Posted by: James Wapotich | September 8, 2012

Trail Quest: San Miguel Island

Of the four Channel Islands found off our coast, San Miguel is the most remote and is often referred to as the backcountry of the Channel Islands. And yet it is this same isolation that makes San Miguel a refuge for marine wildlife and one of the more pristine islands that one can visit in California.

The first westerners to see San Miguel were members of the expedition lead by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who was commissioned by Spain to explore the Pacific Coast from the Baja Peninsula north.

In June of 1542 the expedition sailed north from Mexico, stopping at various places along the way including San Clemente and Santa Catalina Islands. In October of that year he is said to have explored our local coast, visiting a number of Chumash villages between Point Mugu and Point Conception. As well two or more of the Channel Islands offshore, collectively naming them Las Islas de San Lucas, with the last being San Miguel which he called Isla de la Posesion.

From San Miguel, Cabrillo continued north past Point Conception but was eventually turned back by stormy seas and decided to winter at San Miguel. In January of 1543 Cabrillo died of complications from an injury and is said to be buried on San Miguel Island. A monument honoring Cabrillo now stands on a bluff, surrounded by coreopsis, over looking Cuyler Harbor.

There are several ways to get to San Miguel Island, probably the easiest is through Island Packers out of Ventura, which offers regularly scheduled boat trips to all five of the Islands within Channel Islands National Park. Island Packers provides service to San Miguel from May through October.

The boat ride to San Miguel is 3.5 to 4 hours long and typically traces the southern side of Santa Cruz Island before dropping passengers off at Santa Rosa Island and then continuing on to San Miguel. In fact leaving Santa Rosa you can begin to taste the isolation of San Miguel as the majority of the passengers tend get off at the more accessible Santa Rosa.

The boat continues along the northern shore of Santa Rosa Island before arriving at Cuyler Harbor; and if the seas are rough this last section particularly across San Miguel Passage can be the most challenging. San Miguel Island is almost due south of Point Conception and as such does not enjoy the protective lee of the mainland that’s afforded Santa Cruz and Anacapa. The island is usually windy and often shrouded in fog which only seems to add to its mystique.

Trips to San Miguel are occasionally canceled due to weather and conditions, and so it’s best to call the Island Packers’ message line the morning of your departure for the latest boat information.

Cuyler Harbor is definitely a sight worth seeing. As the boat rounds Prince Island and enters the harbor one is struck by its graceful crescent shape; and when the water is calm, the aquamarine of the ocean against the light colored sand adds to the feeling of being somewhere exotic.

Unlike Santa Cruz or Santa Rosa, there is no pier at San Miguel and so passengers and their gear are shuttled ashore by skiff. This too harkens back to another era and helps to reinforce the backcountry feel of the island. Also unlike Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa there is no water available on the island for visitors, and so planning for the trip includes bringing all of the water you’ll need as well as packing your gear to ensure that items you want to remain dry don’t get wet during the landing.

And while Island Packers does offer a couple of day trips to San Miguel each year, because of the lengthy boat ride the best way to see the island is by camping. Visits are typically 4 days.

The beach at Cuyler Harbor stretches for almost a mile in each direction from the landing. Once ashore it’s a half mile uphill through Nidever Canyon to the campground. The canyon generally has a small trickle of water in it, and leads through a grove of coreopsis near the top, making the hike a nice introduction to the island.

Each of the nine campgrounds has a wind shelter, picnic table, and food locker to protect one’s food from the island fox, mice and ravens. From the campground one can also see Santa Rosa Island to the east.

There are three main trails on the island in addition to the one from harbor. San Miguel has been described as being triangular in shape and so in essence each of these three trails leads to one of the corners: Point Bennett, Cardwell Point and Harris Point.

With the exception of the harbor and the trail to the campground, visitors must be accompanied by the ranger or a volunteer associated with the National Parks Service under a stipulation from the Navy, which still owns the island even though the National Parks Service administers it. Ranger led hikes typically start at 9:00AM and leave from the campground.

The hike that follow Harris Point Trail leads towards the northernmost point on the island and is usually offered on the third day. This hike leads past where Nidever Abode was located and out to Lester Point, and offers great views of Cuyler Harbor. The hike is roughly 6 miles round trip.

From the campground the hike towards Harris Point heads back down through the coreopsis grove, past the Cabrillo Monument and follows a side canyon connected to Nidever Canyon. Here the trail passes the remains of the old windmill that was once used to help pump water for the ranching operations on the island.

Harris Point Trail then passes near the site where Nidever Adobe was located. The adobe dates back to 1850 and most of what’s left is buried under erosion from the canyon above it, however the beams that supported the floorboards are visible. Archeologists have determined that the bricks used in the construction of the adobe are the same dimensions as those used in building the Santa Barbara Mission and other local structures suggesting that George Nidever used Chumash laborers to build his adobe.

Mr. Nidever was one of the first sheep ranchers on San Miguel and set in motion the practice of over grazing the island, from which it is still recovering. However, Mr. Nidever is probably best known for rescuing the lost woman of San Nicolas Island, who’s story was the basis for the classic children’s book Island of the Blue Dolphins.

At about the three-quarter mile mark the trail climbs out of the canyons and follows a bluff overlooking Cuyler Harbor where one is treated to panoramic views of the harbor and Prince Island. From here the trail continues inland through a series of low hills dominated by bush lupine.

All the trails on the island follow old roads built by the Navy, however because of the regrowth over the years they now appear as single-track paths. It’s also through this last section that the trail passes several Chumash middens.

At the 3 mile mark the trail ends at Lester Point, which is said to be the windiest place on the island. From here one is rewarded with some great views toward Harris Point.

Regardless how far you hike you’ll have an opportunity to experience the remoteness of San Miguel Island.

This article originally appeared in section A of the September 8th, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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