Discover The Channel Islands National Park; Photograph The Galapagos Islands Of The North

The Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Santa Barbara in southern California (a 1.5-hour drive west of Los Angeles) is my favorite national park in terms of photography, adventure, and natural history.

Caliche forest, San Miguel Island. Proof that there were once trees on this island. Scientists believe pygmy mammoths destroyed all the trees. Now they're stumps casted in sand, calcium, clay, silt, and gravel.
All Photos © 2007, Chuck Graham, All Rights Reserved

During the last Ice Age there was just one super island known as Santarosae. At the time, the channel crossing was roughly 5 miles across. This enabled creatures like the woolly mammoth to swim across, and other wildlife to float across on storm debris. At the end of the Pleistocene Era--20,000 years ago--the polar ice caps melted and the volcanic chain formed. Isolation from the mainland enabled its inhabitants to evolve into their own species, some like the mammoth and fox into dwarf species. The archipelago consists of Santa Barbara, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel Islands. Each island possesses its own uniqueness rich in biodiversity with flora and fauna found nowhere else on earth. Experiencing this national park is like discovering California 200 years ago.

Point Bennett on San Miguel Island is the largest and most important research site for pinnipeds in North America. Over 100,000 seals and sea lions haul out here.

Exploring the islands can be accomplished in two ways, offering a rich blend of photographic opportunities from land and sea. Hiking offers grand island vistas displaying sheer weather-beaten cliffs, secluded, craggy, cobbled coves, and narrow canyons draped in island flora. The Channel Islands are a premiere kayaking destination. The volcanic coastlines are honeycombed with more sea caves than anywhere else on the planet, while offering photographers intimate encounters with seabirds, seals, and sea lions.

I like the Channel Islands because they're close to the mainland, yet remote. It's not difficult to take your camera gear and lose yourself on a deserted beach, a sweeping plateau, or follow a rare island fox in a volcanic canyon. There's not a bad time to visit the archipelago. Its mild Mediterranean climate makes it a year-round destination. Here's a short list on some can't miss photo opportunities from each island.

Arch Point on Santa Barbara Island with coreopsis in foreground.
Landing Cove on Santa Barbara Island. This is the best place to photograph the sea lions.

Santa Barbara Island
The smallest island in the chain can be easily hiked in one hour. It's only one square mile, but its seabird colonies are expansive. Western gulls and California brown pelicans dominate the cliffs and mesas. This is the only place in the world to photograph the island night lizard. On such a small island the concentration of wildflowers is stunning. There are no beaches on this island, just 600-foot high weather-beaten cliffs with thousands of California sea lions hauled out at their base. They're easily photographed at Landing Cove frolicking in the surge and on convenient rocky pinnacles.

Kayaker on the left of the 40-foot high rock arch at East Anacapa Island. The arch is the symbol of this national park. The Anacapa Island lighthouse is above.

Anacapa Island
Another small, narrow island offers easy access to two of the most scenic locales in the entire national park: the lighthouse and Inspiration Point. Along the trails are more western gulls. This is a premiere kayaking destination due to its numerous sea caves and arches. The 40-foot high arch below the lighthouse is the symbol of this national park. Wildflowers are also highly concentrated here with the native coreopsis blooms sweeping across the islet.

Coreopsis and Indian paintbrush on East Anacapa Island.