by Ken McAlpine
Serves as an unimaginable escape from the reality of daily life.
The five islands that comprise Channel Islands National Park — Santa Rosa, San Miguel, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Anacapa — have been described as the Galapagos of North America, but definitions are boxes, and boxes are restrictive. How can you box a wild and wondrous place where housecat-size foxes scamper through fields of Seuss-like flowers, elephant seals bellow challenge, and moon and sun shine down on the untamed — while just across the water, on the mainland, man goes about his busy-ness?
Channel Islands National Park (established in 1980) offers magic on so many fronts. One of them is a beautiful paradox: Here you have the wildest place, squatting just off the porch of modern civilization. From Ventura Harbor, Island Packers Cruises, the Park’s long and loyal (and sole) concessionaire, will whisk you out to Santa Cruz or Anacapa, the two closest islands, in roughly an hour. Not that the trip across the Santa Barbara Channel should be discounted, for the channel is an oceanic Eden where you might see Humpback, Gray or Blue Whales (yes, the largest creature on the planet), all manner of playful dolphins, Orcas and, honestly, who’s to say?
There’s hiking, sea kayaking, snorkeling, scuba diving, and bird-watching (the islands serve as rookery and home for thousands of sea birds). There’s the surreal: Kayaking inside the dripping sea caves of Santa Cruz is like entering the innards of some great sleeping beast; the Painted cave is the most famous.
Nature is not a zoo exhibit, and there lies the eclectic joy. On the islands, the joy continues. Your adventure options are ridiculous.
There’s the sedate: Island Packers offers wildlife cruises; just put up your feet and watch. There’s the sublime: Thanks to a marine sanctuary that protects six nautical miles around the park, the islands offer world-class diving and snorkeling within their cathedral-like kelp forests; on Santa Cruz Island, at Scorpion Anchorage, you can rent snorkel gear and even get a guided snorkel tour from Channel Islands Adventure Company. And, of course, there’s the impossibly cute: the best island to see the housecat-size island fox is Santa Cruz.
As the islands edge farther out into the Pacific, the sense of wildness heightens.
Yes, Santa Rosa Island and San Miguel Island are three- and four-hour boat rides respectively (you can also fly out to these islands with Channel Islands Aviation), but Santa Rosa has empty sugar-sand beaches as lovely as any in the world, and on San Miguel the fit and adventurous can make the 15-mile round trip ranger-led hike (arrange ahead by calling the park) to Point Bennett, where you might see hundreds of pinnipeds (California sea lions, northern fur seals, harbor seals, and northern elephant seals), glimpse the spouts of whales, and feel your own smallness.
There’s camping on all five islands, too, at $15 per night. (Insider tip: Tiny Santa Barbara Island offers your best chance of camping alone.) At night, from certain campsites, you can see the pinprick lights of civilization flickering in the distance, a reminder of the bustle of a starkly different world.