Posted by: James Wapotich | November 24, 2014

Trail Quest: Lobo Canyon

Santa Rosa Island is the second largest of the four islands off our local coast. The island covers 83 square miles and is home to a number of rare and unique plants and animals found only on the Channel Islands.

Of the different hikes available on Santa Rosa Island, the hike through Lobo Canyon is considered by many to be one of the nicer; and with its diversity of plants, the canyon offers a glimpse of what the rest of the island might’ve looked like when the Chumash lived there.

One of the easier ways to visit to Santa Rosa Island is through Island Packers out of Ventura, Island Packers offers regular boat trips to all five of the islands within Channel Islands National Park.

Lobo Canyon hike trail Santa Rosa Island Channel Islands National Park

Lobo Canyon Greenery

Santa Rosa, unlike the other islands in the park, can also be reached by air. Channel Islands Aviation,, offers regular flights to Santa Rosa Island from Camarillo.

Camping on Santa Rosa Island can be found at Water Canyon Campground, about 1.5 miles from the landing pier. The campground has 15 campsites, each with a covered wooden-wind break and picnic table. The campground has potable water, and includes modern restrooms and even a solar shower.

The hike to Lobo Canyon from Water Canyon Campground is about 11 miles round trip.

From Water Canyon Campground, return to the landing pier, and aim for the red barn inland from the pier. Behind the barn is the beginning of Smith Highway, which heads out towards Lobo Canyon.

Banana Slug Santa Rosa Island Channel Island National Park

One of many banana slugs that were seen crossing the trail

Channel Islands Naturalist Corp offers free docent led hikes on the islands, and on Santa Rosa will often led a hike through Lobo Canyon. They even provide a ride out to the canyon, which can save you close to four miles on the hike out, and make it easier to explore more of the island if you choose to hike back on your own.

From the barn, Smith Highway quickly crosses Windmill Canyon, before then climbing away from the coast and offering views back out across the ranch buildings, Bechers Bay, and, further to the east, Santa Cruz Island.

The Northern Channel Islands were first settled close to 13,000 years ago by the Chumash, with the oldest known site on Santa Rosa Island in Arlington Canyon.

Lobo Canyon Santa Rosa Island hike trail Channel Islands National Park

Willow trees line a section of Lobo Canyon

In 1542, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo’s expedition visited the islands heralding the arrival of the Spanish. By 1822, the last remaining Chumash on the island were removed, their numbers already reduced from the introduction of Western diseases and the impact of the Mission system.

In 1844, a Mexican land grant gave the island to the Carrillo Family, who developed the first ranching operation there, marking a turning point in the island’s ecology.

Fifteen years later, portions of the island were sold to the More Family, who expanded sheep ranching on the island. During the second half of the 1800s up to 80,000 sheep roamed the island. Severe overgrazing from the sheep eliminated much of the native plant cover and created ideal conditions for introduced non-native grasses to thrive, effectively confining native plant habitats to steep canyon walls and cliffs.

Today, non-native plants account for about 25 percent of the total plants species on the island, and physically cover close to 70 percent of the island, mostly in the form of grasses and weeds.

Lobo Canyon hike trail Santa Rosa Island Channel Island National Park

Wind- and Water-sculpted sandstone and siltstone are part of the rich scenery found in Lobo Canyon

In 1902, Walter Vail and J. W. Vickers purchased land from the Mores and began replacing the sheep with cattle. By 1930, Vail & Vickers owned the entire island and were running as much 9,000 head of cattle. The ranch also imported Roosevelt elk and Kaibab mule deer to the island.

In 1980, Channel Island National Park and Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary was established. In 1986, the National Parks Service purchased Santa Rosa Island from Vail & Vickers, who retained a 25-year lease on the ranch complex, and were also issued permits to continue their ranching and hunter operations.

In 1998, the cattle were removed following the settlement of a lawsuit brought by Environmental Defense Center over concerns of the ongoing ecological damage from grazing livestock. Earlier in 1992, the last of the introduced pigs were removed.

And in 2012, when Vail & Vicker’s 25-year lease ended, the elk and deer were removed. Horses from the ranch however, were allowed to remain and live out the rest of their lives.

With almost all of the non-native grazing animals now removed from the island, many of the native plants are starting to reestablish themselves, marking a return from the damage done from nearly 150 years of ranching.

Santa Rosa Island Fox Carrington Point Channel Island National Park hike trail

A Santa Rosa Island Fox savoring the sun near Carrington Pasture

At about the 1.25-mile mark from the barn, Smith Highway arrives at the turnoff to Carrington Point and what’s sometimes referred to as Carrington Pasture. It’s here, that one can sometimes find the horses grazing.

Further out towards the point, is the site where the nearly complete remains of a pygmy mammoth were discovered in 1994. Now extinct, Channel Island pygmy mammoths descended from Columbian mammoths who swam out to the islands during the ice ages in search of new places to forage.

During the last ice age, when the sea level was some 350 feet lower than today, the four islands off our coast were part of a larger, single island called Santarosae. This “super island” was close to four times the size of the land area of the islands today, and its closest point was just 4-5 miles from the mainland.

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

At about the 3-mile mark from the barn, Smith Highway arrives at the edge of Lobo Canyon, and here you can start to see some of its unique features. The road descends down into the canyon to the signed trailhead. Nearby, under the oaks, are two picnic tables. From here, it’s another 1.5 miles down to the coast through the canyon.

As the trail makes its way through the canyon one becomes immediately aware of the rich amount of plant life. Lobo Canyon is one of nine canyons on the island that have at least some water in them year round. The other eight are Water, Old Ranch House, San Augustin, Wreck, La Jolla Vieja, Arlington, Soledad, and Cow Canyons.

Lobo Canyon trail hike Santa Rosa Island Channel Islands National Park

Pocket Beach at the Mouth of Lobo Canyon

The availability of water makes the canyon feel like a hidden oasis. Here, a variety of riparian plants thrive including toyon, coast live oak, willow, cottonwood, cattails, blackberry and horsetail. During wetter times of the year one can sometimes find banana slugs along the trail. In fact, with all of its greenery and the presence of flowing water, sections of the canyon could even be described as lush.

Adding to this beauty, is the canyon itself. Over the millennia the creek’s course has cut through the layers of sandstone and siltstone, creating an intriguing landscape of wind- and water-sculpted rocks and canyon walls.

In fact, Lobo Canyon with its rich scenery of sculpted rocks and vibrant plants can be so engaging, that it’s easy to forget that one is even on an island. An effect which makes arriving at ocean and the mouth of Lobo Canyon that much more magical.

Here, one can find a small pocket beach framed by the blue waters of the ocean, and on clear day enjoy views towards the mainland, and west towards San Miguel Island.

From the mouth of Lobo Canyon, one can extend the hike west a half-mile over to Cow Canyon. An informal trail along the bluff and exposed sandstone leads over to another small pocket beach at the mouth of Cow Canyon.

Lobo Canyon is just one of the many hidden treasures one can find on our local Channel Islands.

This article originally appeared in section A of the November 24th, 2014 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.


  1. Hello James, Always look fwd to your ‘tales of the trails’… and the additional pics are great. Thk you, Ron W~

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