The Channel Islands have the elements of a great national park: amazing scenery, abundant wildlife and wildflowers, fascinating historic sites, and a sea voyage besides. Thanks to that amazing scenery and flora and fauna, this national park is also a National Marine Sanctuary. And because you have to take a boat or plane trip to visit these islands, enjoying the park’s attributes is much more of an adventure than a typical national park visit.
A bonus of that limited access is that overcrowding doesn’t exist here. Visitation in 2012 was only about 250,000 people. That same year, Yosemite had 4 million visitors, about 16 times as many. Besides being a National Park and a National Marine Sanctuary, it’s also part of the International Man and the Biosphere Program. Channel Islands National Park consists of five islands, four islands that form a chain: San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and Anacapa; and one separated from the others, Santa Barbara. The mainland of California and the four Channel Islands form the Santa Barbara Channel. Strange as it may seem, the island called “Santa Barbara” is not part of the Channel that bears that name.
Your starting point should be the park’s visitor center, which is on the mainland in the city of Ventura. You’ll find displays, an indoor tide pool, maps, books, and a simulated caliche (kah lee chee) ghost forest (more about that later). The telescope on top of the building enables you to get a closer look at the islands, on a clear day.
Island Packers Company, the park concessionaire, adjoins park headquarters in Ventura Harbor. As its name implies, Island Packers is an outfitter of pack trips, but their beasts of burden are boats. The guides for Island Packers are wildlife experts. If they catch sight of a blue whale or a pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins or a cluster of gulls circling and swarming while crossing the Channel, the skipper will steer toward them to get a closer look. Around the islands themselves, you’re likely to see harbor seals, California sea lions, and brown pelicans.
At fourteen miles from Ventura, Anacapa is the closest to the mainland. Anacapa is the smallest of the islands and is made up of three islets, East, Middle, and West Anacapa, the largest of the three. West Anacapa, protected as a Research Natural Area, is the world’s primary breeding area for the previously endangered Brown Pelican. Today the pelican has recovered so well it was removed from the endangered species list in 2009. Anacapa is also the largest breeding area for the Western Gull.
The crew takes you around Arch Rock, Anacapa’s iconic landmark, to view a hauling-out area popular with harbor seals. Then they circle back to the landing cove at the east end of East Anacapa. The guides take passengers to the landing area six at a time in skiffs, where they disembark directly onto a ladder at the pier. A stairway built into the side of a cliff leads 157 steps up to the island’s plateau. A large crane hauls up supplies for the rangers who live here.
Once on Anacapa, you can hike a 1-mile loop trail to circle the island. Western gulls and harbor seals are the most commonly seen animals. During the breeding season, you could see nesting gulls right up to the trail. The trail winds through stands of giant coreopsis, or tree sunflower. This 4-foot tall sunflower-with-a-tree-trunk grows on all the islands, and blooms in the spring. The aptly named Inspiration Point, at the western end of the islet, provides commanding views of the peaks of West Anacapa and Santa Cruz Island.
The Bureau of Lighthouses, which later became the Coast Guard, has operated a lighthouse on east Anacapa since 1932. It was the last permanently placed lighthouse built on the West Coast. The remains of a number of shipwrecks, mostly from before the construction of the lighthouse, but also afterward, lie scattered about Anacapa and the other Channel Islands. Remains of the sunken Winfield Scott and other wrecks can be explored by SCUBA divers.
You can camp on Anacapa Island, but in addition to your camping gear, you’ll have to bring all the water you’ll need, as well. The early lighthouse residents had a concrete water catchment basin to funnel rainfall into a cistern to supplement their water supply, but the gulls seemed to like landing here so much that the people rarely used the water it captured. You can see this catchment at the southeastern part of the island, not far from the campground.
The trip back to the mainland is often against the prevailing wind and current, making for a rougher ride. For those prone to sea-sickness, take along Dramamine or ginger, which may be more effective according to some medical research.
Not including Santa Barbara Island, which is about 54 miles southeast of Ventura, the Channel Islands can be thought of as the Santa Monica Mountain range with a shoreline. The geologic forces that created the Santa Monica Range were at work here, as well. In the geologic past, these islands were joined into one large island, called Santarosae. With the general warming of the Earth after the Ice Age, the rising sea separated them. The rocky shores provide a firm foundation for the kelp which in turn forms a foundation for the invertebrates, fish, birds, and marine mammals.
The islands are a special place to see rare species or relatively common species in greater than usual abundance. The Island fox inhabits the larger islands: Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel. It is a house cat-sized carnivore related to the gray fox of the mainland and lives on deer mice. San Miguel is known to have the greatest variety of seals and sea lions (pinnipeds, which means “feather-feet”) breeding on its shores. The California sea lion, Steller sea lion, northern elephant seal, northern fur seal, and harbor seal breed on the island. The Guadalupe fur seal doesn’t breed here, only visits. Many species of land and sea birds nest on all the islands. In fact, Santa Rosa has a freshwater marsh with blackbirds and other types of mainland birds nesting there.
The islands have a rich history. The Chumash, “island people,” inhabited the islands for about 6,000 years. Their signs are found at 3,000 archaeological sites. Artifacts such as hut debris, piled seashells called middens, and stone tools bear evidence of their past. In 1542, when the first European explorer visited here, there were 2,000 to 3,000 Chumash. In 1959, Phil Orr discovered a human femur at Arlington Springs on Santa Rosa Island. Using more advanced techniques for aging ancient material in 1999, scientists dated the bone at 13,000 years old, making this the oldest known occurrence of humans in the Americas. This finding lends support to the idea that the first inhabitants of North and South America arrived by boat. The first European to set foot in what is now California, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo wintered here but died from a fall. Though his grave has never been found, monuments honor him on San Miguel Island and in San Diego.
After the Chumash were removed to mainland missions around 1814, the land was owned by a variety of people. At one time, the islands produced livestock, orchard crops, and wine, with the Santa Cruz Island label. Starting in World War II, the U.S. Navy has used San Miguel Island for a bombing range. Today, it’s used for missile testing from Pt. Mugu Naval Air Missile Testing Center.
Though Anacapa is the most common destination, the concessionaire offers regular trips to the other islands. They offer sailing excursions aboard a schooner, too. In 1978, The Nature Conservancy acquired an interest in Santa Cruz Island from the Santa Cruz Island Company. With Island Packers, the Conservancy offers trips to the island from May to November. Trips to San Miguel are planned for autumn. Because this trip is infrequent, you’ll need to make reservations well in advance. One- and two-day trips are available. On both trips, you sleep aboard ship en route to awake in Cuyler Harbor the following morning. SCUBA diving in these islands is an unforgettable experience, with kelp forests and shipwrecks to explore.
A trip to Channel Islands National Park is much more adventurous than visiting many other national parks. The abundant wildlife, steep-sided bluffs, travel across the Pacific Ocean from the mainland, unique plant life, and historic artifacts make the experience like visiting another world. The heavily populated cities of southern California are less than 2 hours drive from Ventura. You have to go there to believe it’s real.
Channel Island National Park
mailing address: 1901 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura, CA 93001, phone #: (805)658-5730
web site: http://www.nps.gov/chis
mailing address: 1691 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura, CA 93001, Phone #: (805)642-1393
web site: http://www.islandpackers.com
Channel Islands Aviation
mailing address: 305 Durley Avenue, Camarillo, CA 93010, Phone #: (805)987-1301