Channel Islands (California)

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This article is about the Channel Islands of California; for the islands in the English Channel, see Channel Islands (Europe).

The term "Channel Islands" refers to at least the four islands on the south side of the Santa Barbara Channel, and sometimes also to one or more of four other islands, in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern California.

The four islands included in all definitions of the Channel Islands are, from west to east: San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and Anacapa, the last of which is actually several islands separated by narrow stretches of water. These four, plus Santa Barbara Island to the southeast, compose the Channel Islands National Park.

Three other islands (San Nicolas, San Clemente, and Santa Catalina, often called just "Catalina") are also included in some uses of the phrase "Channel Islands."


Humans have continuously inhabited the islands for at least 8,000 years; human remains dated to 13,000 years ago have been found on Santa Rosa Island.[1] At the time of European contact in 1542, the Chumash people lived on the northern string of islands, and used wooden canoes called tomol to travel to and trade with the mainland, using money made from olivella (sea-snail) shells. Indeed, the name "Chumash" comes from a phrase meaning "makers of shell-bead money." Many Chumash died as a result of exposure to diseases contracted from the Europeans; survivors suffered from depletion of resources by European settlers and from poverty and disruption of their social system resulting from exploitation under the Spanish mission system.[2] The present-day Chumash people live on the mainland.

San Nicolas island was also inhabited, by the Nicoleño people, all of whom left in 1835, except for one child accidentally left behind. This "Lone Woman of San Nicolas" was the inspiration for Scott O'Dell's popular 1960 novel Island of the Blue Dolphins.[3] Other of the southerly islands were inhabited by the Tongva people.

The islands were Spanish territory until 1821, then came under the jurisdiction of newly independent Mexico, whose government encouraged cattle and sheep ranching on the islands. The United States acquired sovereignty after the Mexican-American War of 1846-48.

Geography and Natural History

A number of animal species and subspecies are unique to the islands. For example, the Island Scrub-jay (Aphelocoma insularis), which occurs only on Santa Cruz, is classified as a different species from the similar mainland bird, the Western Scrub-jay (A. californica).[4]

Catalina is home to a herd of bison, an species not native to the island. Fourteen of the animals were brought here in 1924 for the making of the film "The Vanishing American" and were left there. The herd eventually grew to about 600, but to relieve the pressure their numbers were exerting on the environment, a program of removing some of them began around 1969. Since 2009 the Catalina Island Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that manages most of the island's land, has given them short-term contraceptive drugs to reduce the population to a sustainable level of about 150 to 200.[5]



The islands are all part of the state of California. San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and Santa Barbara are in Santa Barbara County; Anacapa and San Nicolas, in Ventura County; and San Clemente and Catalina, in Los Angeles County.

The only incorporated town is Avalon, on Catalina Island; it is mentioned in the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song "The Southern Cross," in which the narrator tells the addressee that "from a noisy bar in Avalon I tried to call you" -- a line that suggests that the narrator, sailing from the mainland U.S. to Tahiti, has stopped off at the nearest port, only a couple of hours' voyage from Los Angeles, to attempt the telephone call. (The song, one must remember, was written in the days before the invention of widely-available cellular or satellite telephones).


Visitors can go to any of the five islands in the National Park either via their own boats or by ferries from Ventura and Oxnard operated by a private company under a Park Service concession. There is also air service to Santa Rosa. Camping is permitted on all five islands but reservations are required.

San Nicolas and San Clemente Islands are military reservations generally closed to the public.

Santa Catalina Island is served by ferries and helicopters from several mainland cities; private airplanes may also land there. On the island, a bus service links the settlements of Avalon and Two Harbors, and taxis are available, including, according to one service, a "vintage Rolls Royce." Catalina is the only one of the eight islands on which bicycles are allowed.


  1. John R. Johnson, "Arlington Springs: The Earliest Evidence for Paleoindians in Coastal California," on the website of the U.S. National Park Service at, archived by WebCite® at, consulted 14 March 2011.
  2. U.S. National Park Service, "Native Inhabitants,", consulted 14 March 2011.
  3. Jan Timbrook, "The Lone Woman of San Nicolas," Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History website,, consulted 14 March 2011.
  4. D.A. Sibley, The Sibley Guide to Birds (New York: Knopf, 2000), 352-53.
  5. "Birth Control Program Begins for Catalina Bison," Orange County Register, 23 Nov. 2009, online at