So Close, Yet So Far: Anacapa Island Provides Dramatic Scenery Just Off the Coast of Southern California

By David Lockeretz of Nobody Hikes in L.A. / Special to LAist

Northern California may lay claim to the state’s most famous national parks—Sequoia, Yosemite and Lassen Volcanic, to name a few—but not far from Los Angeles, there’s another one that lies somewhat under the radar.

The Channel Islands National Park is five islands off the coast of Ventura and Santa Barbara, and according to the park's website, they receive an average of only 30,000 visitors per year—about what might be expected for a busy weekend at Yosemite. (That figure includes those who actually set foot in the islands; the total of visitors who enter park waters, which extend a mile off shore from each island, is estimated at 60,000 annually, and the mainland visitor center gets about 300,000 guests per year.)

Of the five islands in the National Park, by far the most popular is tiny Anacapa. The island’s name comes from the Chumash word for “mirage”, and as visitors approach it on the boat from the mainland, Anacapa might indeed seem a little surreal. Composed of three separate islets, Anacapa’s total land area is barely more than one mile square, yet it provides some of Southern California’s most diverse and dramatic scenery. Those who set foot on the island may find it hard to believe that they are less than one hundred miles from downtown L.A. as the seagull flies (and seagulls indeed to fly back and forth from the mainland, only eleven miles away).

There are several reasons for this. Anacapa is a volcanic island, said to have once been connected to the mainland along with its neighboring islands of Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel. (The park’s fifth island, Santa Barbara, is located considerably to the south). The rocky cliffs, which plunge abruptly to the ocean one hundred feet below, look much more like the rugged coast of Ireland or Scandinavia than of Southern California. While the lack of amenities on the island may be a turnoff for some, many hikers appreciate the sparsely developed landscape, which helps Anacapa feel worlds apart from Ventura and Los Angeles.

Yet while Anacapa may cut a harsh profile, it’s also a great place to see flora and fauna in the springtime. The coreopsis flowers that bloom in March and April are so bright that they can be seen from the mainland. You also have a great chance of spotting a whale or a school of dolphins on the hour-long boat ride.

There are a few caveats for visiting Anacapa. As noted above, there are very few amenities on the island: all food and water must be packed in and out. There is also no shade, so remember to bring sunscreen and a hat. The waters of the Santa Barbara Channel are notoriously rough, so those prone to sea sickness will want to plan accordingly. One other small snit: with the many birds that frequent Anacapa, including western gulls, brown pelicans, gnatcatchers and more, there are certain, uh, leavings, that bring an unfortunate visual (and olfactory) presence to the island. Still, for outdoor enthusiasts who are looking for something a little different and unexpected from the Los Angeles area, Anacapa is a great destination—and it might inspire you to explore the park’s other four islands.

For more information about Anacapa, visit the Channel Island National Park’s homepage. For information on getting to the island from Ventura and Oxnard, visit Island Packers.