California: home to 39 million people, iconic cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, towering granite walls in Yosemite, and the tallest tress on earth; but have you ever heard of the Channel Islands National Park?
This chain of five islands ranks as one of the least visited National Parks— it's home to nearly 150 endemic plants and animals found no where else on earth, stunning remote and rugged beaches, and is a refuge for migrating ocean mammals and birds.
Why are the Channel Islands such a hidden gem? They are separated from the mainland by the Santa Barbara Channel—up to 25 miles of often rough and turbulent ocean. With no hotels or restaurants on the islands, it's like visiting California in the past, before the gold rush, before the farms, before the crowds.
There are eight islands that make up the Channel Islands, although Channel Islands National Park is comprised of five islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara. Each island offers unique perspectives, wildlife and history.
Anacapa: There are three islets that make up Anacapa Island, appropriately named East, West and Middle Anacapa Islands. Together they are almost five miles long, but are inaccessible from each other except by boat. Anacapa is known for it's bird life, as thousands of sea birds nest there due to its lack of predators. The islets of Anacapa host the largest breeding colony of western gulls in the world.
Santa Cruz: At 96 square miles, Santa Cruz is the largest island in California. It is home to two mountain ranges, deep canyons, 77 miles of craggy coastline, expansive sea caves and colorful tidepools. There are over 600 plant species, 140 bird species, 11 land mammals, and so much more! Because of millions of years of isolation, there are many distinct plant and animal species that are found nowhere else on earth (more on that below).
Santa Rosa: This special island is known for it's central mountain range, coastline ranging from sandy expanses to sheer cliffs, and endemic species. Our Santa Rosa Basecamp Adventure showcases amazing views, preservation of island resources and rich history of the island. In 1994, a pygmy mammoth fossil was found on the island, and is the most complete skeleton ever found. It is also the location of the oldest human remains found in North American, known as the Arlington Man, dating over 13,000 years.
San Miguel: As the westernmost island, San Miguel is often battered with severe wind and weather, creating beautiful landscapes. Due to overgrazing, scientists in 1875 called San Miguel "a barren lump of sand". However, these days, after conservation efforts of the National Park Service, native plant species such as the lupine, coastal sagebrush and poppies are returning San Miguel to it's more natural state.
Santa Barbara: As the smallest of the Channel Islands, and a little separated from the others, Santa Barbara is small but mighty. After years of hard work, Santa Barbara is a testament of conservation; the island has seen remarkable recovery of native animals and plants after years of farming, introduction of non-native species and habitat loss.
Geography, Isolation, Evolution:
How did the Channel Islands come to be?
Twenty thousand years ago, there lay a much larger island called Santarosae. This island was 829 square miles; it was abundant with wildlife, sprawled with oak and pine trees, and pounded by waves. When the Pleistocene climate warmed to the Holocene climate, ice sheets began to melt causing water levels to rise. Waves began to beat away at Santarosae's lowlands, until just the highlands remained. Anacapa Island was the first to separate from the rest of Santarosae, followed by Santa Cruz 9,400 to 9,700 years ago, and then Santa Rosa from San Miguel 300 years later.
Even before the islands separated into what we now know as the Channel Islands there were humans living there. The Chumash people are thought to arrived on islands 12,710 to 13,010 years ago. They likely came from the mainland by boat. And with them, came their pet dogs (aka the ancestor of the island fox), and some came unbeknownst to the passengers, such as the spotted skunk, deer mouse and gopher snake. Because of thousands of years of isolation, these species were able to evolve separately from their mainland ancestors, making them endemic to the islands.
An endemic species is a species of plant or animal that is only found in one place or region. When a localized species remains isolated for a long amount of time, environmental and genetic factors can result in a new species. On the Channel Islands, 137 of the 621 (22%) species of plants are endemic.
For example, the Torrey pines found on Santa Rosa Island were once found all along coastal California, when the climate was cooler and moister. Over time, as the climate became warmer and drier, Torrey pines became restricted to two locations, along the coast of Santa Rosa and Torrey Pine State Reserve in San Diego County where the climate is cool and foggy.
Another notable (and adorable) endemic species is the island fox. They are found on six of the eight Channel Islands, and each island population is considered it's own unique endemic subspecies. It is the only carnivore that is unique to California, and is about 1/3 the size of their ancestor, the grey fox, making them the size of a house cat. Since they have evolved in isolation, with no natural predators, they hunt during the day, compared to their ancestor the grey fox, which hunts at night, so they are very common to see on the Channel Islands. (And also very used to humans, forcing the park to implement "fox boxes" for visitors to keep their food and cookware.)
Other endemic species on the Channel Islands include the island spotted skunk (found on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa), island deer mouse (a different species is found on each of the islands), and Santa Cruz island gopher snake (you guessed it, found on Santa Cruz).
Because of the rich soil and separation from the mainland, many ranching establishments were developed on the Channel Islands in the 1800s. With them, ranchers brought many non-native species, including cows, sheep, horses, rats, cats, elk, deer, pigs, and many more. This obviously impacted the plant and animal species that were native to the islands.
Just in the last 20 years, the Park Service has made immense efforts to remove the non-native species and protect the native species. Their multi-year plan "to remove golden eagles, reintroduce bald eagles, breed island foxes, eradicate pigs, and control fennel" has been successful and once fully restored, "the island will offer one of the last opportunities to experience the nationally significant natural and cultural heritage of coastal southern California."
Santa Rosa Basecamp Adventure:
Nomadic by Nature's Santa Rosa Basecamp Adventure is the only one like it. We will set up a basecamp at the "frontcountry" campground, and head in a different direction each day, with just a day pack. The hikes are all unique and offer a different perspective, ranging from sandy coastlines to sandstone canyons, and from mountain summits to endemic Torrey pine groves. We love this island and we're excited to share it with you.