Posted by: James Wapotich | June 1, 2019

Trail Quest: Sycamore Canyon Falls

Boney Mountain Ridge Satwiwa Natural Area Rancho Sierra Vista Open Space Point Mugu State Park hike trail Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

Boney Mountain is seen from the trail

Made a hike in the Santa Monica Mountains a couple weeks ago to check out Sycamore Canyon Falls. Not much water in the falls, they’re best seen after a good rain.

I did however extend the hike up to the old cabin site. While I was hiking in I was struck by the beauty of Boney Mountain with its outcrops of volcanic rock and was wondering if there was a way to reach to the top. According to the maps I had, in order to get up on the ridge I would need to make a much bigger hike, more than I had time for.

But while I was at the cabin site, I noticed the trail kept going and decided to follow it to see where it lead. Along the way I passed a lone trail user, who said it went to the top of Boney Mountain Ridge and showed me the trail on her app. This longer hike was nine miles round trip, but included some great views, a good workout, and a chance to see part of the Woolsey Fire burn area and a different set of wildflowers.

Article appears in section A of the May 27th, 2019 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Rancho Sierra Vista Danielson Monument old cabin site trail Point Mugu State Park Boney Mountain Wilderness Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

A chimney remains from the old cabin in Sycamore Canyon

Posted by: James Wapotich | May 12, 2019

Trail Quest: Deal Junction, Rancho Nuevo Canyon

Rancho Nuevo Canyon Trail Dick Smith Wilderness Cuyama Los Padres National Forest backpacking

Rancho Nuevo Canyon

Went backpacking with naturalist Mike Kresky a couple of weeks ago. Hiked in along Deal Trail with a side trip to Mine Camp, and then over to Deal Junction and Rancho Nuevo Canyon. From there, day hiked to Upper Rancho Nuevo Camp. Spent the night at Deal Junction Camp, where we set up one of my trail cameras, catching a shot of a bobcat making a predawn stroll.

The next day we hiked out down through Rancho Nuevo Canyon to the Cuyama River and State Route 33; and made a loop back to the car. Lots and lots of wildflowers out there, and lots of great water in all the creeks.

This article appear in section A of the May 6th, 2019 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Deal Junction Camp Rancho Nuevo Canyon Trail Dick Smith Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Scenery near Deal Junction Camp

Rancho Nuevo Canyon trail hike dick smith wilderness los padres national forest

Rancho Nuevo Canyon upstream from Deal Juction

Rancho Nuevo Canyon Trail Upper Rancho Nuevo Camp Dick Smith Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Rancho Nuevo Canyon nearing Upper Rancho Nuevo Camp

Bobcat deal junction rancho nuevo canyon dick smith wilderness los padres national forest

Bobcat making a pre-dawn stroll near Deal Junction

Rancho Nuevo Creek Trail Rancho Nuevo Campground Dick Smith Wilderness Los Padres National Forest

Rancho Nuevo Creek nearing Rancho Nuevo Campground

goldfields in bloom rancho nuevo campground cuyama valley los padres national forest

Goldfields in bloom along the road to Rancho Nuevo Campground

Posted by: James Wapotich | May 12, 2019

Trail Quest: Matias Potrero

hidden waterfall camuesa connector trail paradise road hike santa barbara los padres national forest

Hidden 25′ waterfall near Camuesa Connector Trail

Made a hike to Matias Potrero several weeks ago, starting from First Crossing. Along the way I visited a hidden waterfall near Camuesa Connector Trail. Last summer I felt called to venture up the canyon and discovered a dry waterfall and made a note to come back in the spring. From there, I continued up to Matias Potrero.

This article appear in section A of the April 29th, 2019 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

garter snake santa ynez river paradise road los padres national forest

Garter snake

santa ynez river paradise road camuesa connector trail los padres national forest

Santa Ynez River near Camuesa Connector Trail

santa ynez river camuesa connector trail paradise road los padres national forest

Scenery along the Santa Ynez River near Camuesa Connector Trail

pasture corral matias potrero camp matias reyes connector trail santa ynez river paradise road los padres national forest

Pasture and corral near Matias Potrero Camp

Miner's lettuce paradise road los padres national forest

A sea of miner’s lettuce along Paradise Road


Posted by: James Wapotich | April 21, 2019

Trail Quest: Cold Spring Canyon

Tangerine Falls trail closure thomas fire cold spring trail montecito hike santa barbara Los Padres National Forest

Tangerine Falls

Made two hikes into Cold Spring Canyon. The trailhead along Mountain Drive is still closed until they put in a bridge across the washed out section of the road. However, thanks to Montecito Trails Foundation working with the city and county, the canyon is now accessible from both the West Fork Cold Spring side from Gibraltar Road and from the East Fork Cold Spring side coming in from Hot Springs Trail.

