Channel Islands National Park is a preserve for what some have called the “American Galapagos.” Top priority was given to protecting sea lions and seals, endemic plants like the Santa Cruz Island pine, rich archaeological digs, and what might be the final resting place of Portuguese navigator Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who explored the California coast for the Spanish crown in the 16th century.
Would-be adventurers enjoy the Visitor Center in Ventura Harbor as an exciting sneak preview of the splendid park out there in the Pacific, 12 to 60 miles away, a series of blue-tinged mountains floating on the horizon. The Visitor Center boasts excellent island history and ecology exhibits, and provides boat transportation information.
In 1980, five of the eight Channel Islands—Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa—became America’s 40th national park. (The U.S. Navy practices maneuvers on San Nicholas and San Clemente. Farther south, Santa Catalina has pursued a destiny apart.) The waters surrounding the national park islands are protected as the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.
Each of the islands has a special draw. Anacapa is the most accessible and offers the visitor a sampling of the charms of the larger islands to the west. Santa Cruz is California’s largest island and boasts the most varied coastline and topography as well as the highest peak (2,434 feet) and safest harbors.
Santa Rosa Island has an extensive archaeological record; scientists believe the islands was inhabited at least 10,000 years ago. San Miguel Island hosts as many as 15,000 seals and sea lions during mating season and what may be the largest elephant seal population on earth. Tiny and remote Santa Barbara Island is prized by those visitors who want to visit each and every one of the Channel Islands.
It’s theorized that the islands rose out of the Pacific through volcanic action some 14 million years ago, later sinking and rising many times as glaciation alternated with massive melting. The four northern islands were linked, until about 20,000 years ago, into a super-island called Santaroasae, only to part company during the final glacial melt into the wave-sculpted islands we see today.
The islands’ even, sea-tempered climate and isolation from the mainland have benefited plants that either were altered through evolution on the mainland or have perished altogether. What you see on the islands are glimpses of what Southern California might have been like many hundreds of years ago.
Getting to the islands can be half the fun with Island Packers (805) 658-5730, the Channel Islands National Park primary concessionaire. Island Packers offers plenty of free parking, a gift shop and restrooms.
For more information contact Channel Islands National Park or stop in at the visitor center (805) 658-5730 in Ventura Harbor at 1901 Spinnaker Drive . The natural history displays are particularly good and the visitor center has a bookstore.
Note: Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center and the Island Packers dock and departure center are located a short drive apart, each with its own parking, but are NOT next to each other.