Written by SurfWriter Girls Sunny Magdaug and Patti Kishel
California has eight Channel Islands off the coast from Santa Barbara to San Diego that are magical. Called “California’s Galapagos Islands” because of their ecological diversity, they have over 2,000 animal and plant species, 145 that are unique. With cute, tiny island foxes and screechy Scrub-Jays, many are rare or endangered.
Since 1980 the Northern five islands have been designated as Channel Islands National Park. These include San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara Island.
San Miguel. One-day trips, multi-day boat trips and overnight camping are all possible. The farthest West of the eight islands, it takes a 4-hour, 70-mile boat ride to reach it. The trip is worth it! Point Bennett, at the tip of the island, is a breeding ground for some 30,000 seals. You can also see numerous species of seabirds, dolphins, porpoises and whales, and island foxes that are smaller than a typical house cat.
Santa Rosa, the second largest of the islands, with two mountains and rolling hills, has 500 plant species, including pre-Ice age Torrey Pines that are only found in one other place in the world – San Diego. You can camp on the island and go on hikes surrounded by unique native bunchgrass and island bush monkeyflowers. There are over 100 bird species, mammals and amphibians and colonies of seabirds, seals and sea lions.
Santa Cruz is only an hour away and perfect for one-day trips or overnights, with the best weather and the most recreation activities. There are minimal services, though. There is a variety of seabirds to see, especially around Scorpion Rock. Birdwatchers generally go to see the island Scrub-Jay, which is only found on Santa Cruz. The island also has some of the world’s largest sea caves that kayakers can explore.
Anacapa, also an hour away, is good for one-day or overnight camping trips. Its name comes from the Chumash Native Indian word Anypakh, which means mirage. Ancient shell sites show where the Chumash people lived thousands of years ago. The island’s a breeding ground for thousands of birds and California sea lions and harbor seals. A kelp forest and tide pools make it popular for kayaking, snorkeling, and diving. But, with little shade and no drinkable water, you need to bring your own provisions.
Santa Barbara, the smallest island, has impressive cliffs and one of the world’s largest colonies of rare Scripps’s Murrelets seabirds. There is an elephant seals rookery, blooming yellow flowers, and magnificent coastal views. The Horned Lark, Orange-crowned Warbler, and House Finch birds are only found on the island. One day trips and overnight camping are available, but Island Packers offers trips only from April through October.
The National Park islands are kept mostly in their natural states to preserve their ecosystems. So, it’s important to plan your visit – supplies, transportation, and lodging – because amenities vary and can be minimal. Companies providing access and tours include Island Packers, Channel Islands Expeditions, and Channel Islands Adventure Company.
Farther South are San Nicolas and San Clemente Islands (which are both used by the U.S. Navy and don’t allow visitors) and the most well-known of the islands Santa Catalina – of song and celebrity fame.
Santa Catalina Island is known for its two resort towns Avalon and Two Harbors, accessible by Catalina Express and Catalina Flyer boat service. You can also reach it by private boat, plane, or helicopter. Its charming coastal towns are perfect for relaxing getaways and the Art Deco casino in Avalon Harbor is a true showstopper, visible for miles. Nearby there’s wildlife, scuba diving, and Mt. Orizaba, the island’s highest peak.
Chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr. (here on Catalina with his wife Ada) bought the island in 1919 and the Wrigley family still owns and preserves it. Home to nine endemic plant species and a thriving population of island foxes, it also has a herd of buffaloes descended from buffaloes left by a movie crew in the 1920s.
SurfWriter Girl Sunny knows Santa Catalina Island well because she’s visited it many times. She even had a job with the Santa Catalina Island Company selling tickets for island attractions on the Catalina Express boats. “The bus trips around the island and the glass bottom boat rides were really popular,” says Sunny.
Whichever islands you visit, your trip is sure to be a magical experience and a step back in time.
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