Have you been to the Channel Islands?

Inspiration point on Anacapa Island looking towards Santa Cruz Island

If you've driven up Highway 101 from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara you've probably seen the dark shadowy shapes hugging the horizon offshore. These are the Channel Islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara. For years my friend Barbara has been suggesting a visit. Last weekend we finally made it.

These beautiful remote islands are one of the least visited of the National Parks. Surprisingly, not one of the several Los Angelenos to whom I mentioned the islands had ever been. A few of my LA friends even asked, "what are the Channel Islands?"... (I started to write something snarky here but thought I shouldn't get too harsh and NYC on their sunshine-soaked brains.)

We took the daylong trip with Islandpackers out of Venture Harbor. Anacapa Island (above) is about an hour's boat ride away with frequent stops along the way to look at dolphins and two grey whales. The islands are currently uninhabited except by park rangers. According to archeological evidence, the Chumash Indians lived on the island for thousands of years.

A 13,000 year old skeleton named the Arlington Man was found on Santa Rosa Island in 1959 by Philip Orr(!), curator of anthropology and natural history at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. These remains are the earliest dated human remains to be found in North or South America. Orr also discovered skeletons of pygmy mammoths that were endemic to the islands during the Pleistocene era.

East Anacapa Island is about a mile long and 1/4 mile wide, flat on top and ringed by cliffs. From the lighthouse you can see from one end to the other at Inspiration point. The other Anacapa islets aren't usually visited since they hold the nesting grounds of endangered California brown pelicans who will reportedly abandon their nests when humans intrude.

Kelp beds at the bottom of the sea cliffs

Many of the island's plants such as the wild cucumber or man-root (Marah macrocarpus) and the giant coreopsis (Coreopsis giantea) are native or endemic to the Channel Islands.

Western gulls nest all over the island, often in the top of the giant coreopsis

With only seven people, our tour felt like an episode of Gilligan's Island. We had the entire place to ourselves. Once you climb the metal stairs from the boat up to the treeless plateau, the 1 1/2 miles of trails are flat and easy.

Introduced African ice plant (above) is an scourge up and down the California coastline. Here it is being bagged for removal on Anacapa. There is so much of it blanketing the ground that it must feel like a losing battle.

A collection of native wildflowers: Blue dick or wild hyacinth (Dichelostemma pulchellum), poisonous death camas (Zigadenus venenosus) and the mission mallow (Lavatera assurgentiflora) which is thought to originate from the Channel Islands but now has naturalized through coastal California.

Two members of our party scan the ocean for grey whales

The ground-hugging leaves of gumplant (Grindelia camporum v. bracteosum) are covered in a sticky substance

A picnic on top of Inspiration Point on Anacapa Island

The steep cliffs are covered with lichens and coreopsis

At another cove, you could see and hear sea lions on the small rocky beach on the left

The only access to the island is from this stairway and boat dock

Looking south, there is no land between this cliff edge and Antarctica


Les said...

Thanks for the tour. The islands are more verdant than I thought they would be, winter rains?

Stephen Orr said...

Hi Les,
Yes they've had lots of rain this winter. The coreopsis wasn't quite in bloom when I was there but it should be amazing when it does bloom in April and March

Babszilla said...

Another great posting! Hopefully this story will raise awareness of yet another wonderful California treasure.

mia said...

This is so lovely. Love the photos and story and will try to visit sometime as well, thank you!

Francine Gardner said...

Truly a magnificent spot. Will add to my endless list of must visit )and hike) places. Thank you for the beautiful images, francine

Stephen Orr said...

Hi Mia and Francine. It is well worth the trip! The boat ride itself is beautiful. We must have seen 20 or more dolphins next to the boat.

ModFruGal said...

Thank you for introducing me to such a wonderful place. Our next visit to CA must include this treasure.

Stephen Orr said...

There are 5 northern Channel Islands with 2 being quite remote. I look forward to trying to visit the others as well since each island seems very different from the next.

Sealicious said...

Thank you for this gorgeous post :) I had the good fortune to live on Catalina Island for a few months for school. I miss it, and your post made me feel like I was there again!

Anonymous said...

Stephen, where did you stay in or around Ventura before and after your day trip? Wondering if there are any charming or fun hotels nearby...

Stephen Orr said...

I stayed in LA which is about 45 minutes away. I didn't see any places in Ventura though I thought the downtown looked interesting. Hope you find a great place!