Posted by: James Wapotich | October 26, 2013

Trail Quest: Santa Barbara Island

With the government shutdown thankfully behind us, both Los Padres National Forest and Channel Island National Park are once again open and welcoming visitors. And what better way to celebrate than by hitting the trails, particularly now that the weather is starting to turn towards autumn.

If you’ve never been to the Channel Islands, now is one of the nicer times to go. Sometimes referred to as the Galapagos Islands of the north, these eight islands off the coast of Southern California are a unique world unto themselves.

Channel Islands National Park encompasses San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Anacapa, Santa Barbara, and the eastern part of Santa Cruz Islands, and offers a sense of what California looked like a hundred years ago. San Nicholas and San Clemente Islands are owned by the US Navy, and Santa Catalina Island is a mix of urban development and open area for camping and hiking.

Santa Barbara Island day hike camping Channel Island National Park

A view toward North Peak is seen from the trail

Surprisingly, Channel Islands National Park is one of the least visited national parks in the country. And of the five islands in the park, Santa Barbara Island is the furthest south, and along with San Miguel Island sees the fewest visitors.

The easiest way to get to the island is with Island Packers out of Ventura, http://www.islandpackers.com, which offers transportation to all five of the islands within the National Park. Island Packers typically offers just four trips a year to Santa Barbara Island, which can often fill up early, so its best to schedule your trip in advance.

The boat ride to the island is about three hours and can often include dolphins sightings and other marine life along the way.

Santa Barbara Island trail hike camp Channel Island National Park map

Map courtesy Maps.com

Santa Barbara Island is located about 41 miles south of Anacapa Island, and is also roughly midway between San Nicholas and Santa Catalina Islands. The island was used as a stopover by both the Chumash and the Tongva when traveling between the islands. The island was called Siwot by the Chumash and ‘Tchunash by the Tongva.

Sometimes referred to as Gabrieleno Indians, the Tongva were the Chumash’s neighbors to the south. The Tongva lived throughout most of what is now Los Angeles and parts of Orange Counties, in an area from Topanga Canyon to Newport Beach, and as far inland as the San Fernando Valley and San Bernardino. It is from the Tongva that we have such place names as Topanga, Azusa, and Cucamonga.

The Tongva also lived on Santa Catalina, San Nicholas and San Clemente Islands, and like the Chumash, built and used wood plank canoes to travel between the islands and the mainland, and along the coast. And like the Chumash the Tongva were hunter-gatherers, who were brought into the Mission system with the arrival of the Spanish, and saw their population decimated by western diseases.

Santa Barbara Island day hike camping Channel Islands National Park Webster Point

Pinnipeds congregate on the beach at Webster Point

Similar to the other Channel Islands, Santa Barbara Island was formed underwater by volcanic activity and then uplifted about 5 millions years ago. The island is roughly one square mile and is the smallest of the Channel Islands. With the changes in sea level during the different ice ages the island was at various times submerged or even 5-10 times larger than it is today.

The island itself is defined by a rugged coastline of steep cliffs, and in the interior, two large hills; Signal Peak, 634 feet high, and North Peak, 562 feet high. The different trails on the island make a circuit, as well as meet and cross at the saddle between the two hills. There are about six miles of trails in total, and several loop hikes can be crafted ranging from 2-5 miles.

At first glance, Santa Barbara Island can look somewhat barren as it’s still recovering from the ravages of ranching, most notably the damage done by sheep grazing, introduced rabbits, and feral cats. All of the non-native mammals have been removed, and native plant restoration is underway.

There are no trees on the island, but wild coreopsis or giant sunflower grows abundantly on the eastern side of the island. The island also supports a surprising amount of wildlife. Binoculars are recommended, both for birding, which can include barn and burrowing owls, and kestrels, and for viewing sea lions and elephant seals along the coast.

In the spring the island is greener, however a number of trails can be closed to protect nesting seabirds, most notably western gulls and California brown pelicans. In the fall most, if not all, of the trails are open.

In addition to hiking the island also offers opportunities for diving and snorkeling, as well as kayaking. However you will need to provide your own gear and expertise.

From the harbor landing, a short trail climbs up to the Visitor Center, Ranger Station, and nearby restrooms. The route leads past where the Hyder ranch house was once located. The Hyders were the only people to have lived on the island for an extended period of time from 1914-1929.

The campground and picnic tables are located past the Visitor Center. There is no water available on the island or other amenities, and so you will have to pack in everything you need. For camping, one gallon of water per person per day is a good amount to consider bringing.

For the hike, one approach is start from the Visitor Center and make a circuit around the island. Moving counter-clockwise the trail leads north towards Arch Point, the arch itself is visible from campground area. From the point, the trail continues west and offers views of Shag Rock and Elephant Seal Cove. The trail then climbs to the top of North Peak.

At North Peak the trail branches, with the trail to the left continuing down towards the saddle between North Peak and Signal Peak, and the trail to the right descending down towards Webster Point. The two trails meet back up at the saddle.

Along the trail to Webster Point, a short side trail provides views looking back out across Elephant Seal Cove, while the main route continues to an overlook south of Webster Point. Here one can view elephant seals and sea lions sunning themselves and generally carrying on.

In watching the sea lions it’s amazing to see what capable climbers they are. At Webster Point, sea lions often climb from the waterline up onto the point, gaining as much as a hundred feet in elevation. Unlike those of elephant seals, the hind flippers of sea lions are articulated and allow the sea lions to scrambled up and over rocks, whereas elephant seals need sandy beaches in order to haul out from the water. Sea lions can also easily be observed at landing harbor where they provide endless hours of entertainment with their energetic activity.

From Webster Point, the trail makes its way up towards the saddle between North Peak and Signal Peak. From the intersection at the saddle a trail leads back to North Peak, another leads east towards the Visitor Center for a shorter loop hike, and a third trail leads south to the top of Signal Peak. For the full circuit around the island, continue to the top of the Signal Peak.

From Signal Peak, the scenery includes views north to Webster Point, and west to Sutil Island, a small 12-acre island just off the coast of Santa Barbara Island. From here the trail descends down the south side of Signal Peak and begins the return loop back to the Visitor Center.

Docent led hikes are offered by trained volunteers from Channel Islands Naturalist Corps.

In 1938 Santa Barbara and Anacapa Islands were designated as a National Monument, and in 1980, along with San Miguel, Santa Cruz, and later Santa Rosa Islands became a National Park. For more information about Channel Islands National Park go to http://www.nps.gov/chis.

This article originally appeared in section A of the October 26th, 2013 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press


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