor Overlook is a standard hike, so you need day hiking material. 

  • Hiking shoes or trail runners
  • Hiking Poles
  • Mid-sized backpack
  • Snacks
  • Plenty of Water
  • Hat
  • Sunglasses
  • Hiking shirt and shorts
  • Wool hiking socks
  • Camera/Phone

Where to stay around Ventura? 

Budget Tier: Crystal Lodge Motel
Mid-Level Tier: Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach
Luxury Tier: Rosewood Miramar Beach (Santa Barbara)

Photos from Potato Harbor and Channel Island National Park

two hikers hug while looking out at the sunset
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch
View of the santa cruz coastline near potato harbor
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch
Panorama view of potato harbor
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch
A single hike sits on the edge at potato harbor.
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch
sunset views while on channel island national park
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch
Gorgeous views while hiking on channel islands
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

FAQ: Exploring Santa Cruz Island and Potato Harbor Overlook

Is there cell service on Santa Cruz Island?

Cell phone reception is not guaranteed to anyone in Channel Islands National Park. Expect not to have any while on the islands. (Think of this as a way to be free from the constraints of the modern world.)

a whale breaches out of the ocean in the santa barbara channel
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Are there bathroom facilities anywhere?

While there are no bathroom facilities at the Potato Harbor Overlook, there are some bathrooms at the Lower Scorpion Campground and near the Scorpion Ranch dock area. 

Can you fly a drone at Potato Harbor?

No drones are allowed to be launched or landed in the National Parks. Drones are prohibited at Potato Harbor in the Channel Islands National Park. 

What are those little foxes?

The Channel Island Fox is the dominant predator on the island but is far smaller than other foxes anywhere else in the world. This species is found nowhere else on Planet Earth. 

They have no known natural predators, so you will find they may come close to you. Do not feed or touch them. They are wild animals – even if they look like cute and cuddly dogs. 

a small channel island fox that is unique to the island
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Are dogs allowed on the trail? 

No dogs are allowed in Channel Islands National Park. This includes all trails on Santa Cruz Island and Potato Harbor Overlook.

However, service animals are allowed onto the island “once they have satisfied a protocol of vaccination, parasite prevention, and health exam to ensure they will not compromise the health of island species.”

sea stacks near channel island national park
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Final thoughts on hiking to Potato Harbor on Santa Cruz Island

Potato Harbor is a truly magnificent place all visitors to Santa Cruz Island should get to experience. The hike is mellow but offers fantastic views of the coastline, ocean, and maybe some sea life below. 

If you venture out to Channel Islands National Park, add this to your list!

Author: Alec Sills-Trausch

Title: Founder of Explore with Alec

Expertise: Hiking, Backpacking, Photography, and Road Trips

Bio:

Alec Sills-Trausch is a hiker, backpacker, landscape photographer, and syndicated travel writer. He enjoys showing off the beauty of the world through his photos, videos, and written work on ExploreWithAlec.com. Alec is also a 2x cancer survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient, showing the world that there is a future from this terrible disease.

He lives in Washington, where he gets to enjoy the stunning PNW mountains in addition to all the other places he attempts to visit each year! You can see more work on IG at @AlecOutside