Exploring Anacapa

Sitting only 15 nautical miles off the Ventura coast, tiny Anacapa has historically been the most visited of the park's islands. (Santa Cruz recently overtook it in terms of visitation.) Referring to Anacapa as an island is somewhat misleading, because it is a chain of three small islets -- East, Middle, and West Anacapa -- inaccessible to each other except by boat. From the shore, the flat landscapes of East and Middle Anacapa stand out in sharp contrast to West Anacapa's twin peaks.

Anacapa is the only island in the chain to keep anything resembling its original name -- Anacapa is from the Chumash word Eneepah, meaning "island of deception or mirage," and on a foggy or hot day, it is easy to see why: Tricks of light make the island's cliff walls seem enormous or almost nonexistent, and 40-foot-high Arch Rock, a natural offshore bridge, can seem to dominate the eastern end of the island or barely emerge from the water.

At 1 square mile (700 acres), Anacapa is not the best choice for people who need room to roam. To cramp things even more, only East Anacapa is completely open to the public. Visitors to Middle Anacapa must be accompanied by a park ranger.

Visitors interested in seeing the island's marine life may want to head for Frenchy's Cove on West Anacapa instead of East Anacapa. Unlike most of the mainland tide pools, the island's tide pools are pristine, housing thriving marine communities. Only the beach at Frenchy's Cove is open to visitors, though. The rest of West Anacapa is closed to protect the nesting areas of the endangered brown pelican -- the islet houses the largest breeding rookery for the bird on the West Coast.

Seabirds are easily the island's most abundant wildlife. Because of the island's relative lack of predators, thousands of birds nest on the island, including the endangered brown pelican, rare xantus murrelets, and western gulls. Cormorants, scoter ducks, and black oystercatchers can be seen plying the air and waters above and around the island. To protect seabirds, the park removed non-native rats from Anacapa in the largest-scale rodent-eradication program on any island in the world.

The island also harbors a community of California sea lions and harbor seals. The animals rest and breed on Anacapa's rocky shores and feed in the kelp forests surrounding the island. Overlooks at Cathedral Cove, Pinniped Point, and Inspiration Point offer visitors views of them.

Although scrubby brownish vegetation covers the island for most of the year, winter rains bring the island's flora to vibrant life -- the bright blossoms of the yellow coreopsis, or tree sunflower, are often so numerous that they're visible from the mainland.

Park Attractions -- In 1853, the steamer Winfield Scott grounded and sank off the coast of Middle Anacapa (remains of the wreck can still be seen off the north coast of the islet), prompting the government to build a 50-foot tower supporting an acetylene beacon.

In 1932, the U.S. Lighthouse Service replaced the tower with the present lighthouse and facilities on East Anacapa. The fully automated lighthouse used the original handmade Fresnel lens until 1990, when a more modern lighting system was installed. The original lead crystal lens is on display in the island's visitor center. The U.S. Coast Guard operates the lighthouse. Do not approach the building -- the foghorn can cause permanent hearing damage.

Today the other lighthouse service buildings house the visitor center and ranger residences. A churchlike building that holds two 55,000-gallon water tanks that supply fresh water for the residences and fire fighting is intriguingly designed to resemble a Spanish mission.

Exploring Santa Cruz

By far the biggest of the islands -- nearly 100 square miles -- Santa Cruz is also the most diverse. It has huge canyons, year-round streams, beaches, cliffs, the highest mountain in the Channel Islands (2,400 ft.), abandoned cattle and sheep ranches, and Chumash village sites.

The pastoral central valley that separates the island's two mountains is still being created by a major tectonic fault. The island is home to an amazing display of flora and fauna, including 650 species of plants, 9 of which are endemic; 140 land-bird species; and a small group of other land animals, including the endangered island fox. Lying directly between cold northern and warm southern waters, the waters off the island contain a marine community representing 1,000 miles of coastline.

Originally called Limuw by the Chumash (who believed the island was the site of their creation, before they took to the mainland over the mythological Rainbow Bridge), Santa Cruz gained its present moniker after a priest's staff was accidentally left on the island during the Portola expedition of 1769. A resident Chumash found the cross-tipped staff and returned it to the priest, inspiring the Spaniards to dub the island La Isla de Santa Cruz (The Island of the Holy Cross).

Much of the island is still privately owned; the Nature Conservancy holds the western three-quarters. In 1997 the Park Service acquired the eastern end from the Gherini family, which had operated a sheep ranch here. Most visitors come to Scorpion Ranch and Smuggler's Ranch on the Park Service's land. Much of the most beautiful land is on Nature Conservancy property, which includes Santa Cruz's lush Central Valley and the islands' highest peaks.

