The Channel Islands: California at its Best

Stand on any California beach between the Gaviota coast and San Clemente, and you won’t be looking at the horizon. Instead, you’ll see a series of low ridges, flats, or plateaus winding in a hazy purple between water and sky. Although you might not guess it from shore, that faint blur hides one of the most pristine coastlines in Southern California: the Channel Islands.

There are eight Channel Islands, divided into a southern group and a northern group, and they can be found anywhere from 11 to 61 miles off of the mainland. Even though they’re relatively close to the continent, the Channel Islands host a surprising number of endemic species—any ranger will be happy to talk your ear off about the Channel Islands fox, which boasts a distinct subspecies on every island, or about any other of the 23 species or subspecies of endemic island-dwellers. And that’s not even counting the species you’d find in the soil, the tide pools, or the world-renowned kelp forests.

The Channel Islands have always held a special fascination for me—the first chapter book that I read at the age of 5 was a fictionalized account of Juana Maria, the “lone woman of San Nicholas Island,” who lived alone on the farthest of the Channel Islands for 18 years after her village was moved to a mainland mission. Since then I’ve associated the islands with an extravagant array of marine life, an idea that solidified the moment I slipped on my first mask and snorkel above Parsons Cove on Catalina.

This Memorial Day weekend, I joined my dad and his friend on a sailing trip to Catalina Island and Santa Barbara Island, the two closest of the southern island group. The water was beautiful, the snorkeling stunning, and my seasickness just a temporary deterrent. I’ve put together a list of islands and their highlights, starting with those we visited on this recent trip, then moving on to those that I’ve visited in the past or hope to visit in the future.

Catalina Island

Pros: Exceptional diving/snorkeling, backcountry, marine life, easy to get to, Avalon.

Cons: Very few. Seasonal crowds at Avalon, some crowds along coastline.

Of all the Channel Islands, Catalina is the most familiar to visitors and locals alike; it was even featured in a 1958 song by The Four Preps. As soon as you near the island, the reason for that popularity quickly becomes apparent. The water deepens in color, losing the pale green hue of the mainland and picking up a blue so clear that even drift kelp gains a sharp clarity. The coastline solidifies into pebbly coves and dusty brown cliffs.

Yet the real magic of Catalina lies beneath the water. Slip on a snorkel or a scuba tank, and the hidden beauty of Southern California emerges. Kelp twists against the light while garibaldi and calico bass weave through the fronds. Urchins, lobster, and abalone shelter in crevices beneath iridescent blue algae. You don’t have to go far to find good snorkeling, either—on this past trip, while snorkeling on the marine reserve just east of the Isthmus, I saw about eight lobsters, several abalone, and countless masses of garibaldi, senoritas, calico bass, opal eye, and more. Yet it’s the algae (or “seaweed”) that steals the show—the giant kelp itself, silent and timeless, and the smooth back-and-forth of feather boa kelp, red algae, and luminescent blue epiphytes.

It’s hard to go wrong when choosing a place to visit on Catalina. There are two main harbors on the island: Avalon and the Isthmus. Of these, Avalon has the highest concentration of people. Of the 3,000 inhabitants of Catalina Island, the majority live in Avalon, and nearly all drive golf carts. Most of the manmade tourist attractions are in Avalon—the “casino” theater stands as an icon of Catalina culture, and the Wrigley Botanical Garden attracts many viewers. Parasailing, zip lining, and glass-bottom boat tours are likewise popular among visitors, as are trips to see the bison that were left to roam the island after the filming of Last of the Mohicans. These attractions can lead to a bit of a crowd sometimes, especially when the cruise ships stop offshore. Despite the crowds, though, the water is still glorious, and the Avalon Underwater Dive Park at the base of the Casino teems with marine life.

Avalon from above.
Avalon from above. Photo courtesy of my friend Kelley.

The Isthmus, formally known as Two Harbors, is a great alternative for those who appreciate a more laid-back atmosphere. Onshore the Isthmus consists of one nice restaurant and a smaller hamburger joint, as well as an old hunting lodge, a general store, and some houses. A scenic (though unshaded) campground sits within the harbor. At this point the island narrows to a flat stretch only half a mile across, making it possible to walk over to Cat Harbor on the other side of the island. On my most recent trip, I had a wonderful time snorkeling around some small caves along the point just east of the Isthmus. If you have a boat, there are some fun cliffs to jump off of east of the Isthmus, and my dad always raves about the diving at Parson’s Landing

The Catalina Isthmus at sunrise.

