Backcountry Camping on Santa Rosa Island Overview
While searching for some backcountry camping spots close to home, I came across Santa Rosa Island. Santa Rosa Island is the second largest island in the Channel Islands National Park. Located just off the coast of Southern California, the island has one established campsite for campers and also allows backcountry camping on its beaches during different seasons throughout the year.
The Channel Islands are home to multiple species of animals and plants that can be found nowhere else in the world and is often referred to as North America's Galapagos.
This past week my fiancé and I hiked 53 miles in 4 days through the backcountry of Santa Rosa island and it was a fantastic experience!
Permits and Transportation to the Island
In order to camp on the beaches on Santa Rosa Island you will need to reserve a permit through Reserve America.
Before you reserve your permit, you should be aware of the different beaches you can camp on during different parts of the year. The beaches on Santa Rosa Island can be closed protecting pupping seals/sea lions and nesting birds. To get the latest information on which beaches are open for planning your trip make sure to check out the Santa Rosa Island, Channel Island National Park Website here.
Since my fiancé and I were camping between 15 August and 15 September we were restricted to camping between East Point and South Point in the south east quadrant of the island (Map info down below).
In addition to securing backcountry camping permits for Santa Rosa Island you will also need to acquire a ticket on an Islands Packers boat to get to the island. The Island Packers website can be found here.
Island Packers are the only commercial boats that can take you to the island. Here are the prices for a ticket when we used them to get to Santa Rosa:
The big takeaway when planning is to make sure your backcountry permit dates line up with your transportation tickets out to the island. While I was booking our trip there were a few times I found backcountry permit dates that were open but they didn't line up with the Island Packers schedule. I had to keep looking until I could get the two to line up.
Santa Rosa Island Backcountry Camping Map
Below is a map of our entire trip, I will show some close ups of different sections throughout this trip report. The one big thing to note is Clapp Springs. Clapp Springs is the only water source that is more or less guaranteed all year. There are a number of perennial streams, but depending on the time of year you go to Santa Rosa Island don't expect to find much water. You will most likely have to plan your trip around Clapp Spring and be prepared to haul a lot of water. We carried about 3 liters each to start, then filtered everything we needed for the next two days at Clapp Springs which we then carried on our backs down to the beaches we camped on. In total we had 26 liters of water between the two of us for 2.5 days in the backcountry.
The maps below can be viewed on Caltopo here, and you can also download the gpx file there.
Camping on Santa Rosa Island Itinerary
I was able to book the Island Packers ferry to bring us out to Santa Rosa Island on Wednesday 9 September and bring us back to the mainland on Saturday 12 September.
I booked two days in the backcountry where we planned to camp on the beach. We didn't pick out a specific spot beforehand but knew we would be camping someplace in between Ford Point and South Point. The Caltopo map shows exactly where we camped, but the two beaches we stayed on were La Jolla Vieja and Officers Beach. Realistically, these were the only two beaches we could access between Ford Point and South Point.
For our third night on the island I booked a campsite at the one established campground on the island. Since the hike out to the South East quadrant of the island is roughly 12 miles both ways we didn't want to be racing back to try and make our boat to leave the island at 4pm on Saturday. An extra night on the beach would have been fantastic, but we are glad we stayed in the campsite on the last night and it saved us from carrying an extra day of water down to the beaches in the backcountry.
On our last day on the Island we planned a day hike out through Lobo Canyon which was fantastic and I would not miss that hike if you go out to Santa Rosa Island.
ℹ️ Gear Recommendations
If you would like expert gear recommendations for your next adventure check out the Ten Digit Grid Gear Locker. I detail why each item has a spot in my backpack!
One thing to note in the picture of my gear laid out above is the bear canister. Bear canisters are recommended due to the foxes when backcountry camping on Santa Rosa Island. The established campground has fox boxes, as they call them, but I would defiantly bring a bear canister for backcountry camping. With our food stuffed in a bear canister, we had no issues with the foxes on the island, but I would not want to be stuck 12 miles away from the nearest meal if a fox did get into our food.
The Boat Ride to the Island
The Island Packers ferry leaves from Ventura California, you can see their location on Google Maps here. Living in San Diego this meant we had about a 3 hour drive north to get to the ferry for an 8am departure. Island Packers wants you there an hour before departure so we had a very early morning with a 3:30am wake up.
