Pelican Paradise

Anacapa Island, in the Channel Islands National Park, is so close to Los Angeles and yet so far away

By: David O. Bailey

ANACAPA, Channel Islands, Calif. They are Southern California’s outposts final outcroppings of arid rock. Even with the teeming mainland in full view, they can seem quite isolated. In fact, only about 30,000 people a year set foot on the five islands of the Channel Islands National Park, an easy day trip from Los Angeles.

Easiest of all is Anacapa Island. At less than 700 acres, two-thirds of which is off-limits to visitors, it is also, perhaps, the easiest for the casual visitor to absorb.

This is not a place for the ambitious hiker. Those who wish to stretch their legs should go to Santa Cruz or Santa Rosa islands, the largest of the Channel Islands. Even tiny Santa Barbara Island has more hiking trails than Anacapa.

Nor should it be recommended for clients whose mobility is limited, however. Access is by boat. To leave the boat, visitors need to be able to scramble up a vertical ladder, and then go up steps that make a 10-story fire escape look easy. Island Packers, which operates the boat service, counts 153 steps and recommends that climbers take their time and enjoy the view.

It’s not a broad view at that point, but it carries strong hints of what’s ahead a narrow cove with trails of kelp on the water below; and flocks of raucous seabirds and rows of pelicans, posted like Easter Island statues, atop the sheer cliffs.

On the plateau, visitors find the walking easy, whether they go it alone or stay in the company of rangers or guides who come in on the boat. The plateau is nearly flat, the paths narrow but smooth. There are a few buildings clustered near the landing, including a rudimentary visitors’ center, all quickly left behind.

The top of the island belongs to the gulls, and they are everywhere, without regard for the paths. Some of them will scream up at passers-by literally from underfoot. Others tread precariously atop the thick carpet of vegetation with webbed feet unsuited for grasping at footholds.

Not all the plants are native. Like most islands, this one is deeply scarred by human visitors and the baggage they carry, so the ground cover that dominates much of the landscape is the same invasive ice plant that lines many of California’s freeways colorful, but viewed with disdain by environmentalists. There is, however, more unusual vegetation as well, such as the giant coreopsis, or tree sunflower, a thick woody stalk that sprouts a tuft of yellow blooms in early spring. It grows in clumps that are the closest thing Anacapa offers to a forest.

That brings up another caution for clients: Use sunblock. The sunflowers are, at most, a few feet high, so there’s nothing resembling shade on the island. The view opens up at the end of the trail. Anacapa is actually three islands separated by shallow channels, and the outlook along the broken spine of rock with the surf below and squadrons of pelicans flying low in formation is spectacular.

Back along the northern side, there is more scenery, accompanied by barking sea lions far below.

The whole walk, complete with a couple of loops and plenty of stops to admire views, takes less than an hour. That leaves time to do it again, or to return to one of the strategically placed benches to think about the next activity.

That trip could be a more energetic exploration of snorkeling opportunities the national park exists as much for its underwater wonders as for the islands themselves. Or perhaps a leisurely boat ride along the island’s north shore, past the sea lion rookeries and with an eye out for ever-present dolphins. Whatever you decide, clients can enjoy the sea air and the view while pondering the many choices.

Island Packers offers 10 percent commission on groups of 10 or more. 805-642-1393;

Visitors must bring water and food. Pit toilets available.