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SUMMER VACATIONS IN THE WEST

Offshore Eden

Kayaking, diving and that rarest of finds -- solitude -- await on the Channel Islands. Just getting to America's Galapagos is an adventure, breaching whales and all.

June 22, 2008|Rosemary McClure | Times Staff Writer

CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK — Only my footprints marked the wet sand along Water Canyon Beach.

Only my ears heard the wail of sea gulls resonating off the sandstone cliffs above.

Only my eyes saw a bright orange starfish rising and falling with the tide as the sea battered its rocky ledge.

I found solitude, adventure and an unspoiled, world-class beach only 26 miles from the Los Angeles megalopolis. And I reveled in it.

I'm not a loner, but occasionally, life in Southern California overwhelms me. The cacophony of screaming horns, circling helicopters, bleating phones. None of those could follow me here. I was off the grid.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, June 25, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Channel Islands: An article in the June 22 Travel section story, "Off-Shore Eden," about vacationing in the Channel Islands said Anacapa was east of Ventura. The island is southwest of the city. Also, an accompanying story said that San Miguel Island was the farthest from the mainland; it is the farthest from Ventura.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, June 29, 2008 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Channel Islands: A June 22 article about vacationing in the Channel Islands said Anacapa is east of Ventura. The island is southwest. Also, an accompanying story said that San Miguel Island was the farthest from the mainland; it is the farthest from Ventura.

My nirvana was an isolated beach on Santa Rosa Island, part of Channel Islands National Park. The five rocky outcroppings off Southern California are so wild and isolated that they're often called America's Galapagos.

The park, accessible only by boat or plane, draws so few people that it ranks as one of the least-visited in the country; although it is within 60 miles of 18 million people, only about 80,000 visit each year. Seclusion is not only possible but also probable along its 175 miles of coastline.

In actuality, two of the islands are easy to reach by ferry. And those who make the trip find a place that is worlds apart from the mainland. An unspoiled land with an incredible array of plants and animals found nowhere else. An adventure-in-the-making where unparalleled kayaking and diving await. A place where hikers, sailors, fishermen and campers find first-rate wilderness activities.

MAGICAL WATERWORLD

I discovered the Channel Islands more than a decade ago. Since then, I've collected the islands the way some people collect fine art.

There are eight in the chain, but only five comprise the park (Catalina is a Channel Island, but is not part of the park.) The two inner islands, Anacapa and Santa Cruz, are closest to the mainland and easy to reach on scheduled boat trips; the three outer islands -- Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara and San Miguel -- can be difficult.

Boat service is infrequent and subject to mercurial weather and sea conditions. Even if you reach Santa Barbara and San Miguel, landings can be wet and wild rides through the surf because docks are nonexistent. The adventure quotient is high.

I finally bagged my fifth park island, Santa Barbara, this spring after several years of failed attempts.

But my collection has more tangible rewards than just adding another island to my life list. A friend once said that sea water courses through my veins, and the channel that separates the islands from the coast is a waterworld of wondrous sights: pods of whales gliding through moonlit seas, boisterous schools of dolphins wave-hopping in search of prey, squadrons of brown pelicans patrolling rocky shores.

The islands rose from the ocean floor millions of years ago, born of volcanic activity and plate tectonics; they lie in a region between the mainland and the ocean depths called the continental shelf. Four of the park islands are strung out in a line off Ventura; at one time, they were a single large island. The fifth, tiny Santa Barbara, is 60 miles south.

The easiest way to visit is by boat from Oxnard or Ventura with Island Packers ( www.islandpackers.com), a family-owned service that's staffed by people who are such avid ocean lovers that I halfway expected them to burst into sea chanteys during a trip. Volunteer naturalists accompany each trip, leading hikes and explaining marine and island life.

The other ways to reach the islands can be mini-adventures in themselves, as I found when I visited Santa Rosa in May.

SANTA ROSA

The marine layer had just lifted when our twin-engine plane powered along the runway at tiny Camarillo Airport and rose noisily over fields full of ripening strawberries. The 10-seater headed out to sea.

I had joined a group of L.A.-area buddies headed to Santa Rosa for a day of surf fishing. They arranged the trip with Channel Island Aviation ( www.flycia.com), which provides air transportation to the island. The round-trip flight, about 25 minutes each way, cost $159 and gave me a bird's-eye view of Santa Barbara Channel and Anacapa, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands.

We bounced around in the sky, buffeted by morning currents, buzzed over a pod of whales headed north and then bumped down on a graded dirt runway.

While the fishing buddies practiced casting, I planned to explore. I had nearly six hours to wander.

Santa Rosa, the second largest of the islands, is in the outer waters, which means the weather can be devilish. High winds are the main problem, but damp, chilly conditions can be another deterrent.

The day was overcast but pleasant. I hiked into Cherry Canyon along a 3 1/2 -mile trail that's popular with day-trippers. Clusters of flaming Indian paintbrush lined the switchbacks as I climbed up a steep canyon, passing small groves of live oaks and manzanita. The only sound I heard was my own breathing and the clear notes and trills of a song sparrow.

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