Both trails are in excellent condition. The off-trail route to Tangerine Falls, however, is more or less completely wiped out, the best route now is to just hike up the creek. The last section to the base of the falls is now harder than it was before. I also hiked up to the Root Cellar, that trail fared better because it’s away from the creek. However, once the trail arrives above the falls, it is also largely washed away, with again the best route being up the creek, until just before the Root Cellar. Lots of wildflowers happening in both canyons.

This article appear in section A of the April 1st, 2019 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Above tangerine falls thomas fire cold spring trail canyon montecito santa barbara los padres national forest

Tangerine Falls is seen from the trail that leads above the falls

Root Cellar thomas fire above tangerine falls cold spring canyon los padres national forest

The Root Cellar

Mild Maids cold spring canyon hike montecito trail los padres national forest

Milk Maids

purple nightshade buds cold spring canyon thomas fire regrowth montecito los padres national forest

Purple nightshade buds

chaparral pea thomas fire regrowth montecito hike los padres national forest

Chaparral pea

Cascades and pools East Fork Cold Spring Creek montecito hike trail thomas fire los padres national forest

Cascades and pools East Fork Cold Spring Creek


Posted by: James Wapotich | April 15, 2019

Trail Quest: Backcountry Gourmet

Backcountry gourmet menu ideas backpacking los padres national forest trail hacks campfire


Although people have been drying meat and fruit since probably before recorded history, the process of dehydrating food didn’t start to see its full application until the second World War when reducing the weight and bulk of food for transportation became important.

In the 1960’s, as interest in backpacking become more popular, campers turned to dehydrated fare for their trips. These meals have several advantages, they’re lightweight, easy to make, take less time to cook, which reduces the amount of fuel one has to carry, and come in a wide variety of flavors.

And yet for all of its functionality and convenience, dehydrated food can sometimes be too much of a good thing. Several years ago, after a dozen different backpacking trips over the course of six months in our local mountains, my taste buds were ready for a change. With more trips coming up later that fall, I was re-inspired to find some satisfying alternatives to dehydrated backpacking food.

In spite of the extra weight, I’ve found that packing in treats can improve morale. Having something that feels more like a home-cooked meal can not only offset the long miles, but help alleviate the mindset that camping is somehow about suffering.

Nevertheless, there’s a balance to be struck; backpacking does require effort, and there are limitations to the scope of one’s kitchen at camp and the types of items that can be easily carried. Over the years, rather than developing recipes, I’ve sought out items that are pre-made or instant and relatively easy to make. I’ve also favored items that don’t have a lot of heavy or bulky packaging that I have to pack out.

A while back a friend shared with me a couple menu ideas from his own trick bag that helped break me out of the perception that the only place to find backpacking food is at a store that sells sporting goods or camping gear. That set me on the path of occasionally wandering the aisles of different grocery stores, searching out and exploring alternative menu ideas for backpacking.

His most versatile idea is to take polenta and instant black bean soup, found in the bulk section of local health food stores, and combine it with chunks of salami, cheese, and sun-dried tomato. While these may sound like mismatched items, the resulting meal is a tasty blend of flavors reminiscent of both pizza and burritos. It’s simple to make adding the polenta and then seasoned, instant black bean flakes to boiling water until it’s cooked, and then adding in the other ingredients to heat them up. Since I often bring salami and cheese to go with crackers for lunches, it’s relatively easy to bring extra for the dinner meal.

His other idea is pre-made Indian food in a foil pouch. Tasty Bites makes a wide range of flavors and Trader Joe’s also has a similar private label selection. Some personal favorites include Bombay potato and Madras lentil. These items pair well with grains such as instant rice or couscous.

Another trick I’ve learned is that Madras lentils is almost like Indian chili, and that combining it with pre-cooked tri-tip can make for a hardy meal in the backcountry. As an alternative to salami, I’ll often bring tri-tip to go with my cheese and crackers for lunch. Pre-cooked tri-tip can be found at a number of stores in Santa Barbara, and will keep well for a couple of days if kept unsliced as a single piece wrapped in tin foil and stored in a resealable bag to keep the juices from leaking out.

One of my favorite backpacking meals is spaghetti and meatballs. The challenge with this item in the past had been how to carry it. Do you pack it in a glass jar or plastic container and hope it doesn’t break or leak? Or do you pour it into a water bottle and hope that the smell and flavor doesn’t permanently effect it?