The entire Island Packers team was fantastic and did an amazing and efficient job of getting the boats loaded and everyone on board to leave on time. Since we are living in the COVID-19 world right now, it's worth mentioning they did a great job working through all COVID precautions too. Essentially when you arrive you will check in, they will give you your tickets, then weigh your bags. Make sure you read the instructions Island Packers sends you when you book your tickets, but there are weight limits and no water or gas canisters for cooking can be inside your pack when you travel. Island Packers has a container all the gas canisters are stored in during travel and they are stored differently than your backpacks.
The ride out to Santa Rosa Island was about 3 hours long and we even had an awesome viewing of a group of Dolphins! I thought it was great the Island Packers Captain basically stopped the boat and circled around the dolphins for a little so everyone could get a great view of the dolphins playing in the wake of the ferry, it was fantastic!
Arriving on the Island and The First Water Source
When our boat arrived on the island, the Island Packers team was again very efficient and orderly when working to get our gear back to us and off the boat.
Once we got off the ferry and onto the pier one of the Rangers from the National Park speaks with everyone and goes over some ground rules. After she addressed all the campers, she asked those with backcountry permits to stay behind. The Ranger asked everyone where they planned on camping and said the only source, she was aware of other than Clapp Springs for water was St. Augustine Canyon. Despite the multiple groups we saw at this point we only ran into one of the groups out on the trail at Clapp Spring.
After asking the ranger a couple quick questions ourselves we were off walking down the pier towards Santa Rosa Island!
As you first get off the pier you walk through these fences leftover from when Santa Rosa Island was a Ranch. If you look closely at the fence there are some cool plants growing on it.
As we hiked south, our first stop was the established campground. This is one of the other guaranteed water sources and it does not need to be filtered. We only carried one full Nalgene each on the boat since you cannot board with water in your backpack. We stopped here to fill all the water we would need to get us to Clapp Springs.
The campground was about a mile and a half from the pier and we quickly filled 3-4 liters of water each and then got on the trail to climb up to Clapp Springs as our next big stop.
Day 1: Hiking to La Jolla Vieja Beach
After filling up our water sources to hold us over until we reached Clapp Springs, we were back on the trail headed towards the backcountry beach camping!
Below is a map showing our route from the pier, to Clapp Springs and ending at La Jolla Vieja Beach:
Day one for us ended up being 12.42 miles starting after 11am, which was after the boat docked.
Once we left the campground the trail immediately goes down to cross Water Canyon which is the canyon the campground is built next too. This was the only water we saw until we reached Clapp Springs.
Crossing Water Canyon was just a quick dip down and right back up on the other side. Once across the small canyon the trail quickly flattens out as you quickly come to Wreck Road where the trail starts to climb up and over Santa Rosa Island.
Most of the "trail" on the first day is essentially a road and is wide enough for a car. The "trail" doesn't really narrow down until you get to the far side of the island.
The start of Wreck Road was the steepest, but it pretty quickly turns into a nice gentle upwards slope. As you rise up make sure you look back towards the pier end enjoy the views of the water!
In a lot of my pictures on the first day you can see an orange glow due to the wild fires that were burning in pretty much all of California at the time.
Wreck Road was a pretty easy hike, mostly rolling hills, but was generally sloping up. At this point we were also not loaded down with all our water and this part seemed to fly by! We did enjoy views of rolling grass fields that are probably beautiful in the springtime.
In the distance across the grass fields we could see Santa Cruz Island peeking out above the sea haze:
Pro Tip: Landscape Photography
When taking landscape photography try an incorporate leading lines to draw a viewer's gaze through the entire photo. In the photo above I framed it so the trail in the background would act as the leading lines to draw your gaze from us and into the hills behind us.
As you continue to climb up the gradual slopes, you will eventually come to a fork in the road. You can either go right towards Ford Point or left to Clapp Springs. For our trip we were heading in the direction of Ford Point, but we stayed left at the Fork to head to Clapp Springs. At Clap Spring we planned to top off all our water sources because this was the last known fresh water source until we made it back to the campground on Friday evening.
From the fork, Clapp Springs is about a half mile down. If you are planning to stop here for water and then head back towards Ford Point, this water re-fill will add about a mile onto your trip.
