Posted by: James Wapotich | December 28, 2018

Trail Quest: Cow Canyon, Santa Rosa Island

Lobo Canyon Santa Rosa Island hike trail Channel Islands National Park

Lobo Canyon

Santa Rosa is the second largest of the four islands off our coast. The island covers 83 square miles, and unlike Santa Cruz Island, is entirely within Channel Island National Park, providing the largest area overall within the park to explore.

In addition to the campground in Water Canyon, Santa Rosa Island also offers backcountry beach camping. From August 15 to September 15, the beaches along the south shore between East Point and South Point are open to dispersed camping. From September 16 to December 31, all beaches are open except those along the eastern shore between Carrington Point and East Point, Lobo Canyon, and around Sandy Point.

Backcountry beach camping is not for everyone, there are no designated campsites, no restrooms or picnic tables, and no campfires allowed on the island, only portable cook stoves. There is little shade on the island and reliable water is found in only nine of the creeks; conditions along the coast can also be windy.

Camping is permitted on the beach above the high tide line, and so it’s important to check the tides before going, as well as check in the with the rangers beforehand to learn about current conditions.

Reservations are required and available through Backpackers will also need to familiarize themselves with the rules and regulations regarding backcountry beach camping, which can be found at,, along with other information about the islands. A helpful map to carry is National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated map of Channel Islands National Park.

In spite of the challenges, experienced backpackers in good shape often find the rewards of exploring the island’s remote beaches and traversing its expansive landscape worth the effort.

The nearest destination for backpacking on the north shore is Cow Canyon, which is about five miles from the landing pier. The route leads through scenic Lobo Canyon.

The easiest way to reach the island is through Islands Packers, , which offers trips to all five of the islands within the national park. The boat ride is about 2.5 hours.

From the landing pier, continue to the top of the access road, and take the road immediately on the right. The unpaved ranch road leads past some of the old ranch buildings and the research station, arriving at the signed beginning of Smith Highway.

From here, Smith Highway crosses Windmill Creek, before than climbing away from the coast passing through mostly non-native grassland dotted with coyote brush, lemonade berry, and patches of island poppy. As the road continues it offers views back towards the landing pier, Bechers Bay, and out towards western Santa Cruz Island.

At the 1.25-mile mark, the trail arrives at the turnoff to Carrington Point. The hike out to the point and back is about six miles roundtrip. The trail follows a ranch road for the first three-quarters of a mile where it meets another ranch road that leads back down towards the landing pier.

From this intersection, the road out to the point passes through a gate, becoming more of a single-track trail. As it continues the diversity of plants increases; along the route are lupine, goldenbush, island poppy, morning glory, and the rare, endangered island paintbrush.

The trail ends overlooking the point. From here, an off-trail route leads steeply down to the ocean.

In 1994, a nearly complete pygmy mammoth skeleton was found in an ancient dune near Carrington Point. During the last ice age, when the sea level was 300-400 feet lower, the four islands off our coast were part of a larger, single island called Santarosae. This super island covered roughly four times the land area of the islands today.

20,000 years ago the climate of southern California was cooler and wetter and the islands were more forested. It’s believed that Columbian mammoths on the mainland were drawn to Santarosae by the smell of vegetation.

Excellent swimmers, mammoths with their buoyant mass and snorkel-like trunk, could easily cross the four to five-mile distance from the mainland to Santarosae. Modern elephants, descendants of mammoths, have been known to swim as much as 23 miles across open water.

Once on the island, as their numbers increased and resources grew more scarce, natural selection favored smaller-sized mammoths that required less food and water. The lack of mainland predators, unable to make the swim, also made being large less advantageous. In comparison to their fore-bearers, pygmy mammoths shrank over time from 14 feet tall to 6 feet tall, and from 20,000 pounds down to 2,000 pounds.

It’s still not clear why pygmy mammoths went extinct, but their die off coincides with the mass extinction of much of North America’s megafauna, including the saber-toothed tiger, horse, sloth, and short-faced bear, along with the mammoth and mastodon on the mainland.

The oldest human remains on the islands date back to 13,000 years ago at Arlington Springs on Santa Rosa Island and roughly coincides with youngest mammoth remains; however, there is currently no direct evidence that humans hunted mammoths on the islands.

Pygmy mammoths remains have been found on Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and western Santa Cruz Islands.

Other animals that once lived on the islands include flightless ducks, a species of puffin, ornate shrews, and giant island deer mice.

Today, aside from a handful of horses from the ranching era allowed to roam free, the land mammals still living on the island are Santa Rosa Island fox, spotted skunk, and deer mouse.

From the turnoff to Carrington Point, Smith Highway continues west another 1.75 miles towards Lobo Canyon. The transition at the edge of the canyon is striking, 150 years of ranching history has reduced much of the island to non-native grassland dotted with chaparral plants, but here, in Lobo Canyon is a glimpse of what more of the island used to look like.

The road descends into the canyon arriving at the signed beginning of the trail down to the ocean. Across the road, under the oaks, are two picnic tables.

A number of the plants found in Lobo Canyon and on the island were used by the Chumash. Near the picnic tables are several elderberry bushes. Wood from elderberry can be used to make flutes and clapper sticks, as well as hand drills and hearth boards for making fire by friction.

As the trail continues down the canyon, it passes through toyon, island oak, and coast live oak. Berries from toyon can be toasted on a hot rock or dried in the sun, and later eaten. Wood from toyon can be used to make a variety of tools, including arrows, harpoons, and digging sticks.

Acorns from the oaks, can be shelled, with the inner kernel ground up and leached to remove the bitter tannin. The acorn meal can be made into a mush that was a staple of the Chumash, who would mix in seeds and berries to enhance the flavor.

Fruit from coastal prickly pear can be eaten and its red juice used as a paint pigment.

Flowing through the canyon is an intermittent year-round creek, one of nine on the island. The other canyons with fairly reliable water are Cow, Soledad, Arlington, La Jolla Vieja, Wreck, San Augustin, Old Ranch House, and Water Canyons.

The creek in Lobo Canyon supports a number of riparian plants including cattail, horsetail, willow, and cottonwood; and in contrast to other parts of the island feels almost forested. Other plants growing in the canyon include wild blackberry, poison oak, and mugwort, as well as, island buckwheat, giant coreopsis, and dudleya.

The canyon itself is carved from tuffaceous sandstone and siltstone, and the wind and water-sculptured rocks add to the sense of being in another world.

The trail then arrives at the mouth of the canyon and a scenic pocket beach. From here, continue west along the bluffs another half-mile to reach Cow Canyon.

Where Cow Canyon meets the ocean it flows over the bluff forming a small waterfall and pocket beach. The beach can be accessed from the western side. If the route down to the beach is unsafe then camping in an open area above the beach is an option.

Water can be found in the creek, and on my visit, recent rain helped improve both the flow and flavor of the water. A fairy reliable sandstone pool of water can be found in the main canyon about a quarter of a mile up the canyon, just past the