Friday, December 18, 2015

3 Fun Things to Do on the Santa Barbara Channel Islands

Santa Barbara’s tourism industry brings in over $1 billion each year. Beautiful weather, local festivals, and fresh seafood are among the many reasons that tourists choose this California city as a vacation destination. It also has an advantage over other coastal cities due to its proximity to the Channel Islands National Park, a collection of five land bodies whose geographic location help form the diverse and beautiful Santa Barbara Channel.

Channel Islands National Park and multiple conservation areas within the Santa Barbara Channel are protected from harmful human activity by law because of their biodiverse marine life, as well as their roles as habitats for many sensitive, threatened, and endangered species.

Despite several restrictions and closures put in place within the park to protect the delicate balance of the islands’ ecosystems, visitors are still permitted to visit each of the five land bodies. Read on to discover three activities that visitors can enjoy while visiting Channel Islands National Park.

1. Watersports

Watersports such as kayaking, snorkeling, and swimming are some of the most interactive and challenging ways to experience Channel Islands National Park. Of the five islands, authorities recommend pursuing aquatic activities only on Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara. While visitors are legally allowed to kayak, swim, or snorkel off of the Santa Rosa and San Miguel Islands, park employees only recommend it for experienced visitors, as the strong winds that blow through these westerly islands can make these activities difficult and dangerous.

Anacapa Island is an excellent option for snorkeling, and its location on the marine reserve gives visitors a chance to view many diverse forms of underwater life. Kayaking on Santa Barbara Island in particular provides visitors with incredible sights, including views of the sea lion rookery and the chance to paddle through a number of natural rock arches. On Santa Cruz Island, visitors will find the easiest beach access, along with a collection of sea caves and kelp beds to explore. Additionally, several spots on Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel Islands experience large annual swells that are prime for surfing, but which people can only access by private boat.

2. Hiking

In conjunction with the multiple opportunities to explore the coastal waters that surround the Channel Islands, there are many options for those who prefer to discover the area by land. Hiking and picnicking are among the favored recreational pastimes for day-trip visitors, with each island offering its own sets of trails of varying lengths and difficulties.

Hikers of all ability levels who prefer scenic views to a strenuous workout will find what they’re looking for at Anacapa, where two miles of trails wind in a figure-eight pattern around the island, providing expansive views of the Pacific as well as the Anacapa Island Light Station. Santa Barbara Island also provides relaxed trails with gentle terrain that bring visitors to overlook points on low mountaintops. Both the Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz Islands offer a choice between flat, maintained trails or more difficult, unmaintained treks that lead hikers through rocky mountain passes.

Picnicking is also a popular activity among park visitors, and picnic tables dot the landscape at the visitor centers on Santa Barbara and Anacapa, while Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa sport a collection of picnic tables at Prisoners Harbor and Water Canyon Beach, respectively. Though there are no picnic tables on San Miguel Island, the sands of Cuyler Harbor Beach are a popular location for visitors to enjoy lunch. Additionally, year-round camping sites are available on each of the islands for $15 per night. Anyone interested in camping must make reservations in advance, as the number of sites is limited.

3. Wildlife Exploration

Whether choosing to explore the islands by land or by sea, visitors have many opportunities to view a variety of wildlife. From the islands or by kayak, up to 27 different species of cetaceans can be seen, including the largest group of blue whales on the planet. Other species that make their homes in Channel Islands National Park include orcas and bottlenose dolphins, as well as grey, humpback, and sperm whales. Various locations across all of the five islands afford visitors a look at the breeding grounds of four different kinds of seals and sea lions. San Miguel is the site of one of the largest aggregations of pinnipeds in the world and hosts a population of more than 120,000 California sea lions, northern elephant seals, northern fur seals, and harbor seals, which arrive annually to breed.

Further inland, the Channel Islands are home to four native terrestrial species, including the island spotted skunk and island fox, as well as the island deer mouse and harvest mouse. While native land animals are few in number, more than 40 bird species regularly nest here, including bald eagles, pelicans, and Brandt’s cormorants.

Another draw for nature enthusiasts is the Island’s collection of 775 plant species, including wildflower populations that are known for their late blooming periods, filling the park with color even in late winter and early spring.