Posted by: James Wapotich | August 20, 2012

Trail Quest: Cherry Canyon

Santa Rosa Island is the second largest of the Channel Islands, roughly 83 square miles. However because only a quarter of Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the Channel Islands, is open to the public, Santa Rosa actually provides the most amount of open space that one can visit on a single island off the coast of California. This gives Santa Rosa the distinction of having some of the most remote places within Channel Islands National Park and also creates some great opportunities for sight seeing and hiking.

One of the ways to get to Santa Rosa is by boat through Island Packers, which offers transportation to the island April through October from Ventura Harbor. The boat ride is about 2.5 to 3 hours long and generally stops at Santa Cruz Island on the way to drop off passengers there. The boat will often follow the south shore of Santa Cruz Island on the way out and the north shore on the way back from Santa Rosa allowing one to in essence circumnavigate Santa Cruz Island and see some of the more remote stretches of that island. The trip along the north shore often includes a visit to Painted Cave.

Painted Cave is one of the largest and deepest sea caves in the world and follows a fault line that defines part of the landscape of Santa Cruz Island. And depending on conditions the boat will literally drive into the cave offering some great views.

Another way to reach Santa Rosa Island is by air, Channel Islands Aviation, offers transportation from Camarillo to Santa Rosa Island. The plane ride is approximately 25 minutes and passes over Anacapa and Santa Cruz offering a chance to see those islands from a unique perspective. Planes run year round.

One can visit Santa Rosa for the day or spend several days camping on the island. The island can often be windy and roughly 85 percent of the island is dominated by wild grasses or brush and so shade is limited, so plan accordingly and bring plenty of water. There is potable water available at Water Canyon Campground, about a 1.5 miles from the pier.

Visiting Santa Rosa for the day a person has roughly 3 hours to explore the island. One of the hikes a person can potentially make during that time frame is along Cherry Canyon Trail. This loop hike follows the coast part of the way before turning inland and winding through Cherry Canyon and returning back to the pier, about 4 miles altogether.

From the pier follow the main road south, past the old ranch buildings, toward the campground. The ranch buildings are currently closed to the public but there are plans to create an interpretive center highlighting the history of the island. Just past the last of the ranch buildings the road arrives at the intersection with Soledad Road which leads toward the interior of the island and is also the return route for the Cherry Canyon loop. From here continue south along the Coastal Road. The road passes the air strip and at about the 1.25-mile mark arrives at the turnoff for Water Canyon Campground.

This is essentially a 5-way intersection. From here the Coastal Road continues south towards the Torrey Pines, Skunk Point and ultimately East Point. The road to the left leads down to Water Canyon Beach and the road to the right leads to Water Canyon Campground. At this intersection there are also two picnic tables and a large interpretive sign that includes brochures and maps of the island. Cherry Canyon Trail starts just behind the sign.

Water Canyon generally has water in it year round and is also worth a brief visit. The campground is another quarter mile from this turnoff and in addition to campsites has day use picnic tables as well as restrooms and even a solar shower.

Another alternative if just visiting for the day is Water Canyon Beach. This wide sandy beach stretches for roughly a mile in either direction and is a rare opportunity to enjoy a beach in southern california with only a handful of other people on it while savoring views of western Santa Cruz Island across the channel between the two islands.

For the Cherry Canyon hike, follow the trail from the interpretative sign as it climbs the ridge overlooking Water Canyon offering views of not only the campground and the canyon, but out along the coast towards Skunk Point, the Torrey Pines and Water Canyon Beach, as well as across Beecher’s Bay and out towards western Santa Cruz Island.

At about the 2-mile mark the trail crosses the jeep trail that leads to Black Mountain, which is a much longer hike best tackled while camping on the island. About a quarter mile past this intersection Cherry Canyon Trail arrives at a couple of picnic tables and then turns and drops down into Cherry Canyon. Here the views shift from open grassy hills overlooking the ocean to an interior view dotted with oak, toyon and the occasional holly leaf cherry.

The trail is well maintained and offers a chance to see a wider variety of the native flora as many of the trees prefer the canyons and less of the plants here were impacted by grazing. As the trail descends through the canyon it then joins the main branch of Cherry Canyon, here the scene of a small grassy meadow surrounded by oaks is almost indistinguishable from a similar scene one might find in our local backcountry. As the trail continues downstream the canyon widens offering more incredible scenery.

At about the 3.5-mile mark Cherry Canyon trail joins Soledad Road and from here it’s another half mile back down to the pier. For a shorter hike to Cherry Canyon one can start along Soledad Road, visit the canyon and then double back, about 2.5 miles roundtrip from the pier.

Santa Rosa along with the rest of the Channel Islands off our coast were first settled by the Chumash. The earliest archeological evidence of human settlement for the islands, found on Santa Rosa, dates back 13,000 years.

In 1542, Juan Cabrillo was the first westerner to visit the islands and claimed them in the name of Spain. Western contact brought disease and marked the decline of the Chumash. By the 1820s all of the Chumash had been removed from the islands.

Following the end of Mexican War of Independence in 1821, unoccupied Santa Rosa became a land grant given to the Carrillo Brothers, who passed it to their heirs who developed the first ranching operations on the island.

Portions of the land where then later sold to the More family in 1859, who’s heirs in turn sold portions of their land to Walter L. Vail and J. V. Vickers in 1901. By 1930 the Vail & Vickers Company had bought out all of the remaining land holders and owned the entire island of Santa Rosa using it for both cattle ranching and as a private hunting reserve, importing elk and deer for trophy hunters.

In 1980 the Channel Island National Park and Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary were established and in 1986 Santa Rosa Island was purchased from Vail & Vickers by the National Park Service. Vail & Vickers was allowed to continue cattle ranching and hunting under a series of renewable 5-year special use permits until 2011.

1996 the cattle were removed and just this past year the elk and deer were eliminated, marking in some ways the end of an era of land use on Santa Rosa Island.

This article originally appeared in section A of the August 20th, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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