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Dreaming of island life? Visit this national park virtually to cure your wanderlust

A boat cruises past Anacapa Island
Anacapa Island, part of Channel Islands National Park, features a1932 light station and is surrounded by cliffs, sea caves and kelp beds.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

By Rachel Schnalzer
Design and illustrations by Jade Cuevas

The Channel Islands are home to one of the least frequented national parks in the U.S., but one of its visitor centers (now closed because of the pandemic) is in Ventura, just 70 miles north of Los Angeles.

Of course, the logistics of taking a trip to the islands is a big reason outdoors enthusiasts might opt instead for an easy afternoon in Malibu. But with long stretches of isolated coastline and 2,000 species of flora and fauna — 145 of which can’t be found anywhere else — the national park is a gem hiding in plain sight.

Some of you already know how special the park is. In early January, reader Sarah Levitt emailed me, saying: “I would like to suggest [Channel Islands National Park] to be shared ... Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands are just two of the spectacular islands we can visit!”

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Island Packers, the Ventura-based company that operates trips to Channel Islands, resumed service in January, as Times travel writer Christopher Reynolds and assistant travel editor Mary Forgione reported. Those sticking close to home are in luck too: The park’s website offers varied and immersive virtual travel options.

Read on for ways you can visit the Channel Islands from the comfort of your armchair.

🦅 Spot bald eagles on a live stream

Wondering what the islands’ vistas and kelp forests look like in real time? Take a peek at the park’s live webcams, a step up from other destinations’ live content: When I clicked on the “Ocean” livestream, I was greeted by a neon orange Garibaldi and swirling fuchsia plant life.

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Or check out the park’s “Bald Eagle” livestream, where I was treated to the sight of a stunning bald eagle, cozy and calm in its nest. Organochlorine chemicals such as DDT and harm from humans had eliminated breeding bald eagles in the park by the ‘50s. To see that they again call the islands home — even on a laptop — is incredible.

Screenshots of a coral reef from National Parks Service Explore Oceans YouTube
See the world that happens under the Channel Islands with one of the national park’s livestreams.
(Screenshots from National Parks Service Explore Oceans Youtube; photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

🏝️ Hike island trails

Treat yourself to a virtual walking tour of Channel Islands National Park with Google Maps. Though some of the islands, such as San Miguel and Santa Barbara, take hours to reach by boat, you can walk their desolate trails with the click of your mouse.

Aerial view of Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands National Park
Virtually hike the trails of Channel Islands National Park with Google Maps.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

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🦈 Spot a shark on a live broadcast

Care to spend your lunch break in the Channel Islands? On Wednesdays at 11:30 a.m., you can view live broadcasts from Anacapa Island that showcase the beauty of the park’s scenery and wildlife.

If you are unable to catch a live broadcast, you can watch the park’s previous programs here, which allow viewers to take a closer look at the park’s spiny lobsters, seabirds and horn sharks.

Yes, I said “sharks.” But as a ranger explains, horn sharks are no threat to humans, just bottom-dwelling crustaceans and fish. He notes, however, that humans are responsible for killing millions of sharks per year for their fins.

A view of Anacapa Island
Anacapa Island, part of Channel Islands National Park, is home to thousands of western gulls and a lighthouse completed in 1932.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

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🐠 Binge-watch videos of the park

If you can’t get enough of the islands’ jaw-dropping scenery and underwater views, there are plenty of videos you can binge.

The park’s official video “Treasure in the Sea” features shots of the islands at sunset and the scores of seals and sea lions that make up one of the largest rookeries in the world.

Find Your Park also offers a short but sweet 360 video hosted by actor and recording artist Jordan Fisher, alongside ranger Kelly Moore. Be sure to click and drag around the video to get the full effect.

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The Channel Islands are more than a national park — they’re also a national marine sanctuary. You can get a closer look at the rich ocean life with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s “360° Sea Lion Encounter” video. It’s not often you get a chance to swim alongside playful sea lions, but with this video you can experience what it’s like in just three minutes.

Seals on the beaches of San Miguel Island.
(Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

🛥️ Visit in-person

Do these virtual activities pique your interest in a real-life trip to the islands? The park’s website offers lots of information about how to plan a visit.

My colleague Christopher Reynolds previously wrote about his travels to Channel Islands National Park. If you’re looking for ideas for a kayaking trip in the sea caves off Santa Cruz Island or a day-long excursion to Anacapa Island, said to be the western gulls’ largest nesting ground, be sure to read his reporting.

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You won’t forget a trip to the Channel Islands. I still flash back to memories of snorkeling through the lush kelp forest off Santa Cruz Island two years ago. When you go, you’ll probably snap plenty of photos. The park service invites you to submit them for inclusion in its virtual photo gallery to inspire future visitors.

A kayaker paddles through a natural tunnel east of Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island.
(April Orcutt; photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

📰 What I’m reading

  • Considering a flight this summer? Times contributor and former Times travel editor Catharine Hamm breaks down what you should know.
  • Big cruise lines servicing Alaska may sit out another season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Times contributor Rosemary McClure reports that Canada recently banned large ships from its waters until February 2022.
  • Meow Wolf’s Omega Mart is opening in Las Vegas. Times game critic Todd Martens explains the experience’s ultra-creative COVID-19 precautions, such as a sled with “sanitizer mist guns” intended to clean an indoor slide. (No comment on its effectiveness, though.)
  • Bad news for wildflower fans: “It will not be a spectacular bloom,” Death Valley National Park spokeswoman Abby Wines told Mary Forgione.
  • You’ve probably heard of Make-A-Wish trips to Disney World. But have you heard of the Give Kids the World village? Afar writer Katherine LaGrave takes readers inside an 89-acre storybook resort for ill children in central Florida.
  • Attention architecture buffs: You’ll love this profile of the architect responsible for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo’s studio in Mexico City, written by Claudio Castro in Condé Nast Traveler.
  • Traveling by aroma? For the Washington Post, Jen Rose Smith explains how would-be travelers use scent to revisit beloved destinations during the pandemic.
Photo illustration of airplane piled with luggage
(Photo illustration by Jamie Sholberg / Los Angeles Times; Getty)

📸 Reader photo

A fledgling gull on Anacapa Island with its mother.
Anacapa Island, part of Channel Islands National Park, is home to thousands of western gulls that nest there. Here a fledgling awaits a regurgitated meal from its mother.
(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

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🎸 Road song

I pretty much have to wrap up this edition of Escapes with a song that mentions the sea, right?

That’s why “If It’s the Beaches” by the Avett Brothers, a lovely ode from one lover to another, is our song of the week. The singer promises, “If it’s the beaches’ sands you want, then you will have them.” I hope you’re able to enjoy the coastline yourself this weekend — even if by laptop. Until next week!

Photo of beach with lyrics from “If It’s the Beaches” by the Avett Brothers
Let “If It’s the Beaches” by the Avett Brothers lull you to a beach escape within a song this week.
(Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)


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