Unfortunately, the island's ranching heritage has left its mark on the land and created a serious domino effect. In 2003, the last of the island's feral sheep population (which had badly overgrazed the land) was shipped off; focus was then on eradicating feral pigs, a project completed in 2007. The pigs provided food for golden eagles, which moved in after DDT decimated the native bald eagle population in the 1970s. Bald eagles don't hunt island foxes, but golden eagles do; the population boom ultimately resulted in a 93% decline in the island fox population. The multiyear restoration plan involves removing golden eagles, reintroducing island foxes and bald eagles, and controlling the growth of fennel. The island fox has recovered nicely, but the species is still considered critically endangered.

Island Packers also runs regular trips to Prisoner's Harbor. Contact the Nature Conservancy (tel. 805/642-0345) for up-to-date information on access and regulations on Conservancy land.

Valdez Cave (also known as Painted Cave for its colorful rock types, lichens, and algae) is the largest and deepest known sea cave in the world. The huge cave stretches nearly a quarter of a mile into the island and is nearly 100 feet wide. The entrance ceiling rises 160 feet, and in the spring, a waterfall tumbles over the opening. Located on the northwest end of the island, the cave can be entered in a dinghy or kayak, and many concessionaire-operated boat tours also have boats that can fit inside.

Park Attractions -- After more than a century of ranching, Santa Cruz has acquired its fair share of historic buildings, including adobe houses, barns, blacksmith and saddle shops, wineries, and a chapel. The ranch house at Scorpion Ranch is a private residence today, just as it was in the early 20th century; the old adobe bunkhouse is now a ranger station and visitor center. All around Scorpion Ranch, ranch and farm implements, some dating back decades, speckle the landscape. A visitor center in an 1886 ranch outbuilding features interactive exhibits focusing on Santa Cruz's Island Chumash and ranching eras.

Exploring Santa Rosa

Windy Santa Rosa was California's only singly owned, entirely private island until the 1980s, when the National Park Service bought it from the Vail and Vickers ranching company for $30 million. In 1998, the company ceased all cattle operations, ending nearly 2 centuries of ranching on the islands that now form the national park.

The second-largest island in the park, Santa Rosa consists of widely different landscapes. Because of its ranching past, rolling non-native grasslands cover about 85% of the island. Elsewhere are high mountains with deep canyons. A unique coastal marsh on the east end of the island is among the most extensive freshwater habitats found on any of the Channel Islands.

As with Santa Cruz, the island's size allows for a fantastic variety of life. Although the impact of ranching has been severe, native plant species survive, primarily in the rocky canyons and on the upper slopes. Santa Rosa is home to a large concentration of endangered plant species, 34 of which occur only on the islands. Torrey pines grow only in two places. One is on Santa Rosa, where two ancient groves lie near Bechers Bay. (The trees also grow on the mainland near San Diego.) The island's vast grasslands provide prime habitat for over 100 bird species; shore birds and waterfowl prefer the marshy terrain on the island's eastern tip.

Santa Rosa is also home to the island fox, a tiny cousin of the gray fox that has become nearly fearless, as it has evolved in the predator-free environment. Golden eagles nearly wiped out the fox population, leading to a captive breeding program. As of 2009, the program was successful, to the tune of bolstering the population from a low of 15 to over 50 animals.

The kelp beds that surround the island function as an invaluable nursery for the sea life that feeds the Channel Islands' marine mammals and seabirds.

Park Attractions -- The Chumash lived on Wima (their name for the island) until they were moved to mainland missions around 1820. Through radiocarbon dating, scientists have been able to date human use of the island back 13,000 years, making Santa Rosa an invaluable archaeological resource. Thousands of largely undisturbed archaeological sites have been recorded, and visitors are asked to be especially careful not to disturb any sites that they encounter. In 1959, archaeologist Philip Orr discovered an individual we now refer to as Arlington Springs Man (though the remains are actually those of a woman). Lacking evidence of a traditional burial site, scientists believe she was killed accidentally some 13,000 years ago, possibly while gathering food. Her bones may be the oldest human remains found in the United States.

The island provides an important fossil record. A fossilized pygmy mammoth skeleton, carbon-dated at 12,000 years old, was found on the island in 1994, the most complete specimen ever discovered.

The island also provides insights into a more modern culture, with the buildings and other remains of a cattle ranch. Owned by the Vail and Vickers Company, it operated here from 1902 until 1998, with few changes except the addition of modern vehicles.

Exploring San Miguel

People often argue about the location of the wildest place left in the Lower 48. They bat around places such as Montana, Colorado, and Idaho. Curiously, no one ever thinks to consider San Miguel, the farthest west of the Channel Islands. They should, for this 9,500-acre island is a wild, wild place. The wind blows constantly here, and fog can shroud the island for days at a time. Human presence is definitely not the status quo.