During one of my many wanders through the grocery store I stumbled across a marvel of modern packaging, marinara sauce in an aseptic tetra pak box. I’ve only found one brand packaged this way and now can only find it at Tino’s Italian Grocery Store or online, but Pomì’s marinara sauce is worth the effort.

The sealed container serves two people and when empty is easy to pack out. The sauce comes fully flavored and only needs to be heated up, and when combined with pasta and pre-cooked meatballs is an amazing backcountry treat. A checkered table cloth is optional, but other items worth bringing along are French bread, parmesan cheese, and red wine. Again, thanks to the wonders of modern packaging it’s easy to find single serving wine in small plastic containers or double servings in similar aseptic boxes.

I’ve also found that bringing gourmet treats with me when my girlfriend joins me on a backpacking trip improves the likelihood of her going on subsequent trips into the backcountry. Whatever long miles I just made her hike will more easily be forgotten with a great meal.

Another item I rediscovered at the grocery store was macaroni and cheese. While this is close in spirit to dehydrated food, it still feels more like a home-cooked meal. This was also staple item from my Boy Scout days when we’d often have macaroni and cheese on the first night of our five-day backpacking trips. For protein we added in a large can of tuna. Today, tuna also comes in an easy to pack foil pouch.

A favorite pastime around the campfire for both my sister and my girlfriend is expressing their dismay around the very notion of adding tuna to macaroni and cheese. This prompts me to remind them that the recipe for tuna casserole, which dates back to at least the 1950s, is essentially noodles and tuna. For added effect, I’ll mention that some recipes even include sprinkling crumbled potato chips on top; this usually establishes who has the better sense of taste and allows us to move on to a different topic.

A recent addition to my trick bag is backcountry tacos. These are surprisingly easy to make. I use instant rice and black bean soup or dehydrated bean flakes, which give the tacos more substance, and then add tri-tip I’ve heated up. My favorite tortillas are a blend of corn and flour, which are easier to heat up and more pliable than corn tortillas. For garnishes I use cheese, along with fresh onion and cilantro. Instead of bringing a bottle of hot sauce or small packets from fast food restaurants, I’ve found that several stores now carry salsa in small, plastic single-use containers.

Sometimes I’ll bring fresh eggs, which is an easy way to take any leftovers from the tacos the night before and repurpose them into breakfast burritos. Eggs can be tricky to carry, but they will stay fresh if unopened. Powdered eggs are easy to find anywhere dehydrated backpacking food is sold, but in terms of flavor and consistency, for me they’re nowhere near the same.

The closet thing I’ve found to real eggs, and by closest I mean halfway between powdered eggs and real eggs, is Ova Easy egg crystals, which can be found at REI and online. For the best results mix the egg crystals and water the night before, this allows the eggs to rehydrate more thoroughly and cook up fluffier. Pre-cooked sausage pairs well with scrambled eggs and will keep for a couple of days.

I remember when Starbucks first introduced their own instant coffee, I wished I was an avid coffee drinker just so I could write a review. But I do enjoy a good mocha, and their single-serving packets make for an easy way to have backcountry mochas. There are several tricks to making a good mocha, first and foremost is milk, which I discovered after trying to mix instant coffee with just instant hot chocolate.

The second and equally important is deciding what type of mocha drinker you are. Do you prefer coffee with some hot chocolate or hot chocolate with some coffee? If it’s the latter, then the trick is to start with chocolate milk and add to it some powdered hot chocolate to make it extra chocolatey. Again, thanks to modern packaging, single-serving milk can be found in aseptic tetra pak boxes that don’t require refrigeration.

Whipped cream still has a way to go before it’ll be easy to carry into the backcountry. Trader Joe’s makes whipping cream in aseptic tetra pak boxes, but it takes a lot of work to whip it to the right consistency without a mixer.

As an alternative, my girlfriend will just add marshmallows to her mocha, which to me just seems wrong, but I’ve noticed that out in the wild there’s a certain lawlessness that can take hold of some people.

But the real key to creating good backpacking fare is to remember that it’s about finding ways to bring along what you enjoy and deciding when the weight tradeoff makes sense.

Article appears in section A of the March 18th, 2019 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

This article draws on in part from a blog post I made in 2014, which can be seen here, plus three other food related posts I drafted but never got around to posting. I may add those other three at some point since they include addition menu ideas that I didn’t have room for in the article.

Bonus points if you can name the camp featured in the photo at the top of this post.

