Beyond L.A.: Three hikes on San Miguel Island (Channel Islands National Park)


San Miguel is the westernmost of the eight islands in the Santa Barbara Channel, which include Santa Catalina, San Clemente, San Nicolas and the five that constitute the park. Without any other islands to serve as a buffer from the open ocean, San Miguel experiences high winds, fog and other conditions that make it feel especially remote and can also hinder transportation to and from. Although it is geographically in southern California (the nearest spot on the mainland is Point Concepcion, 26 miles north) having a safe, successful multi-day trip to San Miguel requires preparation and a little luck. It is possible to take a day trip to San Miguel (Island Packers in Ventura offers a few day trips each year) but this write-up assumes you will be spending at least three nights on the island, the minimum typically allowed by the boat schedule (boats usually travel on Fridays and Mondays, so trips to San Miguel are often Friday/Saturday/Sunday nights or Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday).

If you have never been to the Channel Islands National Park, DON’T start with San Miguel, especially as a multi-day camping destination. Those who are new to the Channel Islands or have minimal camping experience would be better served to try a night on Santa Cruz Island which is closer to the mainland and has water available. Even those with the camping/backpacking experience necessary for a trip to San Miguel might find that after visiting this island, the others, while still worthy destinations, to be anti-climatic.

GETTING THERE

The most common way to reach San Miguel Island is by Island Packers, who offers weekly trips between May and October, subject to weather conditions. Typically these trips take 4 to 5 hours each way and will stop at at least one other island. Truth Aquatics from Santa Barbara also offers trips to San Miguel Island, and private boaters can land in Cuyler Harbor. Waters in the Santa Barbara Channel can be notoriously rough; if you are prone to sea-sickness, take Dramamine or a comparable medication. Keep in mind too that since San Miguel Island has no dock, you will be brought to the island in a small rubber motorboat and you may get wet.

STAYING THERE

Campers will have to reserve one of the nine sites at the San Miguel Island campground ($15/night as of this writing). The campsites are equipped with picnic tables, wooden wind breaks and “fox boxes” for food storage (elevated to prevent access by Channel Island foxes and deer mice). There is one vault toilet at the campground and another at the ranger station, a short walk uphill. The campground is reached with a steep half-mile hike from the beach. Everything that is packed in must be packed out.

Overview of the campground

WHAT TO BRING/WHAT TO EXPECT

Water

Since there has never been running water on San Miguel Island and since there are no shade trees, water is the most important commodity. Bring at least one gallon per day you will be on the island. This creates a challenge, of course, in transporting the water, along with the rest of your supplies, up the trail to the campground, but it is common for campers to make multiple trips. At the start of the trip, your water will be set aside from the rest of your gear, initialed, and stored with the cargo, reclaimed upon your arrival. In addition to drinking, you will use water for cooking and washing as needed.

Food

Campfires are not allowed on San Miguel Island. Campers who want hot food and drinks can bring fuel-based stoves (like water, fuel canisters are stored separately on the boat). The trade off is the extra weight of the stove and the water required to make prepackaged meals or hot drinks. On my trip, I opted not to bring a stove and ate shelf-stable foods including chicken, tuna, salmon and trout from packages, bread, almonds, dried cherries, jerky, protein bars, pies and donuts.

Tent set up at Site 1

Power and cell phone reception

Since there is no electricity on San Miguel Island outside of the solar-powered ranger station, plan accordingly. There may be cell phone reception available in some spots, depending on the carrier (I had fair reception on the beach and at the ranger station, at Cardwell Point and at Lester Point but none at the campground).

Weather

Plan for windy and exposed conditions. With no shade on the island, sunblock and sun hats are essential. Gusts of 100 miles per hour have been recorded on San Miguel Island. Winds between 20 and 30 miles per hour are standard. Bring as low-profile a tent as possible. For up to date weather conditions, click here.

