Of California’s nine national parks, Channel Islands is one of the least visited. Receiving just 366,250 visitors across all five islands in 2018, Channel Islands feels remote, removed, and isolated. By comparison, consider that Yosemite National Park welcomed 4,009,436 guests in 2018. Four million.
Statistics are one thing, but being in the presence of pristine land is quite another. Especially when that reclaimed wilderness is off a portion of the coastline that straddles central and southern California.
I’ve begun, then erased, then tried again several portions of this dispatch. Mainly I’m grasping at the filaments of recent memory, hoping to weave them into something sturdy, informative, and guide book-ish. Part of the reason so many of these facts glitter just under the surface is because when I heard them, I was distracted. I was in a fugue brought on by buffeting wind; hypnotized by water; lulled by the rhythmic shush of grasses.
So I’m beginning again—erasing the facts, leaving them as the ephemera of recent memory. They, too, will be swept away and dissolved into the past. And anyway, a cursory web search will unearth hundreds more of these tidbits than I could ever hope to remember. You didn’t come here for a research paper, after all, and I’m not here to write one.
On Santa Rosa Island, lacking the trappings of civilization—reception, WiFi, paved roads, vehicles, trash cans, power lines, leaf blowers—presence is something else entirely. For one thing, what most people tend to associate with wilderness is silence. But Santa Rosa is far from silent—from the warning caw of a nesting falcon in Lobo Canyon to the syncopated slapping of wind against my tent.
Neither is it very peaceful. After a surprisingly grueling trek to Lobo Canyon (grueling only insofar as my lack of preparedness left me with a quartet of blisters and one very bruised ego), with sweat pooling and muscles aching, I finally collapsed into my tent and the thought—fleeting, a whisper—came to me: Was it worth it? But the body remembers beauty, even if, in the moment, it was hedging itself against the elements.
What I kept returning to, time and again, was that spending time in such a place felt like a privilege. What an immense honor to spy the endemic island fox with his intentions set on some unknowable goal. What a privilege to observe so many wildflowers—lupine, poppy, yarrow, thistle, seaside daisy, dudleya, buckwheat, red paintbrush, morning glory, et al. It felt both fleeting and ancient, fragile and sure-footed. California’s lousy with national parks (for which I am grateful!), but next time you’re looking to go off grid, consider taking refuge on one of the Channel Islands.