Travel

The Galapagos of North America Is a Marine Wonderland Hiding in Plain Sight

Come for the tiny foxes. But watch out for land mines.

Anacapa Island
Anacapa Island, Channel Islands National Park | benedek/E+/Getty Images
Anacapa Island, Channel Islands National Park | benedek/E+/Getty Images

Known as “The Galapagos of North America,” Channel Islands National Park is home to nearly 150 endemic species that can only be found on and below its five eyegasmic islands. It’s a place of unreal oceanic kayaking and hikes along solitary beaches. Yet it remains vastly overlooked -- which is odd considering it sits off the coast about 90 minutes north of Los Angeles. 

Despite having tens of millions of potential visitors in the surrounding counties, Channel Islands attracted only about 400,000 visitors in 2019 (or about 1/10 of Yosemite, making it the 46th-most visited of America’s 62 national parks). Many in nearby metropolises like LA, San Diego, and San Francisco haven’t even heard of it. 

Make no mistake: This is a far cry from nearby Catalina Island -- there are no cars, gift shops, or restaurants on the service-free islands. But what Channel Islands lacks in wine mixers it makes up for in some of the most pristine, largely untouched nature you’re ever likely to experience. All a short ferry ride from busy Ventura. 

“Traveling out there is like taking a step back in time 100, 150 years,” says Channel Islands chief of interpretation & public information officer Yvonne Menard. “You see the mainland kind of disappear on the horizon and then you enter one of the richest marine environments in the world as you cross the Santa Barbara Channel… It’s definitely a hidden gem.”
 
On these islands you’ll find miles of secluded beaches, dramatic cliffs, historic ranches, gorgeous natural sea caves, and a mind-boggling assortment of animals from whales and bald eagles to sea lions and rare miniature foxes.

Here’s what you’re missing by skipping that ferry. Oh, and there might be land mines involved. Don’t worry, we’ll get to that too. 

MORE:  Before you visit any national park, check its status

Channel Islands
Dolphins are a constant in the waters leading to Channel Islands | Antonio Busiello/Moment/Getty

First, how to get there

Unless you’re friends with a wealthy Santa Barbaran who is also a sea captain, book a ferry ride via park concessionarie Island Packers, which makes regular ferry runs to the islands from Ventura. Day trips are popular for those visiting some of the closer islands like Anacapa and Santa Cruz, while the more remote islands like Santa Rosa and San Miguel are a longer haul and better suited for multi-day trips with overnight camping. You’re looking at $59 minimum for a round trip. In response to the pandemic, Island Packers is operating at a reduced 40% capacity.

The ferry ride starts the adventure as you transition from the urban to the natural worlds -- you’re likely to spot dolphins and the occasional whale on the one-hour ride to Anacapa or Santa Cruz islands. (Those visiting the further islands can expect to be on the boat for 3-4 hours each way, although charter flights are also available through Channel Islands Aviation.) 

If you do end up taking a private boat, just beware: The Santa Barbara Channel is infamous as one of the most dangerous in the world. Experienced boaters only -- and if you’re one of those, you should already know this. 

MORE:  Speaking of ferries across scary waters, take a look at what’s over Death’s Door

Arch Rock
The iconic Arch Rock | Cindy Robinson/Moment/Getty

Anacapa Island

The closest island to the coast is also the most popular, as the small low-impact landmass offers spectacular coastal views at nearly every turn with minimal work. Hike the lone 1.5-mile figure eight-shaped trail from the Anacapa Island Light Station (one of the last lighthouses built on the West Coast in 1932) to the famous Inspiration Point for one of the most spectacular views in the entire park. For those wishing to get a quick hit of nature with sweeping coastal views, Anacapa is your best bet.
 
Anacapa is also known for some of the best diving and kayaking (book kayaking here) in the world, thanks to a rare underwater kelp forest and gorgeous sea caves. You’ll also spy arches like the iconic 40-foot Arch Rock just off the island. Thousands of sea birds make their home here, in addition to seals and sea lions, plus tidepools brimming with life such as sea stars and urchins. Most folks wander the well-signed island, which lacks trees and beaches, for a few hours and then hop back on the ferry, but overnight camping is available here and on every island.

MORE:  Channel Islands is one of America’s coolest island escapes

foxes on Channel Islands
These tiny foxes can only be seen on Channel Islands | mlharing/E+/Getty

Santa Cruz Island

The second best-known place in this archipelago, Santa Cruz Island features a wildly diverse landscape comprising 96 square miles. That space is well utilized. Here there are 77 miles of pristine coastline. Peaks rise 2,000 feet above the water. Here you’ll find the historic Scorpion Ranch and spectacular sea caves of Painted Cave, as well as the largest campground in the park (book here). 