Posted by: James Wapotich | April 11, 2019

Trail Quest: Wellhouse Falls

Wellhouse Falls Lewis Canyon Knapp's Castle Snyder Trail hike Santa Ynez Mountain Los Padres National Forest

Wellhouse Falls

The last time I visited Wellhouse Falls was with the Boy Scouts, Troop 15, back in the late 70s. We were one of the few troops in Santa Barbara that regularly backpacked in our local mountains. Each spring, we would go on a 5-, 10-, and 20-mile overnight backpacking trip, to build up stamina and get ready for our 5-day, 50-mile backpacking trip we did over spring break.

Knapp’s Castle was a favorite for our 5-mile trips. We would hike down from East Camino Cielo, stop at the ruins and practice map reading and orienteering, leveraging the exceptional views the site has to offer, and then continue down to Paradise Road and hike over to Fremont Campground for the night. Along the way we would make the side trip over to Wellhouse Falls in Lewis Canyon.

On my second visit to the falls, winter rains had washed out part of the trail, but we were able to scramble across the slide area. A year later, additional winter rains made the trail impassable and that was the last time I’d been there. Occasionally, over the years, I’d venture towards the falls, but each time I was turned back by the thick chaparral.

Then one day while staring at a Google satellite image for the area, I noticed that where the trail dies out is really close to a side wash that leads down to the creek. My thought was if I could get to that side wash, and it wasn’t too brushy, I might be able to make it down to the creek. From there it would be relatively easy to reach the falls.

With the recent bounty of winter rains, I was inspired to give it a shot. The old trail arrives right at the washed out area from long ago, where it also happens to meet the little side wash I saw in the Google satellite image. The side wash is moderately brushy, somewhat steep, and presents some challenges, in particular a small, dry waterfall that one has to climb down. The side wash meets the creek just below the first of two bonus waterfalls on the way up to Wellhouse Falls. The old trail up to the falls reappears between the second waterfall and Wellhouse Falls.

This article appears in section A of the March 4th, 2019 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.


Posted by: James Wapotich | March 31, 2019

Trail Quest: Cardwell and Harris Points, San Miguel Island

Harris Point hike San Miguel Island Channel Island National Park

Harris Point

San Miguel Island is the westernmost of the Northern Channel Islands, and in some ways the most remote.

There are three ranger or docent led hikes on San Miguel Island. The long hike out to Point Bennett, about 14 miles roundtrip, and two relatively shorter hikes to Cardwell and Harris Points, both about six miles each roundtrip.

The easiest way to reach the island is through Island Packers,, which offers boat rides to all five of the islands within Channel Islands National Park.

The campground on the island features nine campsites, each with a picnic table, metal food storage box, and low wind break. Reservations are made through There is an outhouse, but no potable water and little shade. Visitors must bring all the water they’ll need for the duration of their stay. A half-mile trail from the harbor leads to the campground and continues up towards the ranger station.

The hike to Cardwell Point starts from the ranger station and heads southeast, passing through non-native grassland dotted with coyote brush, giant coreopsis, lupine, and dudleya. The views eastward extend out towards Santa Rosa Island. The trail then arrives at a bluff overlooking a remote beach. Here, crouching on the bluff, visitors can watch California sea lions and Northern elephant seals hauled out on the beach below. The spot offers some of the best viewing on the islands.

Northern elephant seals spend most of their time in the water. They migrate twice a year to forage for food, diving underwater. They can stay under for up to two hours and reach depths as much as a mile; and feed on squid, octopus, and a variety of fish. They spend just ten percent of their time on land, typically in large groups, either to molt, between April and August, or during the breeding season from December through March.

Northern elephants seals were nearly hunted to extinction in the late 1800s for their blubber which was used to produce oil for lamps. Only a small population of 40-100 remained on Guadalupe Island off of Mexico. From this group, Northern elephant seals have since recovered to over 175,000. Their range extends along the Pacific Coast from Baja California to Alaska. Northern elephant seals can be found on San Miguel, Santa Rosa, and Santa Barbara Islands, where they benefit from the relative isolation these islands provide.

During the last ice age, when the sea level was 300-400 feet lower, the four islands off our coast, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel, were part of a single, larger island called Santarosae. Between 11,000-9,500 years ago, rising sea levels inundated the lowlands of Santarosae creating the four separate islands we see today.

The earliest evidence of man on the island dates back 13,000 years ago at Arlington Springs, on what is now Santa Rosa Island, when Santarosae was still a single island. The remains are some of the oldest found in North America.

There are two theories on how native people first reached North America from Asia. The one probably most familiar to many of us is that during the last ice age, people crossed the land bridge between Siberia and North America that was created by lower sea levels, following big game herds such as mammoths and mastodons. They continued south through an ice-free corridor as the glaciers began to retreat, dispersing out across the vast expanse of North America and into South America.

