Posted by: James Wapotich | August 27, 2012

Trail Quest: East Point

Santa Rosa Island is one of five islands that are part of Channel Island National Park. The park was established in 1980 and encompasses roughly 122 square miles of land and a comparable amount of the ocean surrounding the islands. Many of the plants and animals on the islands are found nowhere else in the world.

During the last ice age when the ocean was several hundred feet lower, the four islands just off our coast were part of a larger, single super island referred to as Santarosae. This island was comprised of San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz and Anacapa and the adjoining land between and around those islands and encompassed more than 400 square miles of land. At its closest Santarosae was roughly 6 miles from the mainland and was home to a variety of plants and animals. Remnants of this super island can still be seen today on the islands.

For example Santa Rosa Island is one of only two places left on earth where one can visit the rare Torrey Pines, which were once widespread during the last ice age.

And while one can visit Santa Rosa as part of a day trip, the way to see more of the island, including the pines, is by camping there and exploring the island over several days. The campground on Santa Rosa is about 1.5 miles from the pier and so it does require that one carry their gear that distance, but the campground itself has potable water, modern restrooms and even a solar shower, and so it is far from roughing it.

There are several ways to reach Santa Rosa Island. Island Packers out of Ventura offers regular boat trips out to all of the island within Channel Island National Park, and Channel Islands Aviation, out of Camarillo, offers year round flights to Santa Rosa, landing within a quarter mile of the campground.

The hike from the boat pier to the campground is mostly level and passes through the old Vail & Vickers’ ranching operation and continues south along the Coastal Road, past the air strip, and arrives at a 4-way intersection. Here the Coastal Road continues south towards the Torrey Pines, the road to the left heads down to Water Canyon Beach and the road to the right to Water Canyon Campground.

One of the noticeable features through this section of the island is the flat marine terrace that the Coastal Road travels along. This marine terrace follows the contour of Bechers Bay and the low ridge that frames this section of the coast.

Because Santa Rosa is outside the protective lee of Point Conception the island can be windier than Santa Cruz or Anacapa, and so each campground in additional to a picnic table and food locker has a large wind shelter consisting of two walls and a roof. A low profile tent is recommended.

Another benefit of camping on the island is that there is less light pollution at night and so one can see more stars and it can be a great place to watch meteor showers, weather permitting.

From the campground one of the nicer hikes one can make is out towards East Point. The trail leads through the rare Torrey Pines and during certain times of the year one can also venture to the dunes along Skunk Point. The hike to the pines from the campground is about 4.5 miles round trip and the hike to East Point is about 12.5 miles round trip.

For this hike, from the campground hike back to the Coastal Road and turn right and continue south, the road drops down into Water Canyon and crosses the creek. Here there is also beach access to Water Canyon Beach. The road then returns to the marine terrace and continues south, and soon arrives at the turnoff for Wreck Road which heads inland and over towards Ford Point and other more remote parts of island.

Continue along the Coastal Road past the turnoff for Black Rock and at the 1.5-mile mark the road arrives at the beginning of the Torrey Pines loop. The road continues south towards East Point while the Torrey Pines loop climbs up to the ridge and then back down rejoining the Coastal Road allowing one to wander directly through the pines.

Torrey Pine Trail is well marked and at the ridge connects with a road that follows the ridge back to Wreck Road which can also serve as an alternate loop route.

Torrey Pines, which were once widespread during the last ice age, are now found in only two places in the world. Here on Santa Rosa Island and at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve near La Jolla, California. The trees at the two locations representing two distinct subspecies. Some of the Torrey Pines on Santa Rosa are said to be over 300 years old.

Also found on Santa Rosa, as well as neighboring Santa Cruz Island, is Fernleaf Ironwood, which is another rare tree found only on the Channel Islands. Fernleaf Ironwood at one time grew throughout much of western North America, when the area was relatively wetter and cooler, but became extinct on the mainland around 6 million years ago. Fernleaf Ironwood is now found in only north facing canyons on these few islands.

Other remnants of the last ice age are the remains of pygmy mammoths that were found on the island. These were descendants of mainland Columbian mammoths who were likely drawn by the smell of ripening vegetation when competition on the mainland and a distance to the island of 6 miles made the swim worthwhile. Modern elephants have been known to swim even longer distances in search of food.

Once on the island, those mammoths that were able to adapt to the limited habitat and manage with less food and water had the advantage, leading to natural selection favoring smaller mammoths. The mammoths both on the mainland on the island eventually became extinct. A pygmy mammoth skeleton from the islands is on display at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and another at the Channel Island Visitors Center in Ventura.

The mammoths are survived on Santa Rosa, by the Santa Rosa Island fox, spotted skunk and deer mouse, which are the other remaining land mammals found on the island.

At the 2.5-mile mark Torrey Pines Trail rejoins the Coastal Road, and then a short ways later intersects with the road that leads along the ridge above the pines. The Coastal Road then passes the trail on the left that leads out towards Skunk Point. The point however is closed to visitors from March 1st to September 15th to protect the nesting snowy plover.

The Coastal Road then crests a small rise and drops down into Old Ranch Canyon. The canyon is a broad flat water course, dotted with coyote brush and the creek like many of those that carry some water on the island is filled with cattails. The road follows the canyon south towards the ocean.

Old Ranch Canyon like a number of locations on the island was once the site of a Chumash village. The canyon is also unique in that Old Ranch Canyon forms a small coastal marsh where it meets the ocean.

As the road passes this estuary, it turns westward and crosses over to Old Ranch House Canyon, and then arrives at a small, quiet beach that one can enjoy and likely have to themselves.

Past this beach the road ends about a quarter mile before reaching East Point making for a good return point for the 12.5 mile hike.

Regardless of how far you hike you will get to see a unique part of Southern California that sees relatively few visitors.

This article originally appeared in section A of the August 27th, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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