Exploring California’s Wild Islands: Channel Islands National Park

The Channel Islands have the makings of a great national park: jaw-dropping scenery, abundant wildlife and wildflowers, fascinating historical sites, and a sea voyage to boot. Thanks to that incredible landscape 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.

One advantage of that limited access is that there is no overcrowding here. Visits in 2012 were only about 250,000 people. That same year, Yosemite had 4 million visitors, about 16 times more. In addition to being a National Park and 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 form 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 (kah lee chee) ghost forest (more on that later). The telescope at the 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 is a cargo travel provider, but its 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, you are 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. Western 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 that it was removed from the endangered species list in 2009. Anacapa is also the largest breeding area for the western gull.

The team takes you over Arch Rock, Anacapa’s iconic landmark, to see a popular hauling area for harbor seals. They then circle back to the landing cove at the eastern end of East Anacapa. Guides take passengers to the landing area six by six in boats, where they disembark directly onto a ladder on the pier. A stairway 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 hike a 1-mile loop trail to circle the island. Western gulls and common 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-trunked sunflower grows on all islands and blooms in the spring. The aptly named Inspiration Point, at the western end of the islet, offers breathtaking views of the West Anacapa Peaks and Santa Cruz Island.

The Bureau of Lighthouses, which later became the Coast Guard, has operated a lighthouse in east Anacapa since 1932. It was the last lighthouse permanently built on the west coast. The remains of a series of shipwrecks, mostly before the construction of the lighthouse, but also after, lie scattered around Anacapa and the other Channel Islands. The wreck 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 also need to bring all the water you’ll need. The first residents of the lighthouse had a concrete water catchment basin to channel rain into a cistern to supplement their water supply, but the gulls seemed to like landing here so much that people rarely used the captured water. You can see this basin in the southeastern part of the island, not far from the camp.

The return journey to the mainland is often against the prevailing wind and current, making the journey more rough. For those prone to motion sickness, take Dramamine or Ginger, which may be more effective according to some medical research.

Not including 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 geologic forces that created the Santa Monica Mountain Range were also at work 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, rising sea levels drove them apart. Rocky shorelines 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 inhabits the largest islands: Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel. It is a domestic cat-sized carnivore related to the mainland gray fox and lives on deer mice. San Miguel is known for having the largest variety of seals and sea lions (pinnipeds, meaning “feather-footed”) that breed 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 does not breed here, it only visits. Many species of land and sea birds nest on all the islands. In fact, Santa Rosa has a freshwater marsh where blackbirds and other mainland birds nest.

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 rubble, piled seashells called middens, and stone tools are evidence of their past. In 1542, when the first European explorer visited this site, 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 to age ancient material in 1999, scientists dated the bone at 13,000 years old, making it the oldest known human find 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 wintered 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 the mainland missions 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 US Navy has used San Miguel Island as a firing range. Today, it is used for missile testing at the Pt. Mugu Air-Naval Missile Test Center.

Although Anacapa is the most common destination, the dealership offers regular trips to the other islands. They also offer sailing excursions aboard a schooner. In 1978, The Nature Conservancy acquired an interest in Santa Cruz Island from the Santa Cruz Island Company. With Island Packers, TNC offers trips to the island from May through November. Trips to San Miguel are planned for the fall. Because this trip is infrequent, you’ll need to make reservations well in advance. There are one and two day trips available. On both trips, you sleep aboard the ship en route, only to wake up in Cuyler Harbor the next morning. Diving 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, the journey 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’s real.

Channel Island National Park

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


island packers

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


Channel Islands Aviation

mailing address: 305 Durley Avenue, Camarillo, CA 93010, telephone number: (805)987-1301