Channel Islands National Park attracts few visitors
California's Channel Islands National Park remains one of the least visited parks in the United States
The New York Times
Channel Islands National ParkGetting there
Channel Islands Aviation (www.flycia.com) offers half-day excursions to Santa Rosa Island plus flights for campers and backpackers. To go by boat, contact Island Packers (www.islandpackers.com) which operates from late spring to early fall.
The only established campground on Santa Rosa Island is at Water Canyon. Beach. Camping is allowed in specific areas. Camping reservations are required for Santa Rosa and for Santa Cruz Island. See www.nps.gov/chis.
Just 100 miles west of Los Angeles, I was living a wildlife lover's dream. A friend and I were cut off from civilization, unarmed save for cameras and canteens, standing on an idyllic beach where turquoise waves crash into fine white sand.
We were all by ourselves, except for a few dozen elephant seals. A misstep might have gotten us mauled by these surprisingly speedy beasts (males can weigh as much as 5,000 pounds). Especially frightening was a Jabba the Hutt-size male that twisted his monstrous frame with surprising agility, looked at us with bottomless black eyes and let loose a brief chortle from his fleshy snout.
These animals are just one of several species, once critically endangered, that are steadily expanding their range throughout Channel Islands National Park, an archipelago of five almost entirely undeveloped islands that remain one of the least visited parks in the United States.
To the south, Catalina Island, which is not a part of the park, attracts pleasure cruisers by the thousands each weekend. In contrast, the number of visitors to these government-owned wild landscapes can be measured by the dozens each week, and that's just for the most visited islands, Santa Cruz and Anacapa.
Farther-flung islands — San Miguel to the west, tiny Santa Barbara to the south, and Santa Rosa Island, whose hard-to-reach south side was the site of our elephant-seal faceoff — get even fewer visitors. The park, whose islands total 53,000 acres, receives only about 5,000 visitors annually.
That's likely to change gradually. Until this year, 90 percent of the island was shut down for half the year for deer and elk hunting. Those animals have since been eradicated. Hikers can now travel pretty much anywhere they please, whenever they please, save for certain beaches, which are closed seasonally to protect species like the snowy plover.
The options for visitors are many. For those just wanting a taste of Santa Rosa, Channel Islands Aviation offers half-day trips out of Camarillo Airport, about halfway between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.
Those wanting to get a bit more intimate with Rosa should plan for a weekend stay at the island's only established campground, which offers wind shelters and decent bathrooms with solar-heated showers. From there, you can search for orange-throated hummingbirds in Water Canyon or follow the grooves left by countless footsteps over the millennia on the rocky hillsides of Cherry Canyon.
With the right backpacking gear, more adventurous travelers can opt for beach camping, which can run from three to 10 days and include multiday hikes of 10-plus miles. Although hikers can go anywhere (as long as they return to sleep on the beach), it's logistically difficult: You must coordinate boat rides, take note of species-related closings, check the tides to make sure there will be sand to sleep on and prepare for lots of water hauling. But at least the hunting season is no longer a part of the equation.
It is best to check your route with the ranger, who will probably give you a call when you request a permit, anyway. Possible routes might feature historic oddities like a World War II-era Army camp; the old Air Force outpost at Johnson's Lee; and the sandy playground of Jolla Vieja, where human-size sitting pools may have been a Chumash spa.
A perfect finish to the trip would be a night near the tide pools of East Point, followed by a long beach walk back toward the ranch, past the pelican-friendly marshes and shorebird-covered dunes of Skunk Point, where shipwrecks and shell midden piles protrude from the sand.