Another theory suggests that native people followed the coast around the North Pacific, that was also relatively free of ice, following what has been dubbed the “kelp highway” and utilizing the resources provided by kelp forests and found along the coast.

The early Chumash were likely drawn to Santarosae for these same resources. They journeyed to the island using boats made from tule reeds bundled together, traveling when the sea was calm. The might’ve left the mainland near what is now Point Mugu where the distance to the island was the shortest, arriving near what is now Anacapa Island.

Santarosae featured a broad coastal plain, plenty of marine sea life to hunt and fish, and shellfish to harvest, as well as reliable water in enough locations to make remaining on the island feasible. Over time villages arose. There are 21 recorded village sites on the northern Channel Islands.

Roughly 1,500 years ago, the Chumash developed their wooden-plank canoe or tomol, which dramatically increased both trade and social interactions between the islands and the mainland, and along the coast.

Chumash territory extended from Malibu to Morro Bay, out to the northern Channel Islands, and inland to the Carrizo Plain. Within that area were eight language groups, collectively referred to as Chumash by ethnographers. It’s estimated that prior to the arrival of the Spanish, there were roughly 22,000 Chumash and about 150 village sites.

A pivotal moment in history for the Chumash and California was Cabrillo’s arrival in 1542, just 50 years after Columbus’ arrival in North America.

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was commissioned by the Viceroy of New Spain to lead an expedition up the Pacific Coast to find new trade opportunities and search for the fabled Strait of Anian, or Northwest Passage, that would connect the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and provide a more direct route to China.

In June of 1542, Cabrillo left the Mexican port of Navidad with three ships, the flagship San Salvador, which he built, plus the smaller La Victoria and San Miguel. In September, the expedition arrived at what is now San Diego, marking the first European landfall in California.

Cabrillo, then visited Catalina and San Clemente Islands, as well as San Pedro and Santa Monica Bays, before arriving at the Northern Channel Islands, anchoring at San Miguel Island in Cuyler Harbor. They spent a week at the islands before continuing north to Point Conception. The expedition sailed as far north as Point Reyes, possibly reaching the Russian River before turning back, missing both times the entrance to San Francisco Bay, which wasn’t sighted by Europeans until Portola’s expedition in 1769.

There are differing accounts of Cabrillo’s journey as the expedition’s official report was lost and all that remains is a summary made later by investigators using the ship’s logs and charts. Cabrillo is said to have broken a limb, which became infected and developed gangrene. In one version Cabrillo fell and broke his arm, and died on San Miguel Island. In another, Cabrillo splintered his shin while going ashore on Catalina Island to save his men during an attack by Tongva Indians and died there.

After his passing in January of 1543, Cabrillo’s second in command, Bartolome Ferrer, led the expedition back to Mexico.

A monument to Cabrillo was erected on San Miguel Island in 1937, and is just below the campground; a short side trail leads to the stone cross which overlooks Cuyler Harbor.

While Cabrillo’s expedition was the first into the area, it wasn’t until Portola’s expedition 227 years later in 1769, that missionaries and settlers began to arrive in California.

Diseases brought by Europeans decimated the Chumash, and the introduction of the mission system, which sought to convert and assimilate them, slowly separated the Chumash from their traditional ways and culture.

During the 1820s, the last remaining Chumash living on the islands were removed.

In 1833, following the Mexican Revolution of 1821, the Mexican government secularized the missions. The Mission’s land holdings in Alta California, which accounted for about a sixth of the land area, were broken up and either sold off or given away by the Governors, often to friends and associates as reward for their service.

After the Mexican-American War in 1848, the United States agreed to honor these land grants in the new California Territory. Over the years, a number of these ranchos were purchased from the original Mexican families by businessmen and families from the United States, including the ranchos on both Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands.

These ranching operations, along with leases on the other the islands, marked the beginning of the ranching era on the islands, with the islands experiencing and now recovering from the affects of overgrazing.

Today, the Northern islands are part of Channel Islands National Park, which includes, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, Santa Barbara, and the eastern quarter of Santa Cruz Islands. For more information about the park, go to

The third hike on San Miguel Island is to Harris Point. The hike starts below the turnoff to the Cabrillo Monument, along the trail down to the harbor. Here, a side trail crosses Nidever Canyon and continues along the bluff, offering exceptional views out across Cuyler Harbor and towards Prince Island. The hike then continues out towards Harris Point, threading its way through predominantly lupine, interspersed with giant coreopsis, dudleya, and island poppy. The trail ends at Lester Point, which offers views of Simonton Cove and out towards Harris Point.

