Channel Islands: California’s Majestic National Park You Need To Know About

Escape the hustle and bustle of down town LA and be at one with nature.

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For most Australians, Los Angeles is the gateway to the USA. Its streets and skyline are familiar from countless Hollywood movies, a city of sleaze and glamour, theme parks and galleries. It can also be a tough place to find some peace and quiet.

Fortunately there are ways to escape the madness. Just don’t believe the folks who tell you to head East towards Joshua Tree, which has over 2.5 million visitors a year. Instead, look in the other direction and you’ll discover there’s no better place to get away from it all than the Channel Islands.

Remote yet accessible, this archipelago stretches north along the coast from LA, and the Channel Islands National Park comprises the five northernmost islands. Just hours from the city, the National Park sees less than 20,000 overnight campers a year and is the perfect spot to escape the crowds, especially mid-week.

Channel Islands Are A Haven For Wildlife

The closest islands are visible from the coast, but a deep channel separates them from the mainland. This allowed wildlife to develop in isolation until humans arrived and there are 145 endemic or unique species in the archipelago including the diminutive island fox.

Channel Islands

Image: George H. H. Huey via Channel Islands National Park / Facebook

There are six subspecies on different islands, several of which have bounced back from tiny populations and these adorable creatures are easy to spot as they’re active during the day and have a habit of hanging around the campgrounds, though feeding them is strictly prohibited.

The Channel Islands also provide an important breeding site for seabirds, while sea lions and seals sun themselves on the shores and play in the nutrient rich waters alongside dolphins, otters and numerous species of whales.

Indigenous Chumash inhabited the Channel Islands 13,000 years ago

The indigenous Chumash arrived in the islands around 13,000 years ago, making them one of the first seafaring groups in the Americas. They were expert fishers and also mined the interior for chert that they shaped into arrowheads and drillbits.

Today, middens and tool crafting sites still dot the islands, though the Chumash way of life changed quickly with the arrival of Europeans, who eventually removed the population to Spanish missions.

After the islands were converted to ranches, introduced species ravaged the landscape. There is much work still to be done, but since becoming a national park great strides have been made to rehabilitate the landscape and native vegetation and animals are rebounding.

Choosing the right island

Channel Islands

Image: Channel Islands National Park

Though all five islands are accessible by ferry and have camps on them, Santa Cruz is the easiest to get to and offers the most activities, as well as the most frequent ferry departures. The largest of the Channel Islands is four times the size of Manhattan and its varied landscape is a microcosm of the Golden State with craggy mountain ridges, steep valleys, pine forests, coastal cliffs and sandy beaches.

Channel Islands

Santa Cruz Island is the easiest to get to and boasts stunning views out across the other islands. Image: Channel Islands National Park

Of the 600 plant species present, 98 are found nowhere outside the Channel Islands. There are no services on the island, so you need to bring camping equipment and all your food, but there’s a toilet and drinking water at the Scorpion Ranch campground near the boat landing.

Planning your Channel Islands itinerary

Channel Islands

Image: Anancapa Island via Channel Islands National Park

Bring a book (or several) and enjoy the solitude, but if you want to get out, there are still plenty of options. Numerous hiking trails fan out from the main campsite, offering insights into human habitation on the islands as well as stunning views over sea cliffs and hidden harbours. Longer trails go up the steep Montañon ridge that acts as the spine of the island and offer superb views over the lower slopes back to tiny Anacapa Island, just offshore, as well as the mainland.

Scorpion Ranch has a rocky beach, and being at the sheltered eastern end of the island is the perfect place to explore the marine world. Directly off the beach, forests of giant bladder, elkhorn and feather boa kelp are home to a range of underwater life and make for great snorkelling.

The coastal cliffs also have a huge range of sea caves and the sheltered eastern end of the island is the perfect spot for sea kayaking. The best way to do this is on a tour where the guides can introduce you to some of the local wildlife as well as taking you into the caves. However, with waves bouncing all around from the cliffs, it’s important to get the timing right.

Getting to the Channel Islands

First up fly into Los Angeles International Airport. Then the best jumping off point is Ventura, about 100 kilometres north of Los Angeles. Just over an hour’s drive from central Los Angeles, it’s also accessible by train from Union Station.

From Ventura harbour Island Packers offer day trips and whale watching cruises as well as transport to all of the islands in the National Park. The trip out to Santa Cruz takes about an hour, though it can be longer if they spot whales in the channel and a return fare for campers to Scorpion Anchorage is US$79 (AU$111). Before booking, you’ll need to show proof of a camping reservation, which costs US$15 (AU$21) per night for each site.

(Lead image: Santa Rosa Channel Islands / Channel Islands National Park Facebook)