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Exploring the Channel Islands, California’s Galápagos

A couple looking toward the water while hiking on Santa Cruz Island Hikers enjoying the view on Santa Cruz Island. Photo by Tandem Stock - stock.adobe.com

Calling the Channel Islands “California’s Galápagos” has a marketing ring to it, but also the ring of truth. Like the archipelago west of Ecuador, these 8 islands off our coast, from Santa Barbara to San Diego, each support diverse ecosystems.

Of the 2,000-plus species on and around the islands, 145 exist nowhere else on Earth. Standouts include the impossibly cute island fox and the screechy island scrub-jay. Others may not be endemic but are rare or endangered enough to merit protection and recovery efforts.

Five of the islands make up Channel Islands National Park, and 4 of them harbor sites that are sacred to the Chumash, who lived on these islands for more than 10,000 years. It all makes any island visit a primeval, time-warp experience.

San Miguel

An island fox in dried shrubbery

Island foxes are making a comeback on the Channel Islands. Photo by Tandem Stock - stock.adobe.com

The payoff for the 3.5-hour, 70-mile boat trip to San Miguel: a long guided hike to Point Bennett and the sight of tens of thousands of pinnipeds lolling about—more species in one place than anywhere else on the planet. Among them are elephant seals, sea lions, northern fur seals, and harbor seals. Just offshore, tiny Prince Island is home to 13 species of seabirds. The island’s coreopsis plants are taller than you are, while the endemic island foxes are smaller than your housecat.

Santa Rosa

A narrow waterway on Santa Rosa Island

Bechers Bay on Santa Rosa Island. Photo by Tandem Stock - stock.adobe.com

On Santa Rosa, you can hike to a rare stand of pre–Ice Age Torrey pines, surrounded by a rare vestigial stand of native bunchgrass. The bunchgrass and showy endemic plants like island bush monkeyflower and island ceanothus are thriving now that livestock ranching (cattle) and sport hunting (elk) are things of the past.

Santa Cruz

A hiker on a trail above Scorpion Beach at sunset

Hiking near Scorpion Beach on Santa Cruz Island. Photo by Tandem Stock - stock.adobe.com

Of the 145 species unique to the Channel Islands, 13 of them are found only on Santa Cruz, including the island scrub-jay, easily spotted on a walk through the campground. En route, you might encounter the island fox, proof of the power of restoration. 

Beds of kelp float in the water underneath a kayaker

A kayaker navigates through kelp off Santa Cruz Island. Photo by Tandem Stock - stock.adobe.com

Eliminating its nemeses—feral pigs, sheep, and golden eagles—has allowed comebacks for both the fox and for the bald eagle. Don’t miss kayaking through and around some of the world’s largest sea caves.

Anacapa

The sun on the horizon, seen from Anacapa Island

The view from Anacapa Island's Inspiration Point. Photo by Tandem Stock - stock.adobe.com

Anacapa’s 3 islets are best known as a safe haven for the world’s largest breeding colonies of western gulls and brown pelicans. They have plenty of company, including cormorants, guillemots, ashy storm-petrels, and Scripps’s murrelets. Don’t miss the 1932 lighthouse, the last one built on the West Coast.

Santa Barbara

A group of sea lions in the water off Santa Barbara Island

Sea lions frolic in the clear waters off Santa Barbara Island. Photo by Tandem Stock - stock.adobe.com

Santa Barbara’s 1-square-mile footprint, ringed by dramatic cliffs, harbors a sea lion rookery, giant coreopsis, and one of the world’s largest colonies of the rare Scripps’s murrelets. And hear this, Galápagos Islands: Nesting brown boobies have turned up on one of Santa Barbara’s offshore islets. Don’t miss the hike to the Elephant Seal Cove Overlook to gaze down on the world’s largest pinnipeds.

Read more: 3 perfect days on Catalina Island

Santa Catalina

Santa Catalina Island

The resort town of Avalon on Catalina Island. Photo courtesy Catalina Island Company

The resort town of Avalon gets most of the attention, but rugged mountains and rolling hills dominate Catalina Island. Punctuated with oak woodlands, the landscape is home to 9 endemic plant species as well as a thriving population of island foxes. The clear surrounding water hosts abundant kelp forests that lure divers. Don’t miss Two Harbors, a great home base for hiking, kayaking, and diving.

Read more: Fresh, fun things to do on Catalina Island

San Nicolas/San Clemente

Inside an underwater kelp forest

Sunlight streams through the kelp forest off San Clemente Island. Photo by Tandem Stock - stock.adobe.com

San Nicolas and San Clemente islands are used by the U.S. Navy and are off-limits to visitors.

If you go to the Channel Islands

Visitors are allowed on 6 of the 8 islands. Island Packers operates boat trips to Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara islands from Ventura or Oxnard harbors. Santa Barbara Adventure Company and Channel Islands Expeditions offer kayaking and snorkeling tours, and Catalina Express and Catalina Flyer serve Santa Catalina Island.

Camping reservations for Channel Islands National Park can be made at recreation.gov.

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AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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