Also, if you are going back towards Ford Point, the trail to Clapp Springs from the fork is all downhill. It's only about 300 feet in elevation drop, but it's fun to climb right back up that hill after you max out your water load....
Clapp Spring itself feeds directly into a large basin of water and you can either filter right from the basin or use a faucet to fill a gravity bag type filter like we used.
Pro Tip: Water Filtration
I have recently begun using a gravity filter while backpacking, and it has been awesome not having to stay next to the water to hand pump it. I just fill up the bag with water and let gravity do the rest.
Unfortunately, hiking in the desert or other places without a lot of trees to hang the gravity filter, you may have to hold it yourself, which would not be fun. Instead I repurpose my camera tripod....
In the image above I have the Lifestraw Flex and Gravity bag (Amazon) hanging off my Peak Design Tripod.
While at Clapp Springs we filtered about 22 Liters of Water. This took a decent amount of time with a gravity bag filter, but it was nice to relax for a while and just enjoy the view. This did push our arrival time to our first night’s campsite back quite a bit and we ended up arriving after dark.
If you do not want to waste time filtering, consider carrying the gray water down to your campsite and then filtering it out as you need it. If you do this option, you will save a lot of time filtering and can get to your campsite quicker, but make sure you are 100% certain which containers have the un-filtered water and which containers do not. The water at Clapp Spring need to be filtered!
Pro Tip: Packing lots of Water
When backpacking in locations where you have to carry large loads of water long distances I recommend multiple smaller water bladders for easy packing. While on a two day backpacking trip in Joshua Tree I used one large water bladder the MSR Dromedar 10L (Amazon). The Dromedary is a tough water bladder but its 10L size made it awkward to pack and carry.
On this trip I bought multiple 3L Hydrapak Seeker collapsible water bottles (Amazon). Their smaller size made them easier to pack inside my pack vs the one large water bladder.
Once we were fully loaded, we made the 300ft climb back up to the intersection and this time made the turn towards Ford Point. From here the trail was basically all downhill until two small canyons crossings right before you get to La Jolla Vieja Beach.
While hiking down this trail we had a couple good fox sightings.
As we finally approached the coast the sun was starting to get low in the sky and darkness was approaching quickly as we passed another small ranch.
After passing the ranch the trail descended steeper to cross a small canyon. When we got down to the bottom of the canyon, it was really starting to get dark. To make matters more difficult there were overgrown reeds about 6-7 feet tall covering the trail that crossed the stream. It was clear not many people have been on the trail this season. We looked for the shortest point to cross and went for it.
Right after we crossed the canyon it got dark, very dark. With the sea haze there was no light from the moon and we were following the trail with our headlamps, which was pretty sketchy.
The entire hike until the point it got dark was a super easy to follow the wide trail/road. At this point the trail was mostly overgrown and would have been hard to follow in the day, but was even more difficult at night. There was even one point right before the trail dropped to La Jolla Vieja Beach that had huge sinkholes, we were avoiding that looked over ten feet deep!
Once we got to the beach, we took a lap around in the dark with our headlamps to check for sea lions and elephant seals and tried to determine where high tide would come up too.
After checking the area, we set up our tent in the dark and ate a well deserved meal. We finally made it to the beach, even though we couldn't see a lot of it at this point.
Day 2: Moving to Officers Beach and Checking out South Point Lighthouse
At around 2:30 am we were woken up by the extremely loud noise of an elephant seal. I had no idea how close it was so I stuck my head out of our tent with my headlamp and took a quick look around the beach. The sea haze and mist by the beach was so thick I could barely see 5 feet in front of me. Not wanting to get smothered in the tent by an elephant seal, we exited the tent and moved away while constantly scanning the beach. We sat on a rock and enjoyed the sounds of the ocean until we no longer heard the elephant seal, then went back to sleep in the tent. We never saw the elephant seal that night and have no idea if it was even close, but it sure was loud...
Once the sun came up and we woke up for real this time we had the beautiful La Jolla Vieja beach all to ourselves!
Pro Tip: Camping on a Sandy Beach
MSR makes awesome Tough Stakes (Amazon) that are specifically designed for sand or snow. These stakes have amazing holding power for your tent or tarp in sand and snow. I highly recommend purchasing a few before you camp on the beach.
