Adventures in California’s Galapagos

The Channel Islands possess archaeological remains, plants, and animals found nowhere else on Earth.


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Faungg's Photos (CC)

Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins is a children’s novel narrated through the eyes of a young girl stranded on an island off the California coast. It’s based on the true story of the so-called “Lost Woman of San Nicolas,” a member of the Nicoleño tribe who lived alone in a hut on one of the Channel Islands from 1835 to 1853.

It’s hard to imagine that someone could live so close to California’s mainland, yet be so completely removed from society. But even today—more than 50 years after O’Dell’s book was published and 150 years after the Lost Woman was relocated to Santa Barbara—the Channel Islands still feel remote.

Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, San Miguel, Santa Rosa, San Nicolas, San Clemente, and Santa Catalina make up the island chain, whose craggy peaks tower over a multihued Pacific as green patches cling tenaciously to sand dunes and rocky terraces. While San Nicolas and San Clemente aren’t on anyone’s radar, Catalina—22 miles across the sea from Los Angeles Harbor—is a vacation mecca.

david Wan (CC)

The remaining five islands are part of Channel Islands National Park. Due to their isolation over thousands of years, they possess archaeological remains, plants, and animals found nowhere else on Earth, making them North America’s version of the Galapagos. (In July, deep-sea scientists discovered a floating purple orb in park waters that might be a new species.)

Park-authorized outfitters based in Ventura and Santa Barbara transport visitors to Anacapa and Santa Cruz, where they can spend the day or camp overnight, exploring both land and sea. The islands are also home to hundreds of sea caves that can be visited via kayak or underwater. Measuring nearly 100 feet wide and 1,200 feet long, Santa Cruz’s Painted Cave is one of the world’s largest.

Edward Stojakovic (CC)

Surrounding the islands is the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, which, after decades of overfishing and agricultural abuse, is again a treasure trove of undersea life, including bright orange garibaldi, undulating bat rays, and giant kelp forests.

Back on land, hikers can view the nation’s rarest pine species, the Torrey pine, along with the Channel Island spotted skunk and endemic island fox, California’s smallest natural canine. Native to six of the eight islands, each species of fox is unique to the island it lives on.

It isn’t always easy to feel worlds away from civilization, especially when it’s just for the day. But that’s exactly how the Channel Islands let you feel.

 

Published online on April 27, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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