The Galapagos of North America

Sailing Channel Islands National Park

The Galapagos of North America

By Keith Dahlin

For over a year, my family and I have been sailing Steadfast, our Spindrift 43, out of Channel Islands Harbor in Ventura County, California. Eleven miles west of the harbor, a two- to three-hour sail, lies Anacapa Island. Beyond Anacapa sit three larger islands: Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel. These islands, along with Santa Barbara Island to the south, make up the Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary.

Called the Galapagos of North America for their unique natural history, these islands also have a cultural history that spans at least 13,000 years. Local anthropologist Phil Orr discovered the 13,000-year-old remains of “Arlington Springs Man” on Santa Rosa Island in 1959. Perhaps the oldest dated human remains in North America, Arlington Springs Man supports the theory that the first immigrants to North America migrated along the Pacific coast from Siberia and Alaska using boats to inhabit the Channel Islands.

Protecting a national treasure

Recognizing the area’s importance, President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration designated Anacapa and Santa Barbara islands a national monument in 1938. In 1961, Southern Californians began a grassroots effort to make the Channel Islands a national park, but it wasn’t until 1980 that a bill creating the park was passed by Congress and signed by President Jimmy Carter. Established the same year, the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary increased the protected sea boundary around the islands from the 1-mile national park radius to the 6-mile sanctuary radius.

With the addition of Marine Protected Areas within the sanctuary in 2003, a “no take” policy substantially increased the layer of marine life protection and preservation around the islands.

The park protects a rich array of natural and cultural resources, including over 2,000 species of terrestrial plants and animals, 145 of which are found nowhere else on Earth.

Guarded and studied by many entities, from the U.S. Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans and the U.S. Parks Service, the entire region might seem overrun by law enforcement, scientists and recreational boaters; however, the park only has about 30,000 visitors annually. The islands strict conservation laws and offshore setting might curb the masses, but they reward those who are up for a little adventure.

With nearly 250,000 acres, the park has plenty of space to go around. We’ve sailed into empty coves, dropped the hook and experienced the solitude a Paleo-Indian might have experienced 13,000 years ago.

The Anacapa islets

Anacapa Island consists of three separate islets: East, Middle and West. The 5-mile-long island’s narrow width (a quarter mile at its widest) and steep, craggy cliffs seem like meager leftovers from the violent tectonic events that created the islands 20 million years ago.

Often shrouded by fog, the island was called “Anypakh,” meaning “mirage,” by the Chumash people (probable descendants of Arlington Springs Man) who inhabited the area thousands of years ago.

On Middle Anacapa sits a 100-foot arch appropriately named Keyhole Rock, and just beyond Keyhole Rock, a 50-foot-wide channel separates the middle islet from West Anacapa. Middle Anacapa is open to ranger-led tours only, and West Anacapa is restricted for seabird nesting most of the year.

West Anacapa

One of our favorite short-term anchorages, Frenchy’s Cove offers a large kelp-free sandy bottom in 20 to 30 feet of water. A popular tradition among boaters after dropping the hook is to either go for a dip or take the dinghy ashore. At Frenchy’s, we usually do both. Sometimes going ashore is a little ambitious since the small beach is the only land the public is permitted to use on West Anacapa. Frenchy’s is a beautiful cove to linger in before the afternoon winds and seas build and your boat becomes a bucking bronco.

Although Frenchy’s is probably the safest anchorage around the island, Anacapa has no safe long-term or overnight anchorages. The prevailing northwesterlies don’t allow for sufficient shelter, and its steep volcanic cliffs and kelp-ridden waters limit much of the island to a handful of feasible anchorages.

East Anacapa

The volcanic turmoil that created the Channel Islands also created hundreds of sea caves. Anacapa’s Cathedral Cove is a great place to drop the hook for some sea cave exploring via kayak. With less swing room than Frenchy’s, Cathedral Cove can be more intimidating. But on a calm morning or afternoon, especially if the winds are from the west and the tide is low, exploring high-ceiling “cathedral” caves a couple boat-lengths away tops our list of things to do.

Landing Cove, a half-mile dinghy ride from Cathedral Cove, is the safest way to access East Anacapa’s ranger facilities housed in the original keeper’s quarters of the last major light station built on the West Coast. East Anacapa features 2 miles of hiking trails, about a half-dozen campsites and a number of beautiful overlooks. Commercial boats ferry passengers with or without camping gear, dive gear and kayaks to the island for the day or overnight.

When we visit East Anacapa, we depart Channel Islands Harbor no later than mid-morning, motor-sail across the Santa Barbara Channel, eyeing Anacapa’s Arch Rock, the official Channel Island mascot, and arrive at Cathedral or Frenchy’s Cove by late morning. After a quick dip, some lunch, a cruise to the beach or around the rocks in the dingy or kayak, we are ready for the sail back to the mainland. By 4 or 5 in the afternoon, Steadfast is nicely tied up and ready for another adventure—maybe a few days at Santa Cruz Island.


Keith Dahlin holds a 100-ton USCG Captain’s License and is both an ASA and US Sailing Certified Instructor. Recently, Keith and his family traded the waters off California (and the inland waters of Colorado) for the chance to explore the Salish Sea via the Olympic Peninsula.

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