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Park of the Week: California's Channel Islands

These five islands off the California coast are only 30 or so miles from Santa Barbara, but they are not easy to get to. But they do offer a glorious vista of matchless beauty and a wondrous locale for viewing nature at her best.

The five islands of the Channel Islands National Park off the California coast are only 30 or so miles from Santa Barbara, even less from Ventura, but they are not easy to get to. They offer, however, a glorious vista of matchless beauty and a wondrous locale for viewing nature at her best. And, as national parks go, the site is fairly new. Two of the islands were made a National Monument back in 1938, but all five became a national park only as recently as 1980.

If you ever doubted conservation efforts, consider the story of the Channel Island brown pelican. Back in 1970, after centuries of existence of the pelican on Anacapa, there was only one chick left, the balance having been wiped out by DDT flowing into the sea from the mainland. (When pelicans ate fish contaminated with DDT, their eggshells became so thin they broke under the mother's weight.) The brown pelican was listed as endangered that year and in 1972, DDT was banned. Today, about 6,000 pairs of pelicans raise their chicks on Anacapa, and you'll see plenty of the birds when you visit.

Since 2004, the National Park Service has been trying to revive the fox population on Santa Rosa and San Miguel, as a result of their populations being reduced 95% in the previous ten years due to predatory golden eagles, of all things. Over three dozen eagles were removed from the islands and about 20 foxes (the island variety are as small as housecats) introduced. The game is still in progress today, so to speak.

The park is home to over 2,000 plants and animals, of which 145 are found nowhere else in the world, officials say. (Like the Galapagos, isolation has allowed evolution to proceed at its own pace here.) If you come, you'll be one of a small number who visit each year (some say fewer than 100,000, certainly less than 250,000, the majority of whom only sail around or stay on the water, never touching the islands proper).

You get to the park in one of two manners: 1) by boat or 2) by air. There is a public boat, year round, from the two harbors where Island Packers, a concessionaire, operates. In spring and summer, they suggest you book at least two weeks in advance. The same firm offers whale watching and other cruises. Most boats depart from their Ventura Harbor location, a few from their Oxnard Harbor site. Day fares (round trip) range from $42 to $70, depending on the island, less for seniors and children. Island Packers, 1691 Spinnaker Drive (105b), Ventura Harbor CA 93001, tel. 805/642-1393, website You could also take your private boat to the islands, but permits are required for certain areas, so ask in advance. Personal watercraft (e.g. jet skis) are not allowed.

You can fly in (to Santa Rosa Island only) on Channel Islands Aviation a charter operation out of the Camarillo airport. The website price of an excursion to Santa Rosa is listed at $159.95. Channel Islands Aviation, 305 Dudley Avenue, Camarillo CA 93010, tel. 805/987-1301, website You aren't allowed to land here in your own airplane, however, though you can sightsee aloft (above 1,000 feet).

There are no hotels or restaurants in the islands. (The Channel Islands Inn is in Oxnard, nearby on the California mainland coast, with Internet double room rates from $80.10.) There are no other commercial activities, either, so be prepared for a pristine experience with Mother Nature. (Translation: bring all your own food and water, to begin with, and plan to use the picnic areas available.) Each island has a Ranger station, restrooms and a campground, and that's it.

Note that Anacapa is one of four "northern" islands of the group, the others being San Miguel, Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz. A fifth island, farther south, is Santa Barbara.


You should begin your trip at the Visitor Center, on the California mainland in Ventura, where there is a bookstore, a display of marine aquatic life, and exhibits concerning each island. There's also a 25-minute movie. Open daily except Thanksgiving and Christmas days, 8:30am to 5pm. Visitors Center, 1901 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura, tel. 805/658-5730, website There's an Outdoors Santa Barbara Visitors Center, with info about the park, the city and several other spots, at 113 Harbor Way (4th Floor) in Santa Barbara, if you are downtown there. Phone them at 805/884-1475 for hours.

Park rangers and volunteer naturalists offer lectures and guided hikes throughout the year, but you have to contact the park for schedules and specific program dates. It rains most in the winter, abut otherwise, there is a "Mediterranean climate". On the other hand, be prepared for fog, high winds, rough seas and spray at any time, the park authorities say, as this is where northern meets southern climate conditions. In short, April through September seem the best months.


Hiking is the most popular pastime (stay away from those cliffs!), but water sports are a close second. There are no lifeguards, and the tides and undertow can be dangerous. (A 54-year-old California man died in 80 feet of water off Santa Cruz Island while scuba diving in early July this year.) Snorkeling, swimming, fishing, kayaking and surfing are just a few of many things to do while here. A guided kayak tour is offered by at least three companies on the mainland: Aqua Sports, tel. 800/773-2309; Channel Island Kayaks, tel. 805/984-5995; and Paddle Sports, tel. 888/254-2094. You can also rent kayaks (unguided) from Channel Island Kayaks. Snorkeling and scuba gear rentals can be had from Peace Dive/Snorkel (tel. 805/650-3483) and Ventura Dive (tel. 805/650-6500).

One of the largest and deepest sea caves in the world, Painted Cave, is found off Santa Cruz Island. But in summer you can keep dry and watch a ranger on Anacapa by live video hike through an underwater forest of giant kelp, as you sit on the dock there or in the Visitors Center back on the mainland. Usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but check ahead for current schedule.

Especially if you are camping overnight, be careful of mice and other rodents here, as hantavirus, a deadly disease, has been found in the deer mouse population. Hiking trails exist on all the islands, from only two on Anacapa and three on Santa Barbara through five each on San Miguel and Santa Rosa to 16 on Santa Cruz.

On San Miguel you can see thousands of elephant seals at Point Bennett, as well as sea lions and two more kinds of seals. There are 17 species of birds breeding within the park boundaries, including the brown pelican, cormorants, western gulls, pigeon guillemots and Xantu's Murrelets. In order to protect the wildlife, you are not allowed to bring any pets with you, by the way.

The Chumas people live today on at least three of the islands, continuing a population history here going back about 13,000 years, the Chumash for at least 9,000 of those.

New Developments

Trying to be green helps save money, the park says, reduces pollution and makes visits more pleasant. They recently launched a "green" boat, the Sea Ranger II, to transport park staff and supplies, running on used vegetable cooking oils, with a non-toxic hull paint and other devices intended to reduce emissions and that sort of thing. The park also has 73 solar electric systems, four wind energy systems, and other energy and water saving mechanisms.

Admission Fee

There are no entrance fees to visit here, and no fee to camp, but you do need a free permit to camp on the islands. Private boaters also need a free permit to hike beyond beach areas on San Miguel and Santa Rosa islands. For boat permits to land, phone the Nature Conservancy at 805/964-7839. For the hiking permission mentioned, phone 805/658-5711.


An excellent book to help planning a trip here is Frommer's National Parks of the American West, 5th edition, 2006.

Talk with fellow Frommer's travelers on our Outdoor & Adventure Travel Message Boards today.