You’ll find hiking trails across a diversity of terrain from beaches to forests. And if you’re lucky, you’ll spot the Island Fox, which is about one-third the size of a typical fox. Santa Cruz and the two islands to the west are the only places you’ll find this cute critter on the planet. Santa Cruz is also home to the rare Island Scrub-Jay (one of 387 species of birds in the park), which is only found on the island and attracts birders from across the world.
 
For those wishing to get a good overview of what Channel Islands is all about with a multitude of experiences all in one trip, Santa Cruz is your best bet. “It’s a really great place to have kind of a combination of hiking, camping, kayaking, or just spending time in the marine environment and also learning about the history,” says Menard. 
 
MORE:  Clearly, foxes are also beach bums

Santa Rosa island
An aerial view of the massive Santa Rosa Island | Antonio Busiello/Moment/Getty

Santa Rosa Island

Perhaps the most underrated of all the Channel Islands (which is really saying something), Santa Rosa Island is a rugged and mostly unmarked 53,000-acre wilderness paradise. This remote, windswept island is home to the incredible two-mile-long Water Canyon Beach, which you will most likely have all to yourself. Outside the campground, you will rarely encounter another living soul for a true off-the-grid-wilderness experience.
 
Santa Rosa is also home to the rare Torrey pine trees, which only exist in one other location outside the islands. Many of the park’s resident 60 bald eagles can also be spotted on Santa Rosa or Santa Cruz, while Santa Rosa is also popular with adventurous surfers who frequent the killer breaks on the remote south side of the island. Stunning backcountry beach camping is also allowed on certain parts of Santa Rosa from August 15-December 31. And if that’s not enough, Santa Rosa is also where the remains of the Arlington Springs Man, the oldest-known human skeletal remains ever found in North America dating back 13,000 years, were discovered in 1959.

MORE:  Before you go, consider getting scuba certified

Channel Islands
Don’t worry, nobody’s stepped on a mine… yet | Edwin Beckenbach/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

San Miguel Island

Those looking to visit the most remote and westernmost of the Channel Islands should be aware of the land mines. With the island owned by the U.S. Navy and formerly used as a bombing range during the Cold War era, all visitors to the island must sign a waiver due to the extremely unlikely possibility of encountering unexploded ordnance on the island. (Menard assures us that there have never been any incidents of this happening in the history of the park, but still… where else do you need to worry about land mines in a national park!?!)
 
Besides phantom land mines, intrepid visitors to San Miguel can observe one of the largest congregations of seals and sea lions in the world, with up to 30,000 lazily hanging out on the island at once. All visitors to San Miguel must be accompanied by a ranger and can only hike on established trails (again... because of the land mines). The most iconic trek is the 16-mile round-trip hike to the seal-packed Point Bennett. San Miguel also boasts the stunning tropical-looking waters of Cuyler Harbor in addition to a number of rare finds from the trippy Dr. Seuss-like coreopsis plant to the eerie caliche forest.
 
MORE: Dr. Seuss apparently also inspired this Southwestern canyon

jellyfish
Channel Islands is stunning above and below | Douglas Klug/Moment/Getty

Santa Barbara Island

The smallest of the Channel Islands, this remote one-square mile island is currently not being serviced by Island Packers due to recent damage to the dock. Private boaters, however, may still choose to visit. Similar to Anacapa, it is popular with birds featuring rugged cliffs and excellent kayaking/diving, so while you can’t get on it, you can explore around and underneath its waters. 
 
Regardless of where you are, be ready for weather to get merciless: There is no excuse (or remedy) for poor planning in such a largely undeveloped environment. Bring extra meals in case the ferry is delayed by fog or gale force winds, secure all food away from curious ravens and foxes, stock up on layered clothing and a wind-resistant tent, pack in and out everything you bring with you and, above all, leave no trace. It’s also a good idea to download the park’s new app so you have all the info you need downloaded on your phone before your trip.

Now get out there and experience one of America’s best-kept island secrets. Netflix can wait.

Jay Gentile is an award-winning freelance journalist specializing in travel, food & drink, culture, events and entertainment stories. In addition to Thrillist, you can find his work in The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN Travel, Chicago Tribune, Lonely Planet, VICE, Outside Magazine and more. Follow @thejaygentile