THE HIKES

Beyond the beach, the Cabrillo monument, the ranger station and the trails connecting them (described in greater detail here), all hiking on San Miguel Island must be done with the accompaniment of park personnel, such as volunteers or technicians who track the movement of the fox population. While there will always be at least one volunteer available to lead hikes, on transportation days (the day a volunteer ends their shift on the island and another one begins theirs), everything is dependent on the plane’s ability to make the trip. Since there are no lights on the landing strip, planes cannot land in foggy weather, so if visibility and other conditions are poor, the volunteer on the island and their counterpart on the mainland will have to stand by for a possible flight arrival and departure and will be unable to lead visitors on hikes. Thus, a bit of luck is required to be able to experience the island’s signature hike: the 14-mile round trip to Point Bennett, on San Miguel’s western corner.

If it is known that a plane will not be arriving and the volunteers don’t have to stay by the station, it is possible to do any of the three shorter hikes described below, each of which take 2-3 hours depending on the pace of the group. Typically, the volunteers will make multiple trips to the campground to check in on the campers and see who wants to join the hike; campers can also visit the ranger station and get the latest news.

Caliche Forest (Approximately 4 miles round trip from the ranger station, 500 feet elevation gain)

One of San Miguel’s most famous and oddest sites is the Caliche Forest. Pronounced kuh-LEE-chee, the “forest” is actually the fossilized remains of the roots of conifers that once grew on the island. After the trees died and their topsoil was washed away, the exposed roots were coated in a natural cement of sand, bits of sea shells and other debris blown across the island. The site is located a short distance off the trail to Point Bennett and can be visited as a detour en route to the western end of the island. If time doesn’t permit a trip all the way to Point Bennett, the hike to and from the Caliche Forest is a good alternative. As an added bonus, the hike visits the highest point on the island, San Miguel Hill (elevation 831 feet). There’s not much to see on the flat summit, save for a small antenna facility, but the descent from the hill to the forest offers views of the western end of the island and the ocean to the south. A short spur leads to the forest, where hikers can observe the white formations.

Caliche Forest

Southwest view from San Miguel Hill en route to the Caliche Forest

Northwest view from San Miguel Hill en route to the Caliche Forest

Prince Island as seen from near the top of San Miguel Hill

Cardwell Point (Approximately 4.6 miles round trip from the ranger station, 400 feet elevation gain)

The southeastern corner of San Miguel Island is one of the best places to observe elephant seals, California sea lions and other pinnipeds. The hike to the point isn’t particularly notable, although if visibility is good, you will get nice views of the western end of Santa Rosa Island; perhaps even the peaks of Santa Cruz Island farther east. However, the payoff is at Cardwell Point, where you can enjoy a dramatic vista of open ocean to the south and sea lions and elephant seals lounging on the beach, hundreds of feet below. Though it’s on the eastern end of the island, the view faces west, making it an ideal spot for watching the sun set.

For a map of the hike to Cardwell Point, click here.

Pinnipeds on the beach at sunset, Cardwell Point

Looking east toward Santa Rosa Island from near Cardwell Point

Looking southeast from Cardwell Point

Looking southwest from Cardwell Point

Lester Point (Harris Point) (Approximately 5.4 miles round trip from the ranger station, 500 feet elevation gain)

Located on the western side of San Miguel’s northern corner, Lester Point offers an aerial view of Simonton Cove. If visibility is good, you may also see Harris Point, the northernmost spot on the island. In San Miguel terminology, Lester Point and Harris Point are often used interchangeably.

The hike begins by heading back toward Nidever Canyon, then branching off to remain on the plateau. As the trail heads northwest, it takes in an impressive view of Cuyler Harbor. The trail meanders through the bluffs between Cuyler and Simonton before reaching a rocky incline. At the top is a narrow saddle where you can sit as close to the edge as your nerves will allow.

Lester Point is the spot where Herbert Lester killed himself in 1942. Lester is buried here, along with his wife Elizabeth (1891-1981) and older daughter Marianne (1931-2004). As of this writing, Lester’s younger daughter, Betsy Lester Roberti (born 1933) is still alive, but apparently in declining health. Betsy is the author of “San Miguel Island: My Childhood Memoir.”

For another description of the hike to Lester Point, click here.

For a write-up of San Miguel Island that includes more information about all three hikes above, click here.

View of Cuyler Harbor en route to Lester Point

Looking west from Cuyler Harbor en route to Lester Point

Looking west from Lester Point

Ocean and beach view, Lester Point

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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