Gazing out at the point and listening to the wind and surf, while watching the waves roll in, it’s possible to imagine the features of Santarosae and the accomplishments of the first people to live there. And to imagine the forests and pristine coastline of this now submerged super island, and even marvel at the diversity of nature and its ever-changing landscapes.

This article originally appeared in section A of the February 18th, 2019 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

California Sea Lions Northern Elephant Seals Cardwell Point hike San Miguel Island Channel Islands National Park

California sea lions and Northern elephant seals


Posted by: James Wapotich | March 31, 2019

Trail Quest: Point Bennett, San Miguel Island

Prince Island Cuyler Harbor Beach hiking camping San Miguel Island Channel Islands National Prak

Prince Island frames a view of Cuyler Harbor

20,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, when the sea level was 300-400 feet lower than today, the four islands off our coast, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel, were part of a larger, single island called Santarosae.

Santarosae featured a broad coastal plain, as well as rich offshore kelp forests. During the last ice age the climate was wetter and cooler, more akin to northern California today; and conifers such as Douglas fir, Gowan cypress, and Bishop pine grew on the island.

This super island was four times the size of the islands today, covering roughly 829 square miles. It was about 79 miles long and at its closest point was just 4-5 miles from the mainland.

An imagined traverse of the island might’ve started at the eastern end of Santarosae, and either followed the coastal plain or made its way over the relatively narrow ridge of what is now Anacapa Island, before reaching what is now Santa Cruz Island.

Santarosae’s highest peak would’ve likely been Mount Diablo, now part of Santa Cruz Island. From there, a traverse westward would’ve continued across the lowlands separating Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands, and then across Santa Rosa Island to reach the comparatively flat San Miguel Island.

Around 11,000 years ago the islands began to “break apart” as the sea level rose. Anacapa was the first to go, becoming a separate island roughly 10,300 to 10,900 years ago. Around 9,400 to 9,700 years ago, Santa Cruz Island separated from the still connected Santa Rosa and San Miguel Islands, which became separate roughly 300 years later.

The oldest human remains found on the islands at Arlington Springs on Santa Rosa Island date back 13,000 years ago. The early Chumash would’ve potentially been able to make a traverse of Santarosae, and visited and lived on the island as it slowly separated into the four islands we know today.

San Miguel Island is the westernmost of the Channel Islands, and in some ways the most remote. San Miguel, along with Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and Santa Barbara Islands, are now part of Channel Islands National Park.

The easiest way to reach the island today is through Islands Packers out of Ventura,, which offers boat rides to all five of the islands within the national park. The boat ride is roughly 3-4 hours long.

Arriving at Cuyler Harbor just as the fog starts to clear, it’s hard to place exactly where I am. It’s a strange juxtaposition, imagining a traverse of Santarosae while traveling by car and boat in order to reach a remnant of this now submerged super island. Here, with its crystal clear waters and nearly white-looking beach, the pristine beauty of the island combined with the timelessness of nature, makes it easy to forget the modern world, and yet at the same time so much has happened since the last ice age.

With no pier at San Miguel Island, we are ferried ashore in rubber skiffs in groups of six. On the beach we are greeted by Susie, one of the volunteer docents, who provides an orientation for visitors to the island.

Gathering my gear, plus the three and half gallons of water I’m carrying for the duration of my stay, I make my way to the campground, essentially backpacking there. The half-mile trail from the beach climbs up a large dune and then makes its way up the eastern side of Nidever Canyon, passing through a large stand of giant coreopsis before arriving at the campground. From the campground, the trail continues a short ways to the ranger station.

The campground features nine sites, each with a picnic table; a food storage box to keep items safe from foxes, ravens, and mice; and a low wooden wind break, which provides some shelter from the steady wind that blows across the island. No campfires are allowed, only cook stoves. There is an outhouse, but no potable water anywhere on the island and so visitors must bring what they’ll need. There is little shade on the island, which is only partially offset by the frequent fog.

Visitors are allowed to hike the trail from beach to the ranger station, as well as the roughly two-mile long beach at Cuyler Harbor unescorted, but the rest of hikes require a docent or ranger present.

There are three docent led hikes on San Miguel Island. Cardwell Point to the southeast and Harris Point to the north are both about six miles each roundtrip. And the big hike west to Point Bennett, which is about 14 miles roundtrip. All hikes start from the ranger station.

The hike to Point Bennett follows an old Navy road that has become overgrown, appearing now as mostly a single track trail. The trail passes through grassland dotted with lupine, coyote bush, dudleya, and loco weed.