The Isthmus at sunrise.

Santa Barbara Island

Pros: Dramatic western coastline, elephant seal rookery, nesting birds, marine life.

Cons: Very small island, barren, limited anchorage, hard to get to.

At 38 miles off of the coast, Santa Barbara Island is the farthest accessible island from the mainland. It is also the smallest of the southern islands, measuring a little over 1 mile in each direction.

We set sail for Santa Barbara Island an hour after sunrise, leaving the Isthmus in our wake. Soon Catalina disappeared beneath a low cloud cover. On all sides the horizon lay as a vibrant blue plane punctuated only by swells silhouetted in the distance, the same swells that moved full and even beneath the hull of our boat. This was the real ocean, clean and smooth, unruffled by the chop and push of waves shoved against coastlines or horizons torn by by oil rigs.

At least, so I told myself as I sat on the deck of the boat trying to calm my rolling stomach. Elegant as the ocean may be, a body used to the solidity of land can still reduce it to the jarring pattern of lurch-and-fall.

After a few hours Santa Barbara Island materialized from the haze. I was reminded that this is a desert island, separated even from the thin rains of the mainland. The island rose as a sheer-sided hump of brown against the blue water, marked only by the white of nesting gulls upon dry slopes.

Approaching Santa Barbara Island from Catalina.
Approaching Santa Barbara Island from Catalina.

The marine life quickened as we drew near the island. A sunfish, an exceptionally awkward fish with a flat face, ruffled tail, and an average weight of 2,000 pounds, wobbled beneath the surface. A group of a dozen young sea lions scrambled to get out of our way.

After securing some limited anchorage, we set out to get onto the island. This proved difficult, however. The only entrance to the island was a steep ladder above a strong surge, where female sea lions and their pups watched from nearby rocks. The ladder proved too daunting for my dad, so he offered to let us off in the dingy. All went well until a large male sea lion awoke beneath the deck. With a roar he charged to the edge of the rock, all 800 pounds of muscle and blubber quivering as he rose above the dingy in a territorial display. My dad gunned the motor just as the sea lion dove into the surge and disappeared into a shifting mass of brown beneath the foam.

Once safe on the deck, we set out to explore the island. Most of the trails had been closed to leave room for the nesting gulls, so we picked our way along open trails in search of the elephant seal rookery on the other side of the island. Although we couldn’t see the elephant seals from any open trails, we did take a detour to the top of Signal Hill, the highest point of the island. At this point the island changed dramatically. The barren hills cracked into a dizzying cliff that plunged into the sparkling water in a tumble of shrubs and lichens, while a sheer-sided rock island held down a rumble of foam below. Three nesting Peregrine falcons sliced the air above our heads, screaming into the salty air. Water slid into the sky in a shamble of light.

The backside of Santa Barbara Island.
The backside of Santa Barbara Island.

We climbed back down the hill with the cliffs behind us and made our way back to the boat, where we packed up the dingy and set sail with the wind to our back. The sea was quiet, constant, smooth. As we left the island I settled into the rush of the water, weaving its beauty into a home, until I glanced up to see a Fin Whale a few dozen feet off the boat, likewise quiet, likewise peaceful, and likewise beautiful.

San Nicolas/San Clemente

Beautiful though these islands may be, they are under the jurisdiction of the military and are off limits.

Anacapa Island

Pros: Stunning scenery, exceptional tide pools, easy to get to.

Cons: Small Island, difficult to move between three segments of island.

If Santa Barbara Island is the smallest of the Southern Channel Islands, then Anacapa is the smallest of the northern islands; the island contains about 1 square mile of land. However, what it lacks in size Anacapa makes up for in scenery.

Follow Anacapa to its end, and you’ll discover that the island actually consists of three long slivers of rock. The effect of this coastline can be dramatic. Cliffs rise straight from the sea, pinching at the top in ridges spilling with endemic island sunflowers and nesting birds. Kelp swells beneath cliffs sculpted by guano and painted in patterns of orange and green. In the crevices of these cliffs, pigeon guillemots and rare Xantu’s murrelets form dark nests.

Of all the islands, Anacapa has had the most attention from restoration groups—there are no longer any black rats on the island to bother nesting birds, and Channel Islands Restoration hopes to have removed all invasive plants by the National Park Service’s centennial celebration in 2016.

