If you ever wondered what California was like 250 years ago before the Spaniards came, visit the Channel Islands. They stretch like a range of mountains partially submerged off the Southern California coast. North of Santa Catalina Island are four more Channel Islands – Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel, clearly visible from Ventura and Santa Barbara.

Contrary to their southern neighbor, Santa Catalina a fully developed vacation destination since the early 20th century, the northern Channels are primitive. Access is limited. There are no tourist accommodations and what you pack in you pack out. No trash cans, no weekly trash removal and no hot and cold running showers.

Despite such rough prospects, a day trip to witness a pristine terrain as experienced by Father Junipero Serra. He marched up from Mexico to begin colonization of Spain’s northern territories in 1769. Pastoral California was changed forever, but you can see what it was like on the northern Channel Islands,

What does the visitor see on Santa Cruz the largest island in the Channel Islands National Park? On my day tour there in 1986 with the Nature Conservancy, I was impressed with the plant and animal life not found anywhere else along the Pacific Coast. The islands are often referred to as the Galapagos Islands of North America. This was the primeval golden land where the early Spanish explorers and padres and later American settlers came to live like land barons of plenty.

Private vessels are allowed to land on the shores of Santa Cruz at certain points but are restricted to how far inland the hikers are permitted to go. Guided tours are provided from the Channel Island Harbor at Oxnard and from Santa Barbara Harbor. Check websites for Channel Islands National Park for details of day trips or camping excursions.

The history of the Channel Islands revolves around the Caire and Stanton families who were the last landowners of Santa Cruz. The Stantons donated the land easement to the Nature Conservancy to preserve the pristine landscape and to prevent commercial development on the island. Dr. Carey Stanton grew up on the family rancho before he attended Stanford University.

Prior ownership under Spanish and Mexican rule evicted the native American Indian settlers who had been on the island for centuries, according to archaeological studies of the primitive sites. Most of the natives were moved to the mainland as mission Indians, The first record of Santa Cruz Island was by Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo in 1542. During the Mexican period of the 19th century, Santa Cruz was owned by a San Francisco syndicate that used it to grow agriculture products and as a cattle range. The Stanton family acquired most of the island, approximately 55,000 acres, in 1937.

I found the surprise of my visit to Santa Cruz was the opportunity to view animal and plant species that are exclusive to the island. The Nature Conservancy has worked for many years to remove non-natural species and to protect rare natives like the Island Fox. This is the only place in the world where these miniature animals habitate, and they were nearly extinct before the Nature Conservancy removed their predator the bald eagle.

During the cattle ranching days on Santa Cruz, goats and pigs became feral and were destroying much of the native vegetation. The Conservancy quietly rooted out these non-native pests without the usual interference by animal-rights zealots.

Over the two centuries that Europeans occupied the Channel Islands, Santa Cruz and San Rosa were operating ranchos complete with vaqueros herding cattle, large crops and even a winery. The settlers on Santa Rosa did not develop as large an operation as on Santa Cruz. The weather and sea conditions there are more severe. The channel between the island group and the mainland is a treacherous sea lane of wind and currents that have grounded hundreds of ships. San Miguel Island, further north, is even worse and not settled.

Since my visit to Santa Cruz 30 years ago, the National Park Service has provided more visitor amenities such as a Visitor Center at the landing cove, bike trails and a camping site at Scorpion Ranch. One special activity for the day tripper is the kayak tour to the Painted Cave.

It is one of the largest sea caverns in the world with colorful lichen and algae decorating the deep cave. When I visited Santa Cruz, we were taken inside the cavern by the channel-crossing boat. That’s how big it is.

To complete the Channel Island venture, stopping over in Oxnard where the Visitor Center and departure dock are located is an option. Sixty miles north of Los Angeles, the Old Town village has good restaurants and accomodations on the waterfront.