Nature's Treasure Isle : * A trip to Santa Barbara Island offers a glimpse of what it's like to be completely in the wilds.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Barbara Bronson Gray is a regular contributor to The Times

Now this is a place far from the madding crowd.

A day trip to Santa Barbara Island is a seagoing adventure and a challenging trip to a relatively untouched part of California. The excursion takes three hours each way and demands enough energy once there for either a five-mile, ranger-guided nature walk or independent exploration of the plateaus, steep cliffs, snorkeling and diving areas, and many hiking trails.

The island, 48 miles southwest of Ventura, is the southernmost of five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park. The 640-acre area offers spectacular views and a chance to see an array of plants and animal habitats.

Since October, there has even been a one-room Visitors Center on the island, with a large canvas mural depicting marine life in the underwater kelp forests, a three-dimensional diorama by Southern California artist John Iwerks, a 20-minute "Treasures of the Sea" video and other exhibits.

But the real draw of the place is its starkness, said park ranger Beth Fulsom, who works on the island and leads nature walks along the 5.5-mile trail around the island's perimeter.

Visitors love to watch the huge northern elephant seals and sea lions pupping--taking care of their newborns--and are always impressed with the unmatchable view of the coast and Catalina Island from 735-foot-high Signal Peak, the island's tallest spot.

Most visitors are particularly fascinated with Fulsom's ranger lifestyle, she said.

"People have no idea what it's like to be on an island with no one else around. I get a lot of questions about that. They're amazed," she said. "Mainlanders cannot imagine life without video stores and take-out."

But the untouched beauty makes the conveniences that most visitors take for granted in their everyday lives seem less precious, Fulsom said. There are almost endless fields of bright wildflowers in the spring, pelican rookeries and fascinating tide pools. There are also rare nocturnal sea birds--the hard-to-see Xantu's murrelet--which are found almost nowhere but Santa Barbara Island.

Visitors can land on the island by private boat, without a permit, or can take the trip through Island Packers, the park concessionaire. Heather Wagner of Island Packers recommends that island-goers bring several layers of warm clothing, especially for the long ocean trip.

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Fulsom also suggests that visitors bring plenty of bottled water, lunch and snack food; wear comfortable shoes, and bring a hat and sunglasses for sun protection.

Fulsom said she thinks that the somewhat strenuous trip is not feasible for children younger than 10. It requires climbing a ladder to get to and from the Island Packers boat. But, she said, older children enjoy the day and definitely get a sense of what true adventure can be.

Camping on the island is also available, with a free permit from the Visitors Center at Ventura Harbor.

The camping area is primitive--no water, three outhouses and no trash containers (so all refuse has to be packed out), although Fulsom said plans are in the works to renovate the area.

This is a unique national park experience, probably diametrically opposed to a visit to such crowded destinations as Yosemite or Yellowstone. No cars or buses, no trinkets for sale, no food concessionaires. It's a walk on the wild side, too far to make it easy, but close enough to make it do-able.

WHERE AND WHEN

What: Day trips to Santa Barbara Island.

Location: Through Island Packers, adjacent to the Visitors Center at Channel Islands National Park, 1901 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura Harbor.

Price: $49 round trip for adults, $39 for children 12 and under.

Call: (805) 642-1393.

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