At about the one-mile mark, the trail summits San Miguel Hill, the highest point on the island, rising just 831 feet above sea level. The site once served as a WWII lookout station and now features instruments for gathering weather data. From here, the trail descends down to what’s referred to as Sand Blast Pass, before arriving at the turnoff to the Caliche Forest.

A short side trail leads to the viewing area that looks out across a sandy field dotted with 2-3 foot tall casts of conifer trees that grew on the island during the last ice age. The casts are related to the white sandy beach and dunes at Cuyler Harbor.

While most of the beaches in California are composed of silicates such as quartz and feldspar and have that distinctive tan or light brown color, the beaches on the north shore of San Miguel Island are made from mostly carbonate material. Carbonate sands are formed from the broken up skeletal remains of marine invertebrates deposited offshore on the insular shelves of the islands. Carbonate, white sandy beaches are more common in tropical and subtropical waters.

In fact, the Channel Islands represent the northernmost place in North America where carbonate dunes occur. One contributing factor is there are no large rivers on the islands carrying enough silicate material to dilute the carbonate material being deposited, allowing it to build up over the millennia. During the last ice age, when the sea level was lower, the exposed material was carried inland by the wind where it formed dunes.

As trees on the island decomposed their trunks and root systems became filled with sand creating molds of the trees. When mixed with rain, the carbonate material dissolves, percolating down through the soil, cementing the particles and creating casts over the trunk and root molds that we see today.

Continuing past the Caliche Forest, the trail makes its way towards Green Hill, the second highest point on the island at 817 feet of elevation. The trail crests the side of the hill, before continuing out towards Point Bennett.

At about the 5-mile mark, the trail arrives at an airstrip, located in a dry lake bed, which is used to bring in supplies and personnel for the marine mammal research station. From here, the trail follows the road from the airstrip to the station.

At the research station, we pause, while Susie gathers binoculars and a field scope to more easily view the pinnipeds at Point Bennett, which we can already hear in the distance.

From the research station, we continue another mile as the trail threads its way down to an overlook that offers views out across the beach at Point Bennett. The point is essentially a large rock outcropping connected by a sandy spit. The adjoining and nearby beaches regularly see large numbers of elephant seals, northern fur seals, California sea lions, and harbor seals sunning themselves, as well as cavorting, mating, and in some cases sparring amongst themselves. Stellar’s sea lion and Guadalupe fur seals also occasionally visit the island, making Point Bennett one of the largest and most diverse pinniped rookeries in the world.

From here, Santarosae at its largest extended northwest roughly another 12 miles. During the last ice age, all eight of the Channel Islands were larger and covered more area, but only the four northern islands off our coast were connected together.

In addition to the islands and islets off Southern California that we know today, the lower sea level during the last ice age created additional islands that remain now as shallow seamounts or banks. These submerged islands include Osborn, Tanner, and Cortes Banks that are part of the southern Channel Islands.

In 1999, while looking at newly created topographic maps of the sea floor of the channel, local geologist and UCSB professor Ed Keller observed the features of what may have been an island located halfway between what is now Santa Cruz Island and Santa Barbara. Named Calafia, the island was roughly 1.25 miles long, comparable in size to eastern Anacapa Island today, but at most rose only 30 feet above the sea. The island became submerged roughly 16,000 years ago, but may have served as a stopover for animals such as the Columbian mammoth on their way out to Santarosae.

This article originally appeared in section A of the February 4th, 2019 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Cuyler Harbor Nediver Canyon hiking camping San Miguel Island Channel Islands National Park

Cuyler Harbor is seen from the trail leading up Nediver Canyon

Point Bennett hike San Miguel Island Channel Islands National Park

Point Bennett

California Sea Lions Point Bennett hike San Miguel Island Channel Islands National Park

California sea lions are seen at Point Bennett


Posted by: James Wapotich | February 7, 2019

Backpacking Made Easy

backpacking class santa barbara hike trails los padres national forest maps camping gear nature outdoors route finding


Backpacking class santa barbara hiking trails los padres national forest backcountry adventuring


Through this class, you will learn the basic skills and awareness to set out on our local trails and craft your own backpacking trips. Many of these skills can also be used for day hiking as well.

This class is unique in that all classes take place out on our local trails and not in a classroom, as the best place to learn wilderness skills is outside in nature.

Past participants have said: “James and Sierra make a perfect team. They made the richness of the backcountry accessible to me, even though I started with very little experience. They helped open me to a level of connection with nature I had never experienced.”

“The best part was the combination of practical skills and teaching around nature connection, as the two together inspired the confidence that I can do this.”

In general, the class covers three main areas: wilderness navigation; nature connection; and gear/trip planning.

