“We’ve gotta time this just right,” says kayaking guide Tony Chapman as we contemplate the rock formation looming directly in front of our boats. It’s a mammoth sea arch, and what we are about to attempt is a precise and nerve-racking maneuver with little margin for error.
“Now!” shouts Chapman, and we dig our paddles into the ocean. Catching the crest of a wave, we glide right through the middle of the towering sandstone loop. My heart pounds and my adrenaline shoots off the charts.
California boasts more national parks (nine) than any other state, and two of the most spectacular (and least crowded) are located along the Central Coast — Channel Islands, 70 miles west of Los Angeles in the Santa Barbara Channel, and Pinnacles, located in the rugged backcountry near Monterey.
Channel Islands National Park (
) comprises the five islands that you’ll see silhouetted against the setting sun while driving up Highway 101 toward Santa Barbara. Until the park was established in 1980, the islands were privately owned hunting preserves or remote cattle and sheep ranches.
Nowadays anyone can discover the diverse wildlife and stunning shorelines that make these islands national park-worthy. But to reach them, you need a boat — either your own or one of the daily ferries or tour vessels that depart from Santa Barbara or Ventura.
My entrée to the park was a guided kayak trip with Goleta-based Aquasport (
). The adventure began right after our ferry left port: Dead-ahead were three humpback whales that swam right in front our bow.
Half a dozen whale species frequent the waters around the national park, and San Miguel Island is home to more than 50,000 seals and other fin-footed mammals. There are vast nesting colonies of seabirds as well as rare indigenous species such as the island fox and island fence lizard that are found nowhere else on the planet.
The terrain is just as varied: lushly wooded valleys, rocky beaches and cliffs riddled with half-sunken caverns and wave-splashed grottos that can be explored only by kayak.
My exploration of Pinnacles National Park (
) could not have been more different from my Channel Islands experience — all on foot and completely solo.
Pinnacles is America’s newest national park, created in January after it spent more than a century as a national monument. The name derives from incredible rock formations that look like piles of dark gray and rust-colored wax dripped onto the landscape. But up close, this is a classic Central Coast wilderness of deep canyons, chaparral and pine forest.
Located in the nether reaches of Monterey and San Benito counties, the park is virtually untouched. Despite its seclusion, Pinnacles is actually quite easy to reach and makes a nice stopover on a drive between L.A. and the Bay Area.
The Bear Gulch Trail was my route into the heart of Pinnacles. Climbing steeply through a canyon flanked by russet cliffs and oddly perched rocks, the trail shoots through a large talus cave created by falling rocks.
A series of stone stairways takes you out the back side of the cave and onto the brink of a small reservoir. The wilderness awaits along a path that hangs several hundred feet above the gulch before veering inland toward the highest pinnacles.
Along the way, if you keep a sharp eye out and have a little luck, you may spot one of the 30 California condors that have been reintroduced to the park. The biggest thrill, however, is reaching the High Peaks, an extraordinary moonscape that inspired President Teddy Roosevelt to call for Pinnacles protection in 1908.