The first time I visited the Channel Islands National Park about 20 years ago, I never touched land. That's because half of the park's 250,000 acres is underwater. I had gone there to scuba dive on a group trip I heard about at an L.A. dive shop. I had no idea we were even going to a national park.
If you have never heard of the Channel Islands National Park, there's a good reason. Despite its proximity to the densely populated coastal corridor that stretches from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, it's not well known and gets very few visitors. It is perennially one of the least visited of the 423 U.S. national parks. That's a mixed blessing. The islands are relatively remote (though the closest are just 25 miles offshore), beautiful and tranquil.
On the other hand, forty years after it was designated a national park, it remains practically a hidden secret even as the better known national parks are being overrun by visitors eager to escape their homes after months of confinement. On average, just 30,000 people set foot on the islands each year. To put that in perspective, Yosemite National Park in California gets 4 million visitors annually.
Santa Cruz Island
My first trip to scuba dive took me only to the waters off Anacapa, one of five islands that make up the park. I was lured by what I had recently read about the vast underwater kelp forest. I was not disappointed. Until then, I had scuba dived at some truly wondrous locations. The Red Sea off Sharm El Sheikh at the tip of the Sinai peninsula. The Blue Hole in Belize. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The kelp forest was different. Instead of an abundance of coral and fish life, it was very much like a forest. But instead of trees, the depths were thick with long tentacles of kelp. Some of the kelp strands are as long as 175 feet. The water around them teemed with fish and mammals. It was magical. I learned later that more than a thousand species of plants and marine life live there.
From the dive boat anchored off tiny Anacapa, I could see Santa Cruz Island, at 96 square miles the largest in the archipelago that comprise the national park. It lurked in the distance, almost beckoning, I vowed to one day return to explore it.The five islands of Channel Islands National Park are Anacapa, Santa Cruz Island, Santa Rosa Island, second largest, and San Miguel and Santa Barbara Islands, both of which are tiny, distant and desolate.
Prisoners Harbor pier, Santa Cruz Island
A few years after my scuba dive trip, I returned to visit Santa Cruz Island. It was early spring following an unusually wet winter. I heard that it was bursting with wildflowers and wanted to see that. The ferry from Ventura Harbor took a little over two hours to make the crossing. There were no more than two dozen other passengers on board. We disembarked at a pier that jutted out from a narrow beach between two steep hills. There was no outpost of any kind. No concessions. No port-a-potties. Nothing, including, I had already been warned, no potable water. There was just the land, raw and wild and welcoming.
I started off on a trail recommended in my park guide. It led through an arid, rocky valley and then rose at first gently, then steeply along one side of the valley. Soon I was hiking alone. A network of switchbacks brought me up to a large plateau beyond which a range of mountains rose sharply. The plateau was covered with dense grass, a few gnarly trees and an astonishing profusion of tiny yellow wildflowers that swayed in the breeze, shimmering like fields of grain.
Santa Cruz Island I paused to take a sip of water, then put the bottle back into my pack. I froze. I listened. There was what I first thought was pure silence. But, I was wrong. What I mistook for silence was the utter lack of the cacophony of civilization, the relentless soundtrack -- cars, planes, horns honking, people talking, or just a radio playing -- that we urban dwellers take for granted as normal.
I hiked across the plateau, finally reaching the edge of an escarpment that plunged down to a small bay where two small pleasure crafts bobbed in the sea. They looked like toy boats. I could just make out people swimming and heard, or imagined I heard peels of laughter. I spent the next several hours wandering aimlessly around the island, but only saw a fraction of its 60,000 acre expanse. I came upon no other person and, other than a few trail signs, not even the artifacts of human presence even the island had been the site of cattle ranches for decades before it became a national park. Somehow almost all the visible evidence of human inhabitation had been scrubbed. It was like a journey back in time.Over the ensuing years, I returned to Santa Cruz Islands two more times. But on my most recent trip, I chose to go instead to Santa Rosa Island, just west of Santa Cruz Island. Santa Rosa Island is slightly smaller than Santa Cruz Island and less mountainous. There, there are the remains of a now-defunct farm operation, including a small schoolhouse in pristine condition. There was also a barracks for a team of researchers who stay on the island. When I checked my cell phone -- I know. Why? -- I had good cell service, and for some reason regretted that. It somehow undermined the sense of solitude. I resisted the temptation to check for emails and texts.
