Posted by: James Wapotich | September 14, 2013

Trail Quest: Backcountry beach camping on Santa Rosa Island

While all five of the islands within Channel Islands National Park offer opportunities for camping and hiking, Santa Rosa Island is unique in that it offers backcountry beach camping.

Backcountry beach camping provides a way to experience the remoteness of the Channel Islands and see parts of Santa Rosa Island that can’t be reached by day hiking. Beach camping can also be a lot of fun.

Backcountry beach camping, however, is not for everyone. There are no established campsites, water sources are limited, and the hiking can be strenuous. For these reasons it is only recommended for experienced backpackers. Backcountry beach camping is also open to experienced kayakers.

Santa Rosa Island Ford Point Backcountry Beach Camping Channel Island National Park

Ford Point Beach

Along the south shore of Santa Rosa there are several beaches that have potential for beach camping including San Augustin Canyon, Ford Point and La Jolla Vieja Canyon, with Ford Point being the largest of the three. Beach camping is only allowed in the sandy areas, above the tide line, that are free of dune vegetation. Available water sources on the south shore can include San Augustin, Wreck and La Jolla Vieja Canyons, with Wreck Canyon being the most reliable.

Because conditions regularly change on the islands it is best to check with the ranger about current conditions regarding both water availability and suitable camping areas, either before your trip or during the ranger-led orientation on arrival.

Backcountry beach camping along the south shore of the island is allowed mid-August through December and requires a permit, which can be obtained through Channel Islands National Park.

Johnson's Lee Officers Beach Santa Rosa Island Backcountry beach camping Channel Island National Park

Officers Beach is seen in a view towards Johnson’s Lee

Information and regulations pertaining to backcountry beach camping on Santa Rosa can be found on the park’s website at http://www.nps.gov/chis/planyourvisit/backcountry-beach-camping-on-santa-rosa-island.htm. Another useful resource is National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated Map of Channel Islands National Park.

There are several ways to reach Santa Rosa Island, including Island Packers, http://www.islandpackers.com, which offers regularly scheduled boat trips to the island, and Channel Islands Aviation, http://www.flycia.com, which offers air service to the island.

Because Island Packers’ schedule lends itself well to a four-day weekend on the island, one approach to backcountry beach camping on Santa Rosa is to plan a three-day backpacking trip, and spend the last night in the campground. This allows one to take it easy on the last day while waiting for the boat, which typically arrives in the afternoon.

Water Canyon Campground includes modern amenities such as flush toilets and a solar shower. Depending on one’s pace, hiking out on the last day to meet the boat can also be accomplished.

With a good pace one can make it to Ford Point on the first day. And then one option for the second day is to day hike to Johnson’s Lee and take in the sites, and then hike back out to Water Canyon Campground on the third day. Or just enjoy more time at the beach. The hike to Ford Point is about 9 miles one way, and the hike from Ford Point to Johnson’s Lee is about 8 miles roundtrip.

To reach the south shore, from the pier, continue south along Coastal Road towards Water Canyon Campground. At about the 1-mile mark the road arrives at the turnoff for the campground. At Water Canyon Campground, which is less than a quarter mile from from the turnoff, one can fill up on water. The next available water is at Clapp Spring, roughly another 4 miles.

From the turnoff to Water Canyon Campground, continue south along Coastal Road. The road crosses Water Canyon Creek and arrives at Wreck Road. Stay to the right and follow Wreck Road as it climbs away from the coast and cuts across the interior of the island to the south shore. The hike is steep at times and can be strenuous when it’s hot out.

There is very little tree cover on Santa Rosa Island. Roughly 85 percent of the island is covered with non-native grasses, a remnant from more than 150 years of ranching that once took place on the island.

At the about the 5-mile mark from the pier, Wreck Road arrives at the turnoff for Clapp Spring. From here it’s less than a quarter, downhill, to the spring along an old ranch road that leads eventually towards East Point. The way to the spring is marked and water, which is piped from the actual spring, is available from a spigot next to an old cattle trough.

Because one can also reach Ford Point via San Augustine Canyon, one approach is to continue past Clapp Spring, along the ranch road, and take the route through San Augustine Canyon on the way there, and return along Wreck Road on the way back. This has the advantage of letting you see more of the island. The mouth of San Augustine Canyon is about three-quarters of mile east of Ford Point.

From Clapp Spring it’s roughly 1.25 miles to the beginning of the trail through San Augustin Canyon and from there another 1.25 miles down to the beach. The trail is not shown on National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated map of the Channel Islands, but the turnoff from the road is marked with a sign, and the route itself is fairly easy to follow.

From the road the trail through San Augustine Canyon descends along the ridge line that defines the eastern side of the canyon’s drainage. The trail is grassy most of the way, at times appearing little more than an animal path. About halfway down the trail passes the wreck of a small airplane.

The trail then descends rapidly down to the edge of a small bluff overlooking a side canyon that joins San Augustine Canyon. From this overlook double back up along the edge of San Augustine Canyon a short way to find the short, but somewhat steep route down to the creek. From there it’s a short hike to beach. The beach itself is mostly cobblestone, but there is a small open area large enough for a couple of tents between the mouth of San Augustine Canyon and the small rocky point that defines the beach.

From here one can hike up to the bluff that overlooks the ocean and continue west to the next beach over, which is Ford Point Beach.

Ford Point Beach is a long white sandy beach that is broken in two by a large rocky outcropping. Camping can be typically found along both stretches of the beach. From the first section of beach one can find a route that leads back up to the bluffs and lets one access the second stretch of beach.

Past the second beach there is again a route that leads up to the bluffs and connects with the ranch road that then leads three-quarters of a mile up to Wreck Road.

If one is heading directly to Ford Point, instead of via San Augustine Canyon, at the turnoff to Clapp Spring, continue along Wreck Road. The road climbs just a short way past the intersection before beginning its long descent toward the south shore. At about the 8-mile mark from the pier, Wreck Road arrives at the turnoff for Ford Point.

From the turnoff to Ford Point it’s roughly another half mile west along Wreck Road to where the road crosses Wreck Canyon Creek and one can usually find water.

To visit Johnson’s Lee, continue west along Wreck Road, past Wreck Canyon Creek. About a mile and quarter later the road arrives at the mouth of La Jolla Vieja Canyon, which can also offer beach camping.

From La Jolla Vieja Canyon, Wreck Road continues along the south shore of Santa Rosa Island towards Johnson’ Lee, passing what’s referred to as Officer’s Beach. The beach takes its name from when the Air Force had a station at Johnson’s Lee. Only one building remains from the installation.

While backcountry beach camping is not for everyone, the rewards can include quiet, unspoiled beaches and the feeling of traveling back in time to another era.

This article originally appeared in section A of the September 14th, 2013 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.


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