Posted by: James Wapotich | September 15, 2012

Trail Quest: Cardwell Point

San Miguel Island is the westernmost of all the Channel Islands and of the four islands off our coast is considered the most remote. Often referred to as the backcountry of the islands because of the challenge of getting there, San Miguel is the windiest of the islands and the seas can be particularly rough at times. And because there is no pier at San Miguel sea landings are still done by skiff.

And yet it is this same remoteness that makes San Miguel a unique destination to visit.

The earliest inhabitants of the island were the Chumash people who called the island Tuqan. The Chumash on San Miguel lived there for roughly 11,500 years, harvesting shellfish, fishing offshore and trading goods with the neighboring islands and mainland.

The easiest way to get to San Miguel Island is with Island Packers out of Ventura, which services all five of the islands within Channel Islands National Park. The boat ride is roughly 3.5 to 4 hours long.

From the landing at Cuyler Harbor it is a half mile hike uphill to the campground. There is no water or other amenities available on the island so visitors must bring everything they need with them. A typical stay is four days. There are nine campsites available each with a two-sided wind shelter, picnic table and food locker, to protect one’s food from the island foxes, ravens and mice.

Because San Miguel Island does not enjoy the protective lee of Point Conception it is generally windy and often foggy, and so it’s best to bring a low profile tent, warm clothes and an extra layer for hiking. There is also no shade on the island so you’ll want to bring sunscreen and a hat that will stay put in the wind.

With the exception of the beach at Cuyler Harbor and the trail up to the campground all of the hikes on San Miguel are led by the park ranger or docent. The are three ranger led hikes that are offered.

The island has been described as triangular shaped and so in essence each of the three hikes leads to one of the island’s corners, Harris Point to the north, Cardwell Point to the southeast and Point Bennett to the west. The hike to Point Bennett is usually offered on the second day, while the other two are offered on the third day.

The hike to Cardwell Point, is about 6 miles round trip, and traverses the southeast portion of the island. The hike leads past the ruins of Lester Ranch and across the broad flat plain of the island before arriving at a bluff overlooking the ocean where hikers can view elephants seals on the beach below.

This hike leaves from the campground and climbs a small rise before arriving at the ruins of the ranch.

With the arrival of the Spanish, came western diseases and missionization which tragically reduced the number of Chumash living on the island, and by the 1820s the last of the Chumash had been forced to the mainland.

Unlike Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz, San Miguel did not become a Mexican land grant after the Mexican War of Independence. And so consequentially following the Mexican-American war when California became part of the United States in 1848 the island became the property of the United States government.

Over the years there were a number of ranching leases on the island, perhaps the most notable was the one managed by Herbert Lester. Robert Brooks, who was the last person to hold a lease from the US government for sheep grazing on San Miguel, invited his friend Mr. Lester to visit the island in 1929 and asked if he’d like to manage the operation.

Mr. Lester accepted, and in 1930 moved to San Miguel with his wife Elizabeth. The two of them lived in the ranch house that had been built in 1906 by Captain William Waters who was one of the former lease holders. The Lesters dubbed it “Rancho Rambouillet” after the breed of sheep being raised there.

The V-shaped ranch house and stockade pointed northwest into the prevailing winds, and was built from wood that had been gathered from two ship wrecks on the island. San Miguel is often referred to as the “graveyard of the pacific” because of the number ships it has claimed.

The Lesters had two daughters while living on the island, Marianne and Besty. Mrs. Lester home schooled the children utilizing the over 500 books she’d brought with her.

The mainstay of the island was raising sheep for wool and the busiest time of the year was the annual sheep shearing. Sheep which generally roamed the island were rounded up and brought to the corrals and shearing sheds near where the campground is now located.

Laborers from the mainland would come out, stopping at each of the islands including San Miguel, staying for there two weeks until work was completed. The workers, as with other visitors to the island, were treated to Mrs. Lester’s cooking and the Lesters’ hospitality as well as drinks at the Killer Whale Bar, which Mr. Lester had built in one of the outbuildings of the ranch house and decorated with memorabilia that he’d collected from the various shipwrecks on San Miguel.

The Lesters’ time on the island came to a close following the bombing of Pearl Harbor when the Navy stationed lookouts on the island, which marked the beginning of the Navy’s use of San Miguel. It was at this same time that Mr. Lester injured himself while chopping wood, and between the medication which he feared was causing him to go blind and the effects of injuries sustained during his service in the First World War, Mr. Lester took his own life in 1942. Following his death, his family returned to the mainland.

Mr. Brooks continued sheep ranching on San Miguel until 1948 when the Navy ended the lease and formally took possession of the island. In 1967 the ranch house was destroyed in a fire. Noticeable in the ruins is the brick and native stone fireplace, the foundations of the cistern, and the metal sinks that Mr. Lester had salvaged from the wreck of the Cuba near Point Bennett.

From here the trail continues south, passing the ranger station, which is modeled after the original ranch house. The trail continues briefly along the runway used by the National Parks Service to fly in personal and supplies, before then cutting across the broad open plain that dominates the southeastern part of the island.

The trail leads through a mix of coyote bush, island paint brush, Green’s dudlea, island loco weed and wild grasses.

At about the 1.5-mile mark the trails crosses through one of the small tributaries of Willow Canyon, which has actual willows growing in it further downstream. The trail then crosses a second small canyon filled with cattails, evidence that some water flows in it.

At about the 2.75-mile mark trail arrives at a point overlooking the ocean. On a clear day from here one can see neighboring Santa Rosa Island. The trail descends down towards the coast and ends at a bluff overlooking a sandy beach used by elephant seals.

Here visitors are instructed by the ranger to stay low so as not to alarm or disturb the seals resting on the beach. The bluff fortunately is also downwind and so the seals barely notice the presence of visitors, which allows for the rare opportunity to view the seals in their natural environment.

Regardless how far you go you’ll get to see one of the more remote corners of Southern California.

This article originally appeared in section A of the September 15th, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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