Channel Islands National Park
|Spring at Anacapa Island, Channel Islands National Park, California (Joe Sohm/VisionsofAmerica/Getty)|
The Channel Islands occupy such a unique niche in the ecology of the United States that they're sometimes referred to as America's Galapagos. As you'd expect with such a label, the park's diversity of animal and plant life is amazing. More than 2,000 terrestrial plants and animals crowd this small park, 145 of which can be found nowhere else on earth.
The isolation of the eight islands in the chain has played a big role in building that diversity, as has its location at the collision point between the cold, nutrient-rich waters moving south from northern California and warm water moving north from Baja California.
For the visitor, this adds up to an unparalleled opportunity to see amazing critters in a transcendent environment. The Channel Islands are the most important nesting grounds for seabirds on the West Coast. Though damaged by decades of cattle and sheep ranching, the islands still sport an impressive array of native plant life. Whales, orcas, and dolphins pass offshore. Tide pools, a vanishing habitat on the mainland, are doing well on the Channel Islands.
The national park occupies five of the eight islands in the California Channel Islands chain, as well as much of its offshore waters. The islands are Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara. Each island has its own character. Anacapa is the entry point, tiny, popular, and closest to shore. Santa Cruz is the largest and most biologically diverse; it is largely owned by The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organization. Santa Rosa is the most historically interesting, and the most wide open of the larger islands for those who want to do some independent exploring. San Miguel has (arguably) the best hiking as well as terrific wildlife. Tiny Santa Barbara is the most isolated, a place to go to be alone in a wild, windy ocean.
Watch for Whales
Every year, gray whales migrate 10,000 miles from their feeding grounds in the Arctic to breeding grounds in warm Baja, California. They pass by the Channel Islands between January and March. Blue and humpback whales pass by in June and October. Whale-watching trips leave daily in season.
Hike to the Wildest Spot on Earth
Some people maintain that San Miguel is the wildest spot on the earth, in animal terms, that is. Whether or not it is, at least it's in the running. Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary provide habitat for breeding populations of four species of "pinnipeds" or seals and sea lions. You get there by hiking the 15-mile round-trip from the landing at Cuyler Harbor. Along the way you'll pass by the unearthly Caliche Forest Area. Caliche is an exposed sand casting of an ancient tree.
Kayak into a Sea Cave
Painted Cave on Santa Cruz Island is the largest and deepest sea cave in the world. It earns its name from the colorful rocks and lichens that cover its surface. The cave reaches a quarter of a mile into the side of the island. The entrance ceiling is an immense 160 feet high. In the spring a waterfall curtains the mouth of the cave. Sound magical? It is.
Play in Pristine Tidal Pools
Tidal pools are a delicate ecosystem now quite rare on the mainland. The largely undisturbed tidal pools present an opportunity to see a slice of California as it used to be, as well as a chance to visit a miniature but fully intact world. Some of the species to look for include sea urchins, sea anemones, limpets, and abalone. Lobo Canyon trail on Santa Rosa Island is our favorite journey to tide pools. On the way, this five-mile round-trip trail travels through an old Chumash village site. The Chumash were the island's original inhabitants, deported in the 1820s to make way for cattle and sheep ranches.
Boost Your Bird List
Santa Barbara Island, the smallest island, is one of the most important seabird nesting sites within the Channel Islands, with 11 nesting species. Thousands of western gulls nest every year on the island, some right along the trailside. It has the world's largest colony of Xantu's murrelets. Inland, the island has three endemic subspecies to add to your life list: a horned lark, an orange-crowned warbler, and a house finch.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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