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The Galapagos of North America Is Only 50 Miles From Los Angeles

Only 22 miles from Santa Barbara, California, is one of the most remote national parks in the country.

On my third night sailing through California’s Channel Islands, I failed to completely shut the curtains and woke up to a sliver of light shining on my face at 5 a.m. Outside, I saw Anacapa Island’s Arch Rock framing the orange ombre layers of a stunning sunrise. By the time I found pants and my phone, the ship had rounded the east end of the island, pushing the rock formation out of sight. The fleeting view was mine alone. Like so much on this trip, it felt like a secret, whispered to me by the ancient islands.

Though Anacapa sits just 13 miles away from Oxnard, California, and 50 from Los Angeles, it is part of one of America’s most remote national parks. There are no restaurants, no hotels, and few cars in the Channel Islands National Park. But there are more than 2,000 species of plants and animals, including 145 that can’t be found anywhere else in the world, earning the archipelago its nickname, “the Galapagos of North America.” Despite the proximity, the islands have never been connected to the mainland, which makes them a fascinating, wild world of endemic species, including foxes, skunks, lizards, and birds.

The primary way to get to the park is by boat from Ventura and Oxnard. The trip ranges from one to four hours, and boats don’t run to every island each day. Staying overnight requires camping, including bringing all your own supplies, as only two of the five islands have potable water supplies. Still, getting one of the 72 total campsites spread across the islands is competitive. For scale, Yellowstone National Park had more than 4.5 million visitors and 1.1 million recreational overnights in 2023; the Channel Islands had fewer than 330,000 visitors and 77,000 recreational overnights.

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The two other ways to stay overnight in Channel Islands National Park are on a private yacht or a small ship expedition cruise. Lacking the former, I spent five days on the latter with Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic. Two days before we left Los Angeles Harbor, I pulled up the weather forecast–or, rather, the “Severe Weather Alert,” which warned of a “significant threat to life or property.”

Channel Islands Harbor, Oxnard.Veronica Slavin

Unsurprisingly, almost as soon as we boarded the ship, our fearless “Expedition Leader” (someone acting as a camp counselor and tour guide) told us we were going to reverse the planned route. That meant our first stop was Catalina Island, the only inhabited Channel Island (beyond rangers and military posts) and one of the three Channel Islands outside of the national park.

Avalon, on the island’s southeast side, is a cute tourist town, with direct boats running a few times a day to Los Angeles and daily to San Diego. We dropped by there in the afternoon but started the morning on the island’s remote northwest side, where those winds had whipped the waves into a fury. Our zodiacs bobbed up and down five feet with the waves, backing away from the ship after nearly every passenger, trying to load quickly between swells. The kayaking excursion was canceled. But the lush cliffs looked like Kauai’s Napali coast, and the first flora beyond the sandy beach were palm trees. I spent an hour meandering the low-lying hills, snacking on the sea beans I found growing at the edge of the sand and watching a nail-biting bison encounter.

Bison are not native to Catalina: the first group was brought here a century ago for a movie shoot. From a few hundred feet away, the bison looked like little more than a large fuzzy rock. When I put binoculars to my face, though, I saw a pair of mountain bikers riding down the path, unaware of the sleeping beast thirty feet uphill. The bison stood up and stared them down. Our guide explained that bison could run 35 miles an hour and jump six feet in the air. I held my breath as the cyclists rolled by, and thankfully, the bison lost interest.

The gale-force winds continued, but we managed to make it to Santa Rosa Island the next day. Cherry Canyon protected us as we hiked through a rainbow of wildflowers—orange coastal paintbrush and purple plum thistle—and admired spiderwebs stretching 15 feet across puddles full of tadpoles. We emerged in a field of tall grass blowing sideways, interrupted by the occasional cactus, and looked out over emerald cliffs and the endless blue ocean.

After lunch, I had one goal: spot the endemic island fox, an adorable red-eared creature the size of a house cat. Scientists theorize they evolved from foxes brought from the mainland by Native Chumash people 6,000 years ago. Some of the oldest human remains in the Americas were found on Santa Rosa, dating back 13,000 years, and the Chumash people lived on the islands consistently for almost that long until European arrivals depleted food sources and pushed them to the mainland in the early 19th century.

The foxes, too, almost disappeared from the islands. In 2000, fewer than 15 remained on Santa Rosa and they were on the endangered species list. Successful restoration efforts mean there are now more than 2,500 on the 53-acre island. Near the historic ranch buildings, I spotted my first. A second ran through the tall grass and across the path in front of me. Each time they sped around a corner almost before I could snap a photo. Which, admittedly, took a while because first, I had to wave my arms at my fellow fox-seekers and try to keep my excited squeals loud enough to alert them but quiet enough not to startle the fox. A third stared straight at me before taking off and it felt like we shared a moment – this rare species, this special island, and, somehow, me.

Santa Barbara Adventure Company, Courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara

This magic, a vast world of marine life and virtually untouched landscape surrounding us, sat just a handful of miles from the second biggest city in America.

The day I awoke to the Arch Rock sunrise, the wind prevented a landing on Anacapa’s northern shore. Instead, as the morning mist burnt off and created a fog bow, we cruised back toward Arch Rock, now with a blue sky backdrop and California sea lions floating in front, their fins in the air as if dancing. Harbor seals played next to our Zodiacs as we darted around in the shadows of the sheer bluffs, watching California brown pelicans soar above.

The winds finally died down that afternoon. On Santa Cruz Island, I spotted the cerulean island scrub-jay, endemic only to that island, and dolphins chased the zodiacs shuttling the last groups of hikers back from shore. We took a happy hour in the sun on the top deck, snacking on hush puppies and sipping spritzes as a half-dozen dolphins jumped in unison next to the front of our ship.

It felt like the kind of thing people travel halfway around the world to see–to the actual Galapagos, the South Pacific, the poles. But this magic, a vast world of marine life and virtually untouched landscape surrounding us, sat just a handful of miles from the second biggest city in America, as I was reminded when I opened my curtains the next morning: In place of Anacapa’s arch were skyscrapers; the passing dolphins replaced by the docks of Los Angeles Harbor.

Acarter619 June 15, 2024

I like how you talk about the channel islands, but the cover photo is of Catalina.