The Real Southern California: These Islands Channel a Different Kind of LA

National Geographic Traveler columnist Christopher Elliott is trekking through the Los Angeles area with his family in search of the real Southern California. This is his third dispatch; read the previous one here.

Channel Islands.jpgTo the casual observer, the Channel Islands look a lot like the rest of Southern California — minus the development. But look closer.

This national park is a world apart (or at the very least, an ocean apart) from the rest of the LA region. I mean that not just in the sense that there’s no one here except the daytrippers who hike, kayak, and dive. Or even in the geographic sense. I also mean it ecologically. It’s California’s version of the Galapagos, with 145 unique species of plants and animals, including a cute Island Fox.

I took this snapshot high above the cliffs on Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the Channel Islands. We caught an early morning trip on Island Packers and connected with a group of sea kayakers through Aquasports in the morning.

As it turns out, neither my son Aren nor I are the most accomplished kayakers. Despite having a terrific guide, we decided to call it a day after our tandem got stuck on a rock and had to be towed to safety.

Kayaking in the open ocean is challenge enough — add razor-sharp rocks and an eight-year-old who isn’t the most proficient swimmer, and you’ve got trouble. But if adventure is your thing, you’ll definitely want to kayak; the caves we saw were remarkable. Sea lions played alongside our vessel and in the distance, we saw dolphin and whales.

Fortunately, there’s a lot more to do in the Channel Islands than being out on the water. Although I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the diving, which looked spectacular. The visibility is nothing short of stunning. You can see clear down to the bottom in most places. And the kelp forests are home to some of the most unusual marine life you’ll encounter in this hemisphere.

The Channel Islands are rich in history. From the Chumash peoples who inhabited these islands for thousands of years to the sheep ranchers who developed this area during the 19th century, every human civilization has left its mark. There’s a ranger station on Santa Cruz Island with exhibits that explain how these islands evolved, and then you’re ready for one of several scenic hiking paths.

Santa Cruz Island is not for the casual tourist. It’s the rugged and real Southern California as it was before Disney and Hollywood and Malibu. There are no hotels, no concessions. You will get cold and maybe seasick (I did) and if you’re easily fatigued, a hike to the top of the hill will do you in. If that doesn’t, then the thought of your three-year-old daughter running over a cliff will.

But would I come back? You don’t have to ask twice.

If you want to understand what was left behind when LA became what it is today, you must visit the Channel Islands. It may be one of the last places where you can see the real Southern California.


  1. Taylor Logan-Smith
    San Francisco
    June 4, 2011, 7:34 pm

    The real Southern California resides in the beach towns. Towns like Santa Barbara. Great coastal town with a ton of things to do because of its location, it allows you to try an array of things; wine tasting, hiking,biking, great surf,paddle boarding, etc. I travel there a lot and never feel anything less than the authentic californian when I am there. You can always set apart a local from a tourist, their gorgeous demeanor and laid back vide is quite evident. A great place to stay whenever you are there would be the Sandman Inn ( Really affordable in a town where most things are incredibly pricy.

  2. Joseph Yang
    July 14, 2010, 10:00 pm

    As the Channel Islands are much closer to Santa Barbara or Ventura than LA, of course they are very different from a typical tourist trap there. It is erroneous to make any link between the Channel Islands and LA because there is no real connection – except perhaps that you can reach these islands from LA. But then again it would be much easier to reach the islands from many other cities. I find it insulting that in searching for the “real” southern California you cannot even get your geography straight. Also the “real” southern California has much more to offer than just LA and it would benefit your columns to reflect that fact.