At 11 miles from Ventura harbor, Anacapa is one of the most accessible islands, making it the perfect spot for a daytrip. The east end of the island is the most popular destination, offering visitors the chance to explore the old lighthouse or hike to Inspiration Point for an impressive aerial view of the island’s jagged coastline. When approaching this end of the island you’ll also get a great view of Arch Rocks, one of the most familiar rock formations on the islands.

Stairs to Anacapa.
The entrance to the east side of Anacapa.

Though the scenery of Anacapa is truly stunning, the island is just as mesmerizing close up. When I visited Anacapa Island this past spring with a marine biology class, we headed straight to Frenchy’s Cove on the west end of Anacapa. The cove consisted of a pebbly beach with a half-dozen harbor seals watching us from the water, and it is most famous as the past home of Frenchy, an eccentric Frenchman who lived on the island with his wine and his cats.

From Frenchy’s Cove we scrambled through the gap between two shards of the island to emerge on the southern coast.  Here we found a rare beach of dense sand. The real discovery, however, was about a quarter mile down the beach, down in the pools of a rocky table that jutted out from the cliff.

Amid those rocks I found some of the best tidepools I have ever seen. The pools were a flurry of color, purple urchins and mauve ochre stars jostled beneath bright green surfgrass and delicate coralline algae. Tiny christmas tree worms unfurled feathery spirals of red and white only to suck them back into sandy-colored tubes. Sea hares, a type of sea slug, moved weightlessly across the sandy bottom, and we oohed and awed over one species of oil-black sea hare that can grow up to 30 pounds. A tidepool sculpin, the largest my professor had ever seen, fingered the side of a tide pool as he gulped down shards of sea shells only to gush them back out.

A huge black sea hare (Aplysia vacaria)
A huge black sea hare (Aplysia vaccaria, if anyone is interested).

I left the tidepools of Anacapa wondering if this was the way all of our California tide pools used to look. I was particularly haunted by the outline of an abalone, a species that used to be so common my parents remember carrying bucket loads from the tidepools to the barbecue, but which were overfished to such an extent that I had never seen one alive until now. The sight reminded me to be grateful for the resilience of spaces like this, protected from the ignorance of human hands and feet.

Santa Cruz

Pros: Snorkeling, hiking, kayaking, wildlife.

Cons: Strict regulations, landing permit fee.

I have yet to visit Santa Cruz. Like Catalina and Anacapa, Santa Cruz is a fairly popular island. The island contains three small rivers, setting it apart from the other islands where fresh water is sparse. The wildlife is also impressive—one of my friends told of a channel island fox that snuggled up against her for warmth while she was sleeping.

Santa Cruz also has some nice snorkeling, as well as a great coastline for kayaking. Painted Caves, a large sea cave with colorful algae and mineral deposits. is one of the more popular destinations.

Most of Santa Cruz is regulated by the Nature Conservancy, so if you plan to take a private boat to the island be sure to procure a landing permit before you leave. Also, be aware of the Nature Conservancy regulations before landing on the island. Remember to respect the regulations—however encumbering they may be, they allow for some great conservation work to be done on the island.

Santa Rosa

Pros: Archeological history, extensive backcountry

Cons: Very strong winds, difficult to get to

Santa Rosa is similar to Santa Cruz in size and coastline, but its real claim to fame lies beneath the ground. The island hosts an impressive archeological record, containing evidence of human habitation for at least 8,000 years, although some archeologists believe humans first came to the island as many as 40,000 years ago. The Island Chumash who lived on the island are believed to have originated the Chumash culture that later migrated to the mainland. Chumash habitation of the island ended abruptly, though, when in 1812 an earthquake large enough to create an 80-foot tsunami on the mainland prompted the Island Chumash to leave Santa Rosa behind for good. Today, evidence of the earthquake remains in a large crack that runs across the island.

Santa Rosa is less accessible than some of the other islands due to strong winds, but still provides plenty of room for exploration. I have yet to visit this island.

San Miquel

Pros: Seals and Sea Lions, other wildlife

Cons: Very windy, hard to get to

San Miquel is known for three things: winds, sand, and pinnipeds. Although the weather conditions are formidable—it is not uncommon to see wind-seared stumps across the island—the dedicated wildlife viewer may find the trip worth the discomfort. The island has historically been home to six species of pinnipeds, including elephant seals, Guadalupe fur seals, Steller sea lions, Northern fur seals, California sea lions and harbor seals. Today, Point Bennett hosts thousands of seals and seal lions, which form vast rookeries along the sandy beach. I have yet to make the trek out to this island.

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