Over 2,000 species of wild animals and plants thrive within 60 miles of Los Angeles. One hundred forty-five are found nowhere else on earth. Sometimes referred to as “the Galápagos of North America” the eight islands off the coast of southern California offer a unique opportunity to see the rare, the extraordinary and the historic.
Five of the eight islands, San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa and Santa Barbara, compose Channel Islands National Park. Their waters are a protected marine sanctuary. Notwithstanding their sheltered status, the islands and their surrounding waters are open to the public and offer unique hiking, camping, wildlife observation, snorkeling, diving and kayaking opportunities.
Fragments of a 13,000-year-old human leg bone were found on one of the islands. This is the earliest known evidence of human presence in North America. Remnants of Chumash and Gabrielino/Tongva Native Americans are still visible. In 1542 the Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo wintered on the Channel Islands. Although a gravesite has never been found, he may be buried on one of the islands. In the 1800s some of the islands were used as ranches. Over time the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel accumulated gravesites for more than 150 ships.
In 1980 the five islands and their surrounding waters were designated a National Park.
Visiting the Channel Islands is easy and getting there is at least as much fun as exploring the terra firma of the islands. Regardless of the time of year pods of dolphins imitating a World War II flotilla heading for the beaches of Normandy will offer entertainment. Whales are a common sight. Within the past month my granddaughter and I saw close to 100 dolphins and perhaps 20 whales while on our way to Santa Cruz Island.
The sole, official boat concessionaire for Channel Islands National Park is Island Packers. Their boats leave from Oxnard, Ventura and Santa Barbara. Sometimes the waters are choppy so if you’re susceptible to seasickness, be forewarned. The trips can take anywhere from an hour or so to three or four hours, depending on your destination. Reservations are highly recommended, especially during the summer.
The Island Packer website lists its various island destinations and offers helpful suggestions about what to bring. In my experience the boat crews have always been courteous, helpful and knowledgeable. Regardless of your destination if pods of dolphins or whales are sighted the boats will pause and give everyone a chance to savor the aquatic show. The front of the boat offers the best observation point. The Island Packer crew and staff provide background information via the boat’s speaker system.
Island Packers offers a number of different tours. Some are year around, others only during the summer. For a first-time trip I have two suggestions. One is to take the Island Wildlife Cruise. This trip offers a from-the-boat view of either Anacapa or Santa Cruz Island without landing on shore. The other suggestion is to take the East Santa Cruz Island trip. Passengers disembark, explore a portion of the island and return in the afternoon.
Before or after your trip a stop at the Ventura Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center can be informative, especially their 25-minute film “A Treasure in the Sea” shown throughout the day. The Ventura Island Packers departure dock is perhaps 400 meters from the visitor center.
I have not been to all of the islands. The following notations are based partly on personal knowledge, partly on Google generated material and partly on friends’ commentary.
The westernmost of the Channel Islands, San Miguel is uninhabited. Of the five islands it has the least hospitable weather, something that its abundant seals and sea lions don’t seem to mind. Following the United States Navy’s use of the island as a bombing range, native species have made a solid comeback.
This is where Juan Cabrillo died and is perhaps buried. The last of the island’s Chumash were removed to mainland missions and towns in the 1820s. Signs of their presence are still extant. From 1850 to 1948 the island’s sparse terrain was used to raise sheep. San Miguel has been designated an archaeological district on the National Register of Historic Places.
The second largest of the National Park’s islands, Santa Rosa has rolling hills, deep canyons, a coastal lagoon and beaches filled with sand dunes and driftwood. There are also training facilities for U.S. Navy SEALs.
The island has a cosmopolitan history. In addition to the native Chumash, European explorers, Aleut sea otter hunters, Chinese abalone fishermen, Spanish missionaries, Mexican and American ranchers, and the US military have all left their mark on the Santa Rosa landscape. Visitors can see relics left by these interlopers.
About four-times the size of Manhattan, Santa Cruz is California’s largest island. It offers visitors the greatest geographic and archeological variety.
The island has two rugged mountain ranges – the highest peaks rise over 600 meters. There is a large central valley and deep canyons with year-around springs and streams. Its craggy coastline cliffs, giant sea caves, pristine tidepools and expansive beaches make it a favorite destination.
One of the world’s largest and deepest sea caves, Painted Cave, is on the Santa Cruz northwest coastline. Descriptively named for its colorful rock types, lichens and algae, Painted Cave is nearly 400 meters long, 30 meters wide, with an entrance ceiling of 49 meters and a waterfall over the entrance in the spring.
The island’s Scorpion Beach is perhaps the most interesting location for those setting foot on the islands for the first time, especially for those who don’t wish to do a lot of strenuous hiking. The nearby ranch buildings offer a look back into California history as it was in the 1800s.
Another Santa Cruz destination is Prisoners Harbor. Chances are that soon after disembarking from your boat you will be greeted by several inquisitive island fox. The island fox resembles a small cat. It is unique to some of the Channel Islands.
For those interested in a first-hand account of a family who lived on Santa Cruz Island in the early 1900s, read Diary of a Sea Captain’s Wife: Tales of Santa Cruz Island by Margaret Eaton. Beginning as commercial fishermen, the Eaton family gradually developed a popular Santa Cruz resort.
Best known to the general public for its postcard spectacular arches and sea caves it is also the site of an infamous Channel Islands shipwreck. In 1853 the side-wheel steamer S.S. Winfield Scott, sailing in a thick fog, rammed the island while carrying $800,000 in gold and several hundred passengers from San Francisco to Panama. Today this is a popular diving site.
Seabirds are perhaps the island’s most conspicuous wildlife. Because of the relative lack of predators thousands of birds use Anacapa as a nesting area. The steep cliffs of West Anacapa are home to the largest breeding colony of endangered California brown pelicans and its islets host the world’s largest breeding colony of western gulls.
Anacapa’s rocky shores are a favorite resting and breeding area for California sea lions and harbor seals. The barking of sea lions can be heard from most areas of the island. Two overlooks (Cathedral Cove and Pinniped Point) are excellent spots to look down on seals and sea lions in the island coves.
Covering about two and a half square kilometers, its surrounding waters forested by kelp, this is the smallest of the National Park’s islands. During World War II there was constant fear of a Japanese attack on California. Santa Barbara Island was used as an early warning outpost.
It is home to a large sea lion rookery and seabird nesting colonies. It is also home to the largest breeding colony for the small, black and white Scripps’s murrelet, a threatened seabird species.
Jaak Treiman is author of A Diplomatic Guide to Los Angeles: Discovering its Sites and Character. He is also the Honorary Consul for Estonia and a member of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. This blog is written in his personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian government or foreign ministry or of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.