Our approach to wilderness navigation is also somewhat unique. You will learn route-finding and orienteering skills that are not dependent on having a GPS or compass. While we do use these tools on occasion, knowing how to navigate without them can help build the confidence to hike anywhere.

Nature connection is also a big part of our time out on the land. For many of us, the aliveness of the natural world is what makes it worthwhile to invest the time and energy to head out into the backcountry, not the exercise from carrying gear. Feeling a deeper sense of connection and immersion in the elements is often the real payoff for being outdoors.

We will cover the gear basics and provide insights into how to evolve your own gear set. You don’t necessarily need to buy the latest gear in order to head out into the backcountry; what’s more important is to have the basics covered so you can get out there and get started.

Backpacking Made Easy
Saturdays, March 23 – April 6

Santa Barbara and Ojai are home to a variety of incredible backpacking destinations, and yet, often the biggest obstacle is simply having the knowledge and skills to get started.

Through this immersive workshop, you will learn the basic skills needed to comfortably explore and enjoy our local trails.

Hot springs, waterfalls, epic views, and unspoiled wilderness are just some of the rewards for those who are willing to make the journey.

Each class takes place outside, on one of our local trails, and provides a mix of hands on instruction, immersive exercises, and sharing circles that allows for learning on many levels.

Lay of the Land
March 23rd 9AM-3PM

Learn how to orient yourself to the local landscape, and begin learning the skills and awareness that will help you remove the word lost from your vocabulary. Become familiar with maps and creating your own mental maps and how to navigate without a compass or GPS. Learn about the different gear options and how to choose equipment that suits you.

Nature Connection
March 30th 9AM-3PM

Venturing out onto the land is even more enjoyable when we take time to develop a meaningful connection with it.

Learn to see the natural world around you as an ally, rather than an obstacle to overcome, and shift your hikes from feeling like endurance contests to journeys of discovery. Learn how to feel at home in the woods. Practical skills include trail navigation, menu planning, personal care and basic first aid skills.

April 6th 9AM-3PM

Many of our local trails are overgrown, particularly those off the beaten path. Learn how to read the trails, practice route-finding, and develop your own sense of “body radar” to help you navigate in the wilderness. Practical skills include trip planning, campsite evaluation, water assessment, and camp set up.

Optional Free
Overnight Backpacking Trip
April 13-14

For those who are interested, we will help organize a free, optional backpacking trip. Here’s a chance to put all these great skills to use, and build on the material covered so far.

Length of the hike and destination for the overnight trip to be determined according to current conditions and the capabilities and interests of the participants.


James Wapotich is a Volunteer Wilderness Ranger with the Forest Service and the author of the Santa Barbara News-Press hiking column, Trail Quest. James leads guided hikes and has hiked many of the trails in our local backcountry.

Sierra Boatwright is a UC Certified California Naturalist, council facilitator, and nature connection guide. An alumna of Pacific Crest Outward Bound School, Sierra has backpacked in the Appalachians, Sierras, and our local backcountry.

Workshop is $225 per person, or bring a friend and both 20% off.
Limit 12 students. Must be able to comfortably hike 3-4 miles.

To sign up or for more information please contact:

James (805) 729-4250
Sierra (805) 708-4058

Posted by: James Wapotich | January 26, 2019

Hiking & Backpacking on the Channel Islands

Hiking & Backpacking Channel Islands National Park Anacapa Santa Cruz Santa Rosa San Miguel


Hiking & Backpacking on the Channel Islands

Free Slideshow Presentation with Q&A

Thursday, February 21st, 6:30PM
Faulkner Gallery – Santa Barbara Public Library
40 East Anapamu St., Santa Barbara, CA

During the last ice age, the four islands off our coast, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel, were all part of a single, larger island called Santarosae. This talk will highlight the hiking and backpacking opportunities on these four islands today, as well as describe an imagined traverse of the now submerged super island of Santarosae.

Join local author James Wapotich as he shares images and stories from hiking, backpacking, and camping on the four islands off our coast. James has hiked many of the trails on the islands and has visited all five islands within Channel Islands National Park. He is an experienced backpacker, trail guide, and author of the Santa Barbara News-Press hiking column, Trail Quest.

For more information call (805) 729-4250 or email

This talk is part of the ongoing Wilderness Hiking Speaker Series hosted by the Santa Barbara Public Library. The talks are the third Thursday of the month and feature topics related to hiking, backpacking, and our local natural history.

The next talk in the series is Thursday, March 21st, Ultralight Backpacking and Gear with Lite Hikers Rik Christensen and Paul Cronshaw.

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