Santa Rosa Island
Santa Rosa Island
I went exploring, ending up on a stretch of beach near the pier where the ferry had docked. It was a long stretch of fine white sand that formed a bay. Small waves gently lapped at the shore. Behind a towering dune, I discovered a small pond fed by a stream that improbably still trickled with runoff from the season's last minimal rain. The island backcountry -- the tiny portion I was able to see in just an afternoon -- was untamed except for trails, a fire road for vehicles and a dirt landing strip for small planes. It was shocking to see the landscape so severely parched by drought. The hills were the color of straw, disturbing evidence of the effects of climate change.
Painted Cave, Santa Cruz Island
On the return trip from Santa Rosa Island, the ferry captain made a detour at Santa Cruz Island to take us fairly deep into Painted Cave, one of many carved by waves and erosion into a facade. Painted Cave is a quarter of a mile in length, one of the longest in the world. The stone walls were a kaleidoscope of colors that vaguely resembled ancient petroglyphs. It was stunning.
After collecting passengers at Scorpion Harbor, we headed back to Ventura, escorted part of the way by dozens of frolicking dolphins.
Travel without knowing the history of where you are visiting is limiting, I think. To better appreciate a place, it helps to know its history. Then you can experience it or at least try to. The Channel islands have a long history. For at least 13,000 years people lived there. They were the Chumash, a native tribe that inhabited the islands that are now the national park, as well as along the coastal mainland from Malibu to Paso Robles. They are among the oldest inhabitants in all of North America. For thousands of years, they fished, hunted and gathered. They were of course subject to the vagaries of the natural world, rain, cold, heat, drought.
Then came Spanish explorers around 1542. The lives and fate of the Chumash would be forever changed. And -- surprise! -- not for the better. But it didn't happen quickly. The island Chumash and Spanish interacted for more than two centuries before the Spanish decided in the late 18th Century that it would be a good idea for them to relocate to the mainland.
"The Spanish colonized," Lynn Gamble, a retired anthropology professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, told me by phone. "They started putting up missions up and down the coast, and presidios (forts). So they started bringing the Chumash into the mission system and they helped built the missions and infrastructure."
"Did they ask them, 'how would you like to come with us?" I asked, though I had a suspicion the colonizers hadn't expressed their intentions as hospitably as that.
"That's really a hot topic," Professor Gamble said. "Some people believe that the Chumash willingly went into the mission system. Other people interpret the record differently, that they did not willingly come in."
Whether they came voluntarily or not, mission life turned out to be harsh. The Chumash worked hard, building the missions, raising crops, tending the the virulent diseases the Europeans had imported for which the indigenous people had no natural immunity.
As compensation for their labor, the Chumash were provided food and religion. They were converted to Catholicism.
."Many people view it like it was form of slavery," Professor Gamble said. "(They) were not allowed to leave and they'd send the military to round you up when they ran away."
Gamble said the missions were secularized in the 1830s and the Chumash left to their devices. But they were granted 99 acres as a reservation in Santa Ynez, near Santa Barbara where a small number live to this day. In 2003, the Chumash opened a casino on the reservation.
Today, the Chumash who do not live on the reservation are scattered around California. They never returned to the islands. But I read that in recent years, groups of Chumash board canoes and ceremonially sail across the channel each year to the islands where their ancestors lived for more millennia until the armed forces of progress arrived and changed the course of their lives.
If you choose to visit these tranquil islands, enjoy them for their exquisite, simple beauty, but remember what was once there, what was lost and who lost it.