The Beach Boys never harmonized the joy of scaling the rocky cliffs of Anacapa, yet this jagged stone island stands just 11 miles off the celebrated surf of southern California’s iconic sandy beaches. Ventura and Malibu are neighbors across the Santa Barbara Channel. Anacapa is one of five islands designated as Channel Islands National Park, which are accessible only by boat. Once visitors get to the islands, travel is by foot or by sea kayak.
We chose to visit two of the Channel Islands in April, a month when there would be abundant wildflowers and nesting birds on the islands. Departing the harbor at Oxnard, we took a small commercial boat to Anacapa. Seasickness is one of my banes, so I chose to wear half a Scopolamine Patch in order to face the waves of the storm that had roiled the sea just prior to our arrival. Upon leaving the harbor, the Pacific Ocean greeted us with roller coaster waves, but I survived the passage with aplomb. Upon reaching the cliffs of Anacapa, the boat’s captain turned his boat around so that the stern faced the cliff and ladder, then held the idle against the dock while we unloaded. We climbed the rungs to the landing platform, then huffed up 157
This is not a quiet island, at least at this time of year. The Anacapa Island Lighthouse is an active navigational aid, and its foghorn blares almost constantly when visibility is low. Even louder are the mating Western Gulls, nesting everywhere on East Anacapa since the National Park Service exterminated thousands of Norway Rats that had infested the island since the wreck of the Winfield Scott some 150 years ago. The gulls are used to people, and enjoy sitting atop picnic tables in the campsites whenever campers leave for a few minutes. Despite all the cacophony of gulls and foghorns and waves and sea lions, I slept better in my sleeping bag on Anacapa than I do at home.
Trails lead around the island, and we explored the birds and wildflowers and cliffs with pleasure. The most unusual wildflower, the Giant Coreopsis, looks more like a small tree than a wildflower. One man told me that in good years, the island in spring has a golden glow, as viewed from his coastal home. This year the rains came at the wrong time, and fewer of the coreopsis bloomed, and most of those bloomed before we arrived, so the golden glow never materialized for us in 2012. The coreopsis is actually, at four feet high, the tallest tree on the island, and is a favorite perch for the gulls.
At sunset and sunrise, we hiked to Inspiration Point, a cliffside perch looking toward Middle Anacapa, West Anacapa, and Santa Cruz Island. This is among the most dramatic coastal views in North America, with jagged cliffs and mountains rising from the sea for miles in the distance. The other Anacapa islets are off limits to hikers, because of nesting seabirds that could be disrupted by our presence. In fact, a good share of the western Brown Pelican population breeds on West Anacapa.
Cathedral Cove gives another dramatic view of the cliffs, but also features an overview of the kelp forests and California Sea Lion groups cavorting in the aquamarine sea. Sea kayakers love exploring this cove, and we saw several kayakers disappear into the gaping mouth of a sea cave, never to return. Actually, the apparent cave was an arch, and kayakers could travel right through it at high tide, but we couldn’t see them emerge on the other side.
Geologically, the Channel Islands are a dramatic result of the slow motion collision between Planet Earth’s North America and Pacific Plates–the collision that leaves California particularly susceptible to earthquakes. During this giant meeting and grinding of the plates, the Channel Islands have rotated about 100 degrees from where they once stood. It sure would be nice to watch the Channel Islands on Google Earth over a span of say, 20 million years.
One problem with a northwesterner visiting southern California is that songs from my musically impressionable college years keep playing on an endless loop in the brain. This time the worst offender was “Ventura Highway,” a 1972 song by America with its reference to “alligator lizards in the air.” I had just about conquered my brain’s addiction to the song, when a young guy we met talked about seeing an Alligator Lizard on the trail toward the lighthouse. And off the brain goes on its never-ending musical soundtrack …
Speaking of the lighthouse: it is still an active lighthouse and island visitors can’t go beyond a barrier to see it up close and personal. There is a warning that the foghorn can damage the ears; given that my hearing is already marginal (and the Coast Guard has guns), I decided to obey the sign.
Ecologically, Anacapa is an island in recovery. The aforementioned rats and an invading army of Ice Plants, originally from South Africa and planted by a long-ago lighthouse staffer, have devastated the island. The National Park Service is waging war on these invasives, and has already completely removed the rats. Now it is working on the Ice Plants, using herbicides and volunteers to remove acres of the invading succulents. They even have a new greenhouse on the island, with staff successfully raising Giant Coreopsis, Live Forever, and other native island plants from seeds harvested on Anacapa. Volunteers are welcome to help with the efforts. In the areas of the island where the native Giant Coreopsis still created extensive pygmy forests, the diversity of wildlife and plants was greater than in areas infested with a monoculture of Ice Plants.
During the ice age, Anacapa and the other Channel Islands were essentially one long island, when sea level was lower. At that time, Dwarf Woolly Mammoths roamed the island. That was only a little more than 10,000 years ago, a blink of the eye in time. People arrived about 6,000 years ago, and probably used the island as a place to gather seabird eggs and other foods.
Today on Anacapa Island, there are a few clustered Coast Guard buildings that the National Park Service now uses for a visitor center, staff housing, and maintenance facilities. There is no water, so we lugged about five gallons of our own water up the stairs and up the island to our campsite, where we stayed for two nights. Native Deer Mice are plentiful on the island, and we were repeatedly warned not to inhale soil contaminated with their droppings, because we could contract Hantavirus–a life-threatening disease that features symptoms similar to the flu, only more so. I only saw one mouse, and it was checking out our campsite after dark. Fortunately, the National Park Service ranger kindly provided a Rubbermaid container for our food, so the mice couldn’t get to it in camp.
The moon was full on our visit, and we walked quite a bit after dark, navigating using moonlight and headlamps. Perched atop a cliff on the south side of the island at deep twilight, I suddenly heard a blood-curdling screech (it made me jump–fortunately I didn’t jump over the cliff!) and saw a ghostly presence in the sky. It turned out that Barn Owls nest on the cliffs, and I was seeing one that was unhappy that I was invading its space.
Bird diversity on the island was relatively low, because of the limited size and diversity of habitats. We did see Brown Pelicans, White-Crowned Sparrows, Orange-Crowned Warblers (actually, these were little green birds that mostly hide their orange crowns), and two species of cormorants. Anacapa is breeding home to various other seabirds that are highly protected by the National Park Service and thus unlikely to be seen.
On Anacapa we could actually use our iPhones to check email and news stories, which is kinda sad for a National Park experience, but what can I say: like almost everyone, we are addicted to the web. When we first lugged our gear up to the visitor center, there was one visitor sitting at a picnic table using her iPad, another guy using his MacBook Pro, and almost everyone checking their smartphones. Multitasking has even come to the national parks.
This is a small island, and after taking 650 photographs over two days, I was ready to go on to our next adventure, a visit to Santa Cruz Island just a few miles away.
To get to the Channel Islands, Island Packers offers boat access to each of the islands. Check their web site for all details and schedules. The National Park Service has excellent descriptions of Channel Islands National Park, including information about the biology and geology of the islands, and the rules for visiting. T.C. Boyle has a new novel, “When the Killing’s Done,” about the ethical implications of the National Park Service’s replacement of exotic species in the Channel Islands with native species; it’s an excellent and timely novel for anyone interested in National Park policy.
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