Picture of San Miguel Island in Channel Islands National Park, California

One of the Channel Islands, San Miguel is the only known place in the world where four different species of seals and sea lions breed.

Photograph by George H.H. Huey, Alamy

Location: California

Established: March 5, 1980

Size: 249,354 acres

Strung along a stretch of California coast are five separate pieces of land surrounded by 1,252 square nautical miles of sea. Channel Islands National Park and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary protect these islands, the sea around them, and a dazzling array of wildlife.

Two of the islands in this unusual park, Anacapa and Santa Barbara, were earlier designated a national monument, a refuge for nesting seabirds, seals, sea lions, and other long-threatened marine animals. When those islands and three others were joined in a national park, the mission of refuge continued.

Today the park manages a long-term ecological research program that may be the best in the park system. The marine sanctuary—established in 1980—extends for six nautical miles around each island. Among the resources it protects are giant kelp forests with nearly a thousand kinds of fish and marine plants. The park and sanctuary also guard the area from encroachment by another kind of island—the seagoing oil rigs of the Santa Barbara Channel.

About 70 different species of plants grow only on the islands, and some plants exist on but one of them. The islands shelter the only breeding colony of northern fur seals south of Alaska. To help native animals, park managers have gotten rid of such non-native species as black rats, burros, rabbits, and feral cats.

A permanent ranger resides on each island. Reservations are needed for camping. Fishing and diving are strictly regulated and airplanes are asked to keep their distance.

Chumash Indians lived on the Channel Islands until the early 19th century. They traveled from island to island in plank canoes caulked with tar from oil seeps. The tar from such seeps still appears on beaches, reminding strollers of the reason for the oil rigs on the horizon.

Did You Know?

The oldest human remains in North America, dating to 13,000 B.C., were discovered in 1959 on Santa Rosa Island.

The Channel Islands were created by tectonic forces, which caused them to rise up out of the ocean five million years ago. They have always been islands separate from the mainland, and thus have unique plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth.

Copy for this series includes excerpts from the National Geographic Guide to the National Parks of the United States, Seventh Edition, 2012, and the National Parks articles featured in "Cutting Loose" in National Geographic Traveler.

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