Channel Islands National Park

This is a historial post from Hiking the California Trail, a 1998/2002 book set by Bob Lorentz and Richard Nichols. Where possible an update has been provided.

On clear days a tantalizing vision appears as you hike the Santa Barbara or Ventura coastline. Five islands comprising Channel Islands National Park rise from the blue Pacific Ocean, sparking curiosity about what’s out there. While the five islands lie between 10 and 40 miles across the sea, extensive information about the park dwells few yards from the CCT at Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center beside Ventura Harbor. As interpretive displays there show, the islands are largely uninhabited by humans, a landscape like California before the westward movement, full of natural wonders on land and sea.

The Channel Islands chain actually has eight islands. In 1980 Congress designated the five northern islands- -Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara- -plus 125,000 acres of ocean floor as a national park to protect the unique natural and cultural resources of the area. Later that year the islands gained more protection with creation of a National Marine Sanctuary extending six miles around each island. The other three islands—San Nicolas, San Clemente and Santa Catalina—lie farther south between 20 and 63 miles off the Los Angeles shore. 

Chumash and Kumivit Indians made the islands home, traveling to and from the mainland in pine plank boats called tomols. Hundreds of largely undisturbed and protected archeological sites remain from the 6000-year habitation of these tribal peoples. When Juan Cabrillo landed on the islands in 1542 and claimed them for Spain, the natives must have wondered what the future held. However, it wasn’t until the early 1700s that fur traders from Russia, Britain and America came and stripped the shoreline of sea otter, and hunters nearly wiped out the seal population. When Gaspar de Portola came to California to establish Spanish settlements in the late 1700s, it marked the beginning of the end for the native residents. By the early 1800s, the Spaniards removed the island natives to mainland missions, opening the way for ranchers. Soon the ranchers were shipping sheep, cattle, honey, olives and wine to the mainland. Later the U.S. military established bases on most of the islands, providing coastal defense.

Channel Island natural resources still suffer greatly from historic cultivation and grazing, and non-native species such as ice plant, sheep, cats and rabbits. Nonetheless the unique scenic beauty, flora and fauna remain. Endemic species and large populations of pinnipeds exist here due to special conditions. First, many animals depend on both land and sea. For example, pelicans nest on Anacapa and fish for anchovies in the sea. No less than seven species of seals and sea lions, including elephant seals and California sea lions, numbering over 120,000 on San Miguel alone, use the beaches for pupping.

Second, isolation from the mainland created species related to but distinct from mainland cousins. The island fox, related to the mainland gray fox, is the size of a house cat.A dwarf mammoth roamed the islands during the Pleistocene era when the sea level was lower and the islands were connected. On San Miguel Island, mammoth fossils and peculiar sand castings (caliche) of the extensive trees that once covered the islands remain. On Santa Rosa Island, the rare Torrey pine, also from the Pleistocene, stands in two small groves. 

Third, the mingling of warm and cold ocean currents creates conditions for rich kelp forests offshore and abundant tidal life. Abalone, anemones, sea urchins, purple hydrocorals, fishes and seals represent a fraction of over 1000 species living in the top 60 feet of water beneath the kelp canopy.

Severe restrictions apply in most of the park to protect natural and cultural features. The Nature Conservancy owns 90% of the largest, wildest island, Santa Cruz, with access limited to permit holders. 

The islands are hard to reach, affording extra protection. The nearest, Anacapa, is 10 miles out, Santa Barbara more than 60. Wind and rough seas often create difficult landings that keep visitation low. If you can tolerate these conditions, be sure to visit the most remote California coastlines on the Channel Islands. The best time to visit is March to July, but you can go year round. Activities include boating, diving, swimming, fishing, camping, hiking and wildlife watching. Primitive camping remains the only way to stay overnight. If you want to camp, apply early (preferably at least six months in advance) to the National Park Service for a free permit. 

For information on camping, hiking, permits, commercial boat and air service, and restrictions, contact: Channel Islands National Park 1901 Spinnaker Drive Ventura CA 93001, (805)658-5730.

Originally Published in Hiking the California Coastal Trail: Guide to Walking the Golden State's Beaches and Bluff from Border to Border - Volume Two: Monterey to Mexico by Bob Lorentzen and Richard Nichols
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