Not wanting another elephant seal encounter, we decided to scout out another campsite that was not so close to the water. After breakfast we left our gear and packs on the beach and explored the area. About 1.25 miles past La Jolla Vieja Beach we stumbled onto Officers Beach. Officers Beach looked beautiful, so we quickly headed back to La Jolla Vieja, packed up all our gear and moved camp to Officers beach.
The 1.25 mile hike to Officers Beach was pretty short and mostly flat. The trail looks like it used to be a much wider road at some point, but due to recent growth it was more of a single-track trail.
When we got to Officers Beach, we set up camp next to a large sand dune a bit back from the water. The first night on La Jolla Vieja Beach was a bit loud with the waves crashing so close.
After setting up camp we checked out our map and decided to take a day hike up to the South Point Lighthouse. I joke that this hike became the death hike.... It was a little longer and steeper at times than I had originally thought. We left most of our gear at camp (bear canister worked great) and only took some snacks, water and my camera gear.
From our camp at Officers Beach it would be a 4.8 mile hike up to the South Point Lighthouse with 1392 feet of climbing. Our chill day hike ended up being 9.6 miles.
The hike started out nice and flat. We enjoyed the ocean views and the loud crashing of the waves against the cliffs in the distance. Every once and awhile a wave would bounce off the cliff and slam into the next oncoming wave with perfect timing to create a huge explosion of water and sound. It was like a wave firework!
We didn't really see any other beaches you could access from the trail, but there were one or two more sandy beaches that were pretty occupied by the local wildlife.
Right before the climb started, we found another old building. There was an old road that went down from the building towards the water to a point It look as if there used to be a dock at this point that was demolished or reclaimed by the ocean. Out on this point we found a lot of animal bones and some great views.
Pro Tip: Photography
In the two pictures above, I used a long shutter exposure to capture the movement in the water. These two photos both had shutters open for 6-8 seconds.
If you want to be able to take long exposures during the day without out washing out your photo you will need a neutral density filter also known as an ND filter. ND filters are basically like sun glasses for your camera lens and allow you to take longer exposures during the day. Always use a tripod when doing a long exposure shot!
Here are the two ND filters I took on my trip:
Once we left the point and continued our hike towards the South Point Lighthouse the first big climb was actually an old paved road. It was a decent climb more because it was long versus steep. As you climb up you are rewarded with some awesome views back towards the beaches you left from.
The other nice part about this hike was we were also scouting out for our return trip back to the other side of the island. The first part of this hike would be what we would hike on our way back to the established campground.
As we followed the old paved road up, we eventually came to an intersection where we would turn left onto a dirt road that would lead to the South Point Lighthouse.
The path to the lighthouse was windy and steep at times, but I highly recommend it despite it being a long 9+ mile round trip from Officers Beach. The views were fantastic!
Be careful at the top, the cliffs are high and steep. We had a pretty windy day!
When we got back to Officers Beach it felt great to sit on the soft sand and relax as the sun went down. We had another fantastic but tiring day on Santa Rosa Island!
Day 3: The Hike Back Across Santa Rosa Island to the established Campground
On Friday morning we woke up early for another long day of hiking. Today we would traverse back across Santa Rosa Island and spend our final night in the established campground. Instead of going back the same route we took across Santa Rosa Island on the first day we decided to go back a different route so we could see more of the beautiful Island!
Today would be our longest hike clocking in at 14.65 miles.
We woke up to a beautiful sunrise rise on the beach, with the sun still glowing red from the fires on the mainland.
After eating a quick breakfast of Pop-Tarts and other assorted snacks, we were back on the trail. Most of the climbing today would be in the first five miles and most of it was the trail that we hiked the day before on our way up to the South Point Lighthouse. Instead of turning left at the fork to head back to the lighthouse, we stayed right and continued the long slow steady slog up the hill.
The trail today was mostly a mix of old paved road and old dirt road. After the initial 5ish mile climb up and out from the beaches the trail was rolling hills and pretty peaceful.
The hike back was a very unique hike because it brought us to some Island Oak also known as Quercus Tomentella. The Island Oak is an endangered oak tree that is only found in the Channel Islands and nowhere else in the world! It was absolutely amazing to be able to hike by these trees in the wild native habitat and not in a zoo behind some glass wall.
This batch of Island Oak was right after we passed Soledad Peak on our left. It looked like Soledad Peak also had a handful of Island Oak trees on it as well.
