Exploring California’s Wild Island: Channel Islands National Park

The Channel Islands have the elements of a great national park: astonishing landscapes, abundant wildlife and wildflowers, fascinating historical sites, and a sea voyage as well. Thanks to that incredible landscape, 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 visit to a national park.

An advantage of this limited access is that there is no overcrowding here. Visits in 2012 were only about 250,000 people. That same year, Yosemite received 4 million visitors, approximately 16 times more. In addition to being a National Park and a National Marine Sanctuary, it is also part of the International Man and Biosphere Program. The Channel Islands National Park consists of five islands, four islands that form a chain: San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz and Anacapa; and one separate from the others, Santa Barbara. The mainland of California and the four Channel Islands make up the Santa Barbara Channel. Oddly enough, 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 located on the mainland in the city of Ventura. You’ll find exhibits, an indoor tidal pool, maps, books, and a simulated caliche ghost forest (kah lee chee) (more on that later). The telescope on top of the building allows you to get a closer look at the islands, on a clear day.

Island Packers Company, the park’s concessionaire, adjoins the park’s headquarters in Ventura Harbor. As the name implies, Island Packers are a group travel provider, but their beasts of burden are ships. Island Packers guides are wildlife experts. If they see a blue whale or a pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins or a group of seagulls circling and swarming as they cross the Channel, the skipper will head towards them for a closer look. Around the islands themselves, you are likely to see harbor seals, California sea lions, and brown pelicans.

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, Anacapa East, Middle and West, the largest of the three. West Anacapa, protected as a Natural Research Area, is the world’s premier breeding ground for the brown pelican that was previously endangered. Today, the pelican has recovered so well that 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 site, to see a popular transport area with harbor seals. They then turn back to the landing cove at the eastern end of East Anacapa. Guides take passengers to the landing area six at a time on skiffs, where they disembark directly on a ladder on the dock. A staircase built into the side of a cliff leads 157 steps up to the island’s plateau. A large crane carries supplies for the rangers who live here.

Once in Anacapa, you can walk a 1-mile loop trail to go around the island. Western gulls and harbor seals are the most frequently seen animals. During the breeding season, seagulls could be seen nesting up the trail. The trail winds through stands of giant coreopsis or tree sunflower. This 4-foot-tall tree-trunk sunflower grows on all islands and blooms in the spring. The aptly named Inspiration Point, at the western end of the islet, offers stunning views of the western peaks of Anacapa and Santa Cruz Island.

The Lighthouse Bureau, which later became the Coast Guard, has operated a lighthouse in eastern Anacapa since 1932. It was the last permanently placed lighthouse built on the west coast. The remains of several shipwrecks, mostly from before the construction of the lighthouse, but also after, lie scattered throughout Anacapa and the other Channel Islands. Divers can explore the wreckage of the sunken Winfield Scott and other shipwrecks.

You can camp on the island of Anacapa, but in addition to your camping equipment, you will also have to bring all the water you need. The lighthouse’s early residents had a concrete water catchment basin to funnel rain into a cistern to supplement their water supply, but the seagulls seemed to like landing here so much that people rarely used the water they captured. You can see this basin in the southeastern part of the island, not far from the camp.

The journey back to the mainland is often against the prevailing wind and current, making it a more difficult journey. For those prone to seasickness, bring Dramamine or Ginger, which may be more effective according to some medical research.

Excluding Santa Barbara Island, which is located about 54 miles southeast of Ventura, the Channel Islands can be thought of as the Santa Monica mountain range with a coastline. The geological forces that created the Santa Monica Mountain Range also acted here. In the geological past, these islands were united into one large island, called Santarosae. With the general warming of the Earth after the Ice Age, the rise of the sea separated them. Rocky shores provide a firm base for algae which in turn form a base for invertebrates, fish, birds, and marine mammals.

The islands are a special place to see rare species or relatively common species in greater abundance than usual. The island fox lives on the largest islands: Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel. It is a carnivore the size of a house cat related to the gray fox of the continent and lives on deer mice. San Miguel is known for having the largest variety of seals and sea lions (pinnipeds, which means “feather feet”) that breed on its shores. The California Sea Lion, Steller’s Sea Lion, Northern Elephant Seal, Northern Fur Seal, and Harbor Seal all breed on the island. The Guadalupe fur seal does not breed here, only visits. Many species of land and sea birds nest on all the islands. In fact, Santa Rosa has a freshwater swamp with blackbirds and other types of mainland birds that nest there.

The islands have a rich history. The Chumash, “island people”, inhabited the islands for about 6,000 years. Its signs are found in 3,000 archaeological sites. Artifacts such as shack debris, stacked seashells called garbage cans, and stone tools bear witness to its past. In 1542, when the first European explorer visited here, there were between 2,000 and 3,000 chumash. In 1959, Phil Orr discovered a human femur in Arlington Springs on Santa Rosa Island. Using more advanced techniques for aging ancient material in 1999, scientists dated the bone to 13,000 years old, making it the oldest known human occurrence in the Americas. This find supports 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 Rodríguez Cabrillo spent the winter here, but died from a fall. Although his grave has never been found, monuments honor him on San Miguel Island and in San Diego.

After the Chumash were transferred to missions on the mainland around 1814, the land was owned by a variety of people. At one time, the islands produced cattle, garden crops, and wine, labeled Isla Santa Cruz. Since World War II, the United States Navy has used San Miguel Island as a firing range. Today, it is used for missile testing at the Pt. Mugu Naval Air Missile Test Center.

Although Anacapa is the most common destination, the concessionaire offers regular trips to the other islands. They also offer sailing excursions aboard a schooner. In 1978, The Nature Conservancy acquired a stake in Santa Cruz Island from the Santa Cruz Island Company. With Island Packers, The Nature Conservancy offers trips to the island from May through November. Trips to San Miguel are planned for the fall. Because this trip is rare, you will need to make reservations well in advance. One and two day trips are available. On both trips, he sleeps aboard the ship en route to wake up in Cuyler Harbor the next morning. 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. Abundant wildlife, steep cliffs, journeys across the Pacific Ocean from the mainland, unique plant life, and historical artifacts make the experience like visiting another world. The densely populated cities of Southern California are less than a 2-hour drive from Ventura. You have to go there to believe it is real.

Channel Island National Park

Mailing Address: 1901 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura, CA 93001, Phone Number: (805)658-5730

website: http://www.nps.gov/chis

Island packers

Mailing Address: 1691 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura, CA 93001, Phone Number: (805)642-1393

website: http://www.islandpackers.com

Channel Islands Aviation

Mailing Address: 305 Durley Avenue, Camarillo, CA 93010, Phone #: (805)987-1301