Above, Anacapa Island’s skinny stretches of volcanic land undulate over the Pacific. Adventurous visitors can climb its craggy cliffs to Inspiration Point for a glimpse of the endless horizon. Throngs of sea lions welcome visitors to the Channel Islands. Succulents and checkerbloom flowers blossom on Santa Rosa Island in spring.
Written by ALLISON MONTROY Photos by DOUG MANGUM
“You chose a good day for Scorpion Bay,” an Island Packers deckhand tells me as he tosses me a life jacket.
I climb into the small skiff, listening to the soft chatter of my naturalist guide broken only by the sound of waves rolling against the battered shoreline as our six-seater time capsule motors toward land—and California’s past life.
We’re only 11 miles and an hour’s boat ride away from one of the most populated regions in the world, but as we approach Santa Cruz, the largest of the four northern Channel Islands, I begin to realize why this place is considered one of the country’s most remote national parks.
Each step onto Santa Cruz’s small swath of earth takes me worlds away from the crowded metropolis I left behind. In the jagged, isolated beauty of the island, I’m transported to California in her natural state, the way things were in a time when nature dictated the rules, not humans.
Top, the sun rises over Scorpion Bay’s pebbled beach on Santa Cruz Island, a popular docking spot for kayakers, hikers, campers and snorkelers. Far left, home to one of the largest seal and sea lion rookeries in the world, remote San Miguel Island’s sandy dunes at Cardwell Point create the perfect pinniped sanctuary. Left, a different view awaits adventurers on Santa Rosa Island, where hikers can follow the four-mile trail through the sandstone walls of Lobo Canyon.
Santa Cruz Island is one of five that make up Channel Islands National Park. There are three other islands not part of the national park: San Clemente, Santa Catalina and San Nicolas, the last of which served as the setting for “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” Scott O’Dell’s historical novel recounting the true tale of a young woman stranded there for 18 years. The area’s national marine sanctuary, established in 1980, encompasses the water that surrounds the islands.
Santa Barbara Island is the southernmost of the park’s five and is known for its steep cliffs and throngs of nesting birds.
Each of the four northern islands, once a single landmass called Santa Rosae, has striking features. Anacapa, the small, rat-shaped trio of craggy volcanic islets, is known for its iconic lighthouse and Arch Rock. Santa Cruz is the largest and most visited of the islands. Santa Rosa has a unique coastal marsh and rare Torrey pines. Finally, there’s San Miguel, the most western and remote of the islands, where winds whip across the sea lion-covered dunes and the otherworldly caliche forest of fossilized trees await the rare visitor.
These islands are by no means a welcoming place. They are not hospitable to human customs and comforts. The Channel Islands’ exposed lands lie prey to harsh elements, but that’s just what makes their unique ecosystem thrive.
Because of the islands’ isolation—they formed about 14 million years ago independently of mainland California—many of these species are found nowhere else on Earth.
Humans, too, have made homes on the islands for at least 13,000 years. The remains of the oldest known inhabitant of North America were found on Santa Rosa Island in 1959. Chumash peoples also have a rich history with the islands. For millennia tribes lived and traveled along the channel, trading shells and goods along the island coasts and profiting from the ocean’s bounty until diseases introduced by Spanish settlers wiped out most of the native islander populations. By the early 1800s, the last remaining Chumash left for mainland California.
For the next 150 years, the Channel Islands boomed with ranching settlements, namely on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands, where the lack of natural predators gave way to free-roaming sheep and pigs. At one point, more wine was produced on Santa Cruz Island than anywhere else in California.
Today, island rehabilitation efforts have removed most of the nonnative animals, but what remains of the historic Vail Ranch on Santa Rosa Island and rusting tractors and a masonry ranch house built in 1883 at Santa Cruz Island’s Scorpion Bay still stand, reminders of the ranching era.
In their now-protected status, the Channel Islands are a playground for curious souls and adventurous spirits. The surrounding six miles of marine sanctuary, a protected ecosystem of cold, nutrient-rich water encircling each island, teems with an entire universe of underwater splendors.
Divers can cruise through the dense kelp beds, where they may encounter schools of fish, spiny lobster, octopus, horn sharks, elusive rays and even the occasional curious sea lion or seal. On the surface, kayaks glide below the craggy cliffs, venturing into sea caves, like Santa Cruz’s Painted Cave (the largest and deepest in North America), and exploring the ocean’s topside. Nearby, snorkelers comb the shallows for tide pool critters and colorful anemones.
On this day I’m taking the island by foot; meandering past the eucalyptus-shaded campground and keeping my eyes peeled for a glimpse of the island fox. I make my way up to the bluffs, where wildflowers line the trail. A pile of discarded shells marking an ancient Chumash trash dump site reminds me that I am not the first to trek these paths, and as I stand high above Potato Bay’s emerald waters, I am treated to the same view as all the adventurers, ranchers, settlers and Native Americans that have stood here before me: wild and yet serene. Treacherous and yet begging to be explored.
As I make my way down to Scorpion Bay’s pebbled beach once again, I’m joined by several backpackers returning from a trip across the island and a ranger ending his week long post. We climb back into the skiff and head toward our vessel home. A humpback whale waves farewell with a slap of his barnacle-encrusted fluke as a pod of dolphins dance for several miles in the boat’s wake.
And all too soon I find myself jolted back to modern life on Ventura Harbor’s cement docks. My eyes scan the horizon behind me for the faint outline of the islands’ shadowed slopes, distant memorials of California’s untamed past.
Doug Mangum, who lives in Ventura, has been photographing the Channel Islands over 12 years. See more of his work at www.mychannelislands.com