Visitors land at Cuyler Harbor, a half-moon-shaped cove on the island's east end. Arriving here is like arriving on Earth the day it was made: perfect sand, outrageously blue water, seals basking on the offshore rocks. The island's caliche forest appears otherworldly. Created by caliche (calcium carbonate) sand castings, these natural stone sculptures are the remains of a once-living forest.

As it did on most of the other islands in this chain, a long history of ranching nearly destroyed native vegetation. The removal of the imported grazing animals has given the island's recovery a major boost. Today many native species are reclaiming their ancestral lands.

Though widely hunted during the 19th century, the island's seal and sea lion populations have clearly recovered and can be seen on ranger-guided hikes. At certain times of the year -- June is often the best -- over 30,000 animals, including California sea lions, northern elephant seals, and northern fur seals, occupy the beach at Point Bennett, making it one of the largest concentrations of wildlife in the world. The Guadalupe fur seal and Stellar sea lion, former island residents, also appear occasionally. Harbor seals haul out on other island beaches.

Prince Island, just outside the mouth of Cuyler Harbor, is an important nesting area for western gulls, brown pelicans, cormorants, and Cassin's auklets. And San Miguel's inland bird species can once again count the peregrine falcon among their number. After years of decimation by the pesticide DDT, the falcon has been reintroduced to the island and is now nesting successfully.

The waters around San Miguel are the richest but most dangerous surrounding the Channel Islands -- this island is exposed to wave action from all sides. Harsh sea conditions have resulted in a fair number of shipwrecks, including the luxury liner Cuba, which went under on September 8, 1923. Fortunately, everyone on board was rescued, along with $2.5 million in gold and silver bullion.

Swimming among the wrecks are a wide variety of sea mammals. In addition to the pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), dolphins, porpoises, gray whales, orcas, and even blue whales can sometimes be seen off the island's shore.

The boat concessionaires' schedule to San Miguel is sporadic in summer and almost nonexistent in winter, so call ahead.

Park Attractions -- Like Santa Rosa, San Miguel has more than 500 Chumash archaeological sites.

The island also holds the remains of the earliest modern structure on any of the islands. In the 1850s, Capt. George Nidever established a sheep, cattle, and horse ranch on the island. The adobe home he built is barely visible today.

In the 1930s, Herbert and Elizabeth Lester became the island's caretakers. During his time on the island, Herbert became known as "the King of San Miguel." After being asked to leave San Miguel during World War II by the U.S. Navy, which owned the island, Herbert committed suicide in 1942. Both he and Elizabeth are buried on San Miguel. Today only a few fence posts and small piles of rubble near the trail mark the Lester Ranch Complex. Technically the Navy still owns San Miguel, and the Park Service manages it.

Exploring Santa Barbara

Lonely, lonely Santa Barbara. As you come upon the island after a 3-hour crossing, you may think that someone took a medium-size grassy hill, ringed it with cliffs, and plunked it down in the middle of the ocean. In terms of land, there's not a lot here. Even the Chumash eschewed living on the island because of its lack of fresh water. But the upside is that, of all the islands, Santa Barbara gives you the best sense of what it's like to be stranded on a desert isle, surrounded by the immense Pacific Ocean.

The island's deserted appearance is somewhat misleading. During the 1920s, farming, overgrazing, intentional burning by island residents, and the introduction of rabbits all but destroyed the island's native vegetation. To survive the island conditions, plants must be tolerant of salt water and wind -- and, unfortunately, the Santa Barbara ice plant is perfectly suited to this type of environment.

Originally imported from South Africa in the early 1900s, the non-native ice plant survives by capturing moisture from sea breezes and subsequently leaches salt into the soil, raising the soil's salt concentration. It has wreaked havoc on the natural ecosystem, virtually taking over much of the island. Through its resource-management program, the Park Service is taking steps to eradicate non-native species from the islands.

Other than the landing cove, there's no access to the water's edge. (The snorkeling in the chilly cove is great.) You can hike the entire 640-acre island in a few hours, then spend some time staring out to sea. You won't be let down. The cliffs and rocks are home to elephant seals (weighing up to 6,000 lb.) and sea lions that feed in the kelp forests surrounding the island. Because of the island's small size, the barking of sea lions is audible almost everywhere. The Sea Lion Rookery, Webster Point, and Elephant Seal Cove all provide excellent overlooks from which to observe the animals. Be sure to stay at least 100 yards away, particularly from January through July during pupping time -- young animals may become separated from their mothers if disturbed.

Santa Barbara's cliffs and rocks are home to swarms of seabirds such as you'll never see on the mainland, including western gulls, endangered brown pelicans, and the world's largest colony of xantus murrelets. Inland species include the horned lark, orange-crowned warbler, and house finch, all found only on Santa Barbara Island.

There's also a tiny museum chronicling island history. Note: Island Packers schedules boats to Santa Barbara only during the summer.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.