This National Park Is Home to the Most Biodiverse Environment in North America
Located off the Southern California coast, Channel Islands National Park offers visitors miles of secluded trails, the chance to spot 145 endemic species of wildlife, and opportunities to learn about Indigenous history.
While visiting family in Santa Barbara, California, photographer Justin Fantl would often admire the chain of rugged islands located more than 20 miles offshore. “Over the years, I kept staring across the channel, watching the light change and distant peaks appear and disappear in the fog,” he says. “There was a definite pull and a lot of mystery about what was out there.”
Fantl first visited Channel Islands National Park in 2019. The quiet of the archipelago—reachable only by boat—appealed to him. To date, he has made more than two dozen visits and taken nearly 9,000 photographs of the park’s sparsely trodden mountains, ancient forests, dramatic sea caves, endemic species, and hints of human history left by the Chumash and Gabrieleno (Tongva) peoples who lived here for thousands of years.
The eight Channel Islands are divided into two geological groups. The northern four are part of the Transverse Ranges, while the southern four are part of the Peninsular Ranges. In 1980, owing to their immense biodiversity, the northern four islands and a small one from the southern grouping were declared Channel Islands National Park, and the surrounding waters were designated as a marine sanctuary. Today one of the Chumash tribal councils—specifically, the Northern Chumash people—has proposed an expansion to that sanctuary to form a 20,000-square-mile ocean conservation zone that would limit offshore oil drilling, protect sacred Chumash sites, and offer marine animals such as gray whales a wider migratory corridor.
Fantl is working on a photo book about what the archipelago looks like at this moment in its long history. “The islands feel a little bit lost in time,” he says. “When you’re there, you feel like you’re at the edge of the earth, removed temporally and geographically. I think there’s a certain rawness out there and a perceptible bit of magic.”
Known as “the Galápagos of North America,” Channel Islands National Park, and the current 1,470-square-mile marine sanctuary surrounding it, is home to more than 2,000 species of flora and fauna. “There are some species that only exist on the islands,” Fantl says. “And not just that—there are some species that only exist on one island.” All told, there are 145 endemic species across the park—including the dwarf island fox, the island deer mouse, the island spotted skunk, and the island scrub jay—that cannot be found anywhere else on earth.
Dendrophiles can admire the Santa Cruz Island ironwood tree, found only on three of the islands, or the Torrey pine tree, which lives only on Santa Rosa Island and in San Diego County. On the beaches and in nearby waters, visitors may encounter elephant seals, dolphins, and sperm whales, plus kelp forests and coral gardens. The park’s unusual ecosystem is due to a mix of climate and geology: Two major ocean currents meet here, as do two tectonic plates.
The Channel Islands are home to what might be the oldest human skeleton in North America: the 13,000-year-old Arlington Springs man. At that time, the four northern islands were a single volcanic landmass. There is further evidence that, beginning about 11,000 years ago, the Gabrieleno (Tongva) and Chumash peoples dwelled here, developed tomols, or advanced canoes, and traded with other Indigenous peoples using shell beads as currency.
Europeans arrived in the 16th century and devastated local populations by spreading disease and forcibly resettling communities. By the 19th century, ranchers, whalers, and fishermen occupied several islands. And because of the archipelago’s strategic location, the U.S. military used it as a base to watch for Japanese attacks during World War II, as well as for trainings (some areas have military uses today). An estimated 5,000 Chumash people currently live across California.
“When you walk around, you start to learn more about the history,” says Fantl. “Maybe you pick up a rock, and it’s clear that it was a tool used by Native people. The islands are, in a way, a living archive.”