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Exploring California’s Wild Island’s: Channel Islands National Park
The Channel Islands have the makings of a great national park: amazing scenery, abundant wildlife and wildflowers, fascinating historic sites and a sea trip to spare. Thanks to that amazing landscape and flora and fauna, this national park is also a National Marine Sanctuary. And because you have to take a boat or plane ride 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 congestion doesn’t exist here. Visitation in 2012 was 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 a National Marine Sanctuary, it is also part of the International Man and Biosphere Programme. The Channel Islands National Park consists of five islands, four islands forming a chain: San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz and Anacapa; and one apart from the others, Santa Barbara. The California mainland and the four Channel Islands form the Santa Barbara Channel. As strange as it may seem, the island called “Santa Barbara” is not part of the Channel that bears this 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 pool, maps, books, and a simulated ghost forest (kah lee chee) (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, is adjacent to the park’s headquarters in Ventura Harbor. As its name implies, Island Packers is a package travel outfit, but their beasts of burden are boats. Guides for Island Packers are wildlife experts. If they see a blue whale or a group of Pacific white-sided dolphins or a group of seagulls circling and swooping while crossing the Channel, the captain will head over to them for 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 consists of three islands, East, Middle and West Anacapa, the largest of the three. Western Anacapa, protected as a Natural Research Area, is the world’s main breeding area for the formerly 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 crew takes you around Arch Rock, Anacapa’s iconic landmark, to see a popular harbor seal shipping area. They are then surrounded again in the landing bay at the eastern end of East Anacapa. Guides take passengers to the six-by-one speedboat landing area, where they step directly down a ladder onto the pier. A staircase built into the face of a cliff leads 157 steps up to the island’s plateau. A large crane transports supplies to the guards who live here.
Once in Anacapa, you can hike a 1-mile trail to circle the island. Western gulls and harbor seals are the most common animals. During the breeding season, you can see seagulls nesting up the trail. The trail passes through stands of giant coreopsis, or tree sunflowers. This 4 meter tall sunflower with a tree trunk grows all over the islands and blooms in spring. Aptly named Inspiration Point, on the west end of the island, offers commanding views of the Western Anacapa Peaks and Santa Cruz Island.
The Bureau of Lighthouses, which later became the Coast Guard, has operated a lighthouse in eastern Anacapa since 1932. It was the last permanently located lighthouse built on the West Coast. The remains of a number of shipwrecks, mostly from before the lighthouse was built, but also after, lie scattered on Anacapa and 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 camping gear, you’ll need to bring all the water you need. The early inhabitants of the lighthouse had a concrete catch basin to drain rainfall 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 caught. You can see this watershed in the southeastern part of the island, not far from the camp.
The voyage to the mainland is often against the prevailing wind and current, making for a rougher ride. For those prone to seasickness, take 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 Mountains with a coastline. The geological forces that created the Santa Monica 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, the rising sea separated them. Rocky shores provide a strong base for kelp, which in turn forms a base for invertebrates, fish, birds and marine mammals.
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 house cat-sized carnivore, related to the mainland gray fox, and feeds on deer mice. San Miguel is known to have the largest variety of seals and sea lions (pedopods, meaning “foot-fins”) 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 seabirds nest throughout the islands. In fact, Santa Rosa has a freshwater marsh with blackbirds and other continental bird species nesting there.
The islands have a rich history. The Chumash, the “island people,” inhabited the islands for about 6,000 years. Their signs are found in 3000 archaeological sites. Artifacts such as hut debris, accumulated shells called middens and stone tools testify to 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 the most advanced techniques for aging ancient material, in 1999 scientists dated the bone to 13,000 years old, making it the oldest known display of humans in the Americas. This discovery 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 Rodriguez 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 removed to the mainland missions around 1814, the land was owned by a variety of people. At one time, the islands produced cattle, fruit crops and wine, bearing the Santa Cruz Island label. Beginning in World War II, the US Navy has used San Miguel Island for a bombing range. Today, it is used for missile testing by Pt. Mugu Naval Air Missile Test Centre.
Although Anacapa is the most common destination, the concessionaire offers regular trips to the other islands. They also offer sailing excursions aboard a dinghy. 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 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, you sleep aboard the ship, en route to waking up in Cuyler Harbor the next morning. Scuba diving on 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-sided bluffs, the drive across the Pacific Ocean from the mainland, unique plant life, and historic artifacts make the experience like visiting another world. Southern California’s most populous cities are less than a 2-hour drive from Ventura. You have to go there to believe it’s true.
Channel Island National Park
mailing address: 1901 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura, CA 93001, telephone number: (805)658-5730
mailing address: 1691 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura, CA 93001, Phone #: (805)642-1393
Channel Islands Aviation
mailing address: 305 Durley Avenue, Camarillo, CA 93010, Phone #: (805)987-1301
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