San Miguel Island day hike: Cabrillo monument, campground, ranger station

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      • Location: Channel Islands National Park, off the Ventura coast. Island Packers in Ventura is the main travel provider to the Channel Islands National Park.  Visit their site here for schedules, fares and other information. Truth Aquatics in Santa Barbara also provides transportation. Private boaters can also land on the island; click here for more information.
      • Agency: Channel Islands National Park
      • Distance: 1.8 miles
      • Elevation gain: 550 feet
      • Suggested time: Up to 2 hours, or whatever is allowed by the boat schedule
      • Difficulty Rating: PG
      • Best season: May – October (depending on boat availability)
      • Dogs: Not allowed
      • Cell phone reception: Weak to fair on the beach and at the ranger station; none for the rest of the route
      • Water: None (must be brought from the mainland; food and drinks can be purchased on the boat but selection is limited. All items need to be packed out.)
      • Restrooms: Vault toilets at the campground and ranger station
      • Camping/backpacking: There are nine campsites on San Miguel Island ($15/night as of this writing). The campsite is a steep half-mile hike from the beach. There is no running water or electricity at the campsite or anywhere else on San Miguel Island. Each site includes a picnic table, a wooden wind break and a “fox box” where campers can store their food and water safely from foxes and rodents that live on the island.
      • Recommended gear: Hiking poles, sun hat, sunblock, Dramamine (for the boat ride)
      • More information: Trip description here
      • Rating: 8

Updated August 2019

San Miguel is the most remote of the five islands in the Channel Islands National Park. Since it requires a boat ride of at least 4 hours in each direction which can be cancelled if weather conditions are adverse, most people opt to visit for multiple days. However, Island Packers does offer at least one day trip per year (usually in September or October) and these trips historically fill up quickly – proof that despite the difficulty of getting to San Miguel Island, it is a popular destination for adventurous souls who want to visit one of southern California’s most remote areas. This write-up describes a short but vigorous hike up steep Nidever Canyon to the ranger station, campground and Cabrillo monument – a route that can be done in the time allowed ashore by the boat schedule. The areas described here are also the limits of what overnight campers can see without ranger accompaniment. Though it may seem like a short hike, it has a lot to offer.

After being transported to the beach via skiffs, as there is no dock (expect to get a little bit wet), the first task is to climb the trail through narrow Nidever (long “I” sound) Canyon. The first portion of the trail is the steepest, but when you stop to catch your breath, you will be rewarded with increasingly panoramic views of Cuyler Harbor when you turn around. Another interesting feature of Nidever Canyon is a giant rock ledge that would be a spectacular waterfall–if the drainage basin was larger and San Miguel Island received more precipitation. Following wet winters, Nidever Canyon does retain some water into the summer, enough to support plant life.

At 0.4 mile from the beach you reach a short spur to the Cabrillo Monument, built in 1937 to honor Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European to visit California. Cabrillo is believed to have died on the island in 1543 following an injury in a fall, although it is not certain that he is actually buried at the site of the monument. Either way, the views from here are excellent, especially if the fog has lifted. Prince Island, a 40-acre rock that is home to dozens of species of sea bird, dominates the landscape to the north and on clear days, the mainland is visible.

Returning to the main trail, you continue climbing, now at a more moderate grade, through low but thick vegetation. In the spring, the Coreopsis flowers are in bloom as they are on the other islands. Other wildflowers include goldenbush, California golden poppies, buckwheat, locoweed, lupine and Santa Barbara daisies.

Soon after, you reach a junction with a route leading to the campground. For variety, you can take this trail, although if you’re not staying there, the campground won’t be of much interest. The trail continues a gradual ascent to the ruins of the Lester Ranch. Originally built in the early 1900s, this site was the home of caretaker Herbert Lester and his family from 1930 to 1942. After Lester’s suicide, the family moved to the mainland. The structure remained until 1967 when it was accidentally burned down by a Navy flare. Other than a few cement foundation walls and a rusted out pair of sinks, there’s not much left.

A short distance uphill from the ranch site, past the dirt landing strip, is the ranger station. This is the highest point on the island that can be reached without accompaniment from park personnel. If there is no fog, the views are impressive; in addition to the harbor, Green Mountain, the second highest point on the island (817 feet) can be seen to the west and Harris Point, the northern tip of the island, is visible to the north. The ranger station features an interesting array of items including photographs, sea shells and old log books dating back to 1968.

When it is time to return, retrace your steps or descend through the campground via a path branching off at the Lester site. Back on the beach, if tides are low and time permits, you can explore a series of sea caves, located a short distance east of Nidever Canyon.

Looking back at Cuyler Harbor from Nidever Canyon
Cabrillo monument
Lester Ranch remains
Golden poppies near the campground
Santa Barbara Daisies
Interpretive display at the ranger station
View of Prince Island from near the ranger station
Sea cave on the beach at Cuyler Harbor

Text and photography copyright 2019 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

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