From here we continued on towards Black Mountain, the highest peak on Santa Rosa Island. As you approach and pass Black Mountain the scenery changes. It was a lot greener and more alive looking than other parts of the island. There are also more Island Oak trees on Black Mountain.
After Black Mountain we were in the home stretch and heading back down towards the coast. At this point our feet were aching and we were ready to be done hiking for the day. Eventually we stumbled into the campground and were happy to see the line of wind breaks at each campsite:
After sitting down and briefly resting our feet, we set up camp for one last night on Santa Rosa Island. The windbreaks they have at the established campground are great and also are fantastic for hanging items to dry. When we woke up earlier today on Officers Beach our rain fly was pretty soaked with moisture. We hung it in the wind break and it quickly dried for us before the sun set.
Despite how tired and sore we were from our 14 mile hike we still managed to hobble down to the beach from the campground to kill some time before dinner. We were not camping on the beach tonight like we were the last two nights, but beach access is not too far away from the campground. I circled the path down in blue on the map below:
I didn't take many pictures while in the campground, but it was fantastic. The campground had two bathrooms which were the cleanest campground bathrooms that I have ever seen! There was also running fresh water and a dedicated place to washing dishes and utensils. My hands were so grimy from a few nights in the backcountry, I felt guilty as I watched the dirt run off my hands into the pristine sink.
Day 4: Hiking Lobo Canyon Trail to the Beach
We slept really well in the campground after our 14 mile hike yesterday, but we were not quite done with our trip yet. We briefly discussed taking it easy and relaxing on the beach until boarding the ferry back to the mainland at 4pm.
Despite being a bit sore and tired we decided to press on one more final adventure and hoped to make it back in time for the ferry!
Leaving from the campground to Lobo Canyon and back to the ferry added another 11+ miles to our entire trip. The hike from the campground to Lobo Canyon Trail was 6.34 miles.
On the way to Lobo Canyon Trail we stopped at the pier to drop off most of our gear. This way we could travel light and quick in order to make it back to the ferry on time. At the pier they have a couple large fox boxes so you can easily leave gear there protected from the wildlife on the island.
The trail or road you want to take towards Lobo Canyon Trail is called Smith Highway and is right behind the red barn near the pier. In the picture below Smith Highway is to the left of the green tree to the left of the red barn:
Once you start hiking on Smith Highway the trail immediately begins to rise up and brings you to large grasslands where the trail rolls until it drops down toward Lobo Canyon Trail. I didn’t take many pictures here as we traveled through the grasslands. We were moving pretty quick to make sure we had time for a snack on the beach at the end of Lobo Canyon and then make it back in time for the ferry.
Eventually you will see the trail drop into a canyon before you hit the Lobo Canyon Trail head.
Once you get down to the bottom of the canyon just follow it a little and you will see a sign for Lobo Canyon Trail. The trail will change from a wide road into narrow single track.
As you hike Lobo Canyon Trail, the scenery is just amazing, this was the greenest part of the island we saw during our entire 4 days there. The trail generally slopes down as you get closer and closer to the beach, but be prepared for ups and downs the entire way as you are stepping up different rock formations.
Lobo Canyon was the only canyon on the island that we actually saw any amount of real water. There were also a few crossings through some high reeds like we had in the backcountry but this time there were some nice paths cleared with wooden plank bridges or plank stepping stones to get you across.
Eventually we made it to the small beach at the end of Lobo Canyon Trail! We found a nice spot of rock to sit on and enjoyed eating the last of our snacks we had for our trip.
Lobo Canyon Trail was absolutely stunning and I highly recommend making it part of your plan if you go visit Santa Rosa Island. Our trip to Lobo Canyon was a bit rushed since we had to quickly run back and catch our ferry back home, but I am so glad we made the time to trek out to it and experience its unique beauty. Don't skip Lobo Canyon Trail!
After hiking back to the pier for the ferry, we made it back by 3pm and had about half an hour to spare before the ferry started to load up. Where the pier meets the island there is a cool old metal ladder you can take down to the beach and relax while you wait for the ferry.
Santa Rosa Island was absolutely spectacular and we had an amazing yet tiring trip exploring all over the unique island! I can't wait to go back and explore more of Channel Islands National Park and see what the other islands have to offer!