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Up The Road: Channel Islands National Park

Jenny Marek
U.S. Department of Interior

We continue exploring Southern California’s Channel Islands this week, this time the five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park.

The discovery in 1994 of a complete fossilized skeleton of a pygmy or “dwarf” Channel Island mammoth meant big excitement. Scientists think this miniature species, just four to six feet tall, descended from woolly mammoths who swam over from the nearby coast during the Pleistocene.

The islands’ separation from the mainland has meant, then as now, that life evolved in relative isolation. Some plants and animals exist only here, though migrants come and go too.

Truly stunning in spring: the giant coreopsis, or “tree sunflower,” a woody succulent that can grow eight feet tall, producing huge sprays of highlighter-yellow daisies in spring. On a clear day you can see that blaze of color on Anacapa Island from the mainland. Thick fields of coreopsis also protect Anacapa’s large nesting populations of western gulls.

As for animals: Everyone’s favorite is probably the docile Channel Islands fox—the world’s smallest, about the size of a cat, a distant relative of the mainland’s gray fox—found only here. The species was almost wiped out by pup-eating golden eagles—not native to the island, but happy to settle in when Bald Eagles were wiped out by pesticides.

More than 200 bird species have been spotted on and around Santa Cruz Island alone. Three-part Anacapa Island is home to the largest breeding colony of Western brown pelicans. And there are dozens of species of marine mammals living on or near the islands at least part of the year—27 whale species; more than 30 sharks, dolphins, and porpoises; seal and sea lions; and sea otters. Island tidepools and offshore kelp forests teem with life.

You can get a good first look at the Channel Islands on birding or whale-watching trips, never setting foot on land. Or sign on for a diving or kayak trip. Otherwise, get a boat ride over for drop-off hiking and camping—all very primitive. Bring everything, though if you pack it in you’ll have to pack it out.

The park has boat-trip concessionaires in both Ventura and Oxnard Harbors. Contact Channel Islands National Park for current trip and transport details. Reservations or permits are required for almost everything—which makes sense given how truly out-there this park is.

Santa Cruz Island, 24 miles long, the largest, is largely owned by the Nature Conservancy, jointly managed with the park. With the best weather, it’s also easiest to visit, with family-friendly camping, spectacular “view” hiking, plus snorkeling, swimming, and diving in crystal-clear waters.

Work your way through more challenging islands over time. On San Miguel Island, a sea of seals and sea lions bask in the sun at Bennett Point. Also notable are ghostly forests of calcified plant fossils— up to 14,000 years old—created by a natural sandcasting process. Wind-whipped Santa Rosa Island protects rare and endangered plants, including one of only two surviving natural stands of Torrey pines. For sheer desolation, not much beats very small Santa Barbara Island—way out there, windy, foggy, with no trees, no natural beaches, and no fresh water. The wild things like it just fine, though.

Kim Weir is the founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project. She researches, writes, and hosts Up the Road, a radio show and mini-podcast about California co-produced by North State Public Radio. Kim got her start as a travel journalist in 1990 with the publication of the first and original Moon Handbooks Northern California, a surprise best-seller. Six other Moon books on California soon followed. She is a member, by invitation, of the venerable Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Kim earned a BA in environmental studies and analysis, with an emphasis on botany and ecology, and also holds an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Paradise.
Matt Fidler is a producer and sound designer with over 15 years’ experience producing nationally distributed public radio programs. He has worked for shows such as Freakonomics Radio, Selected Shorts, Studio 360, The New Yorker Radio Hour and The Takeaway. In 2017, Matt launched the language podcast Very Bad Words, hitting the #28 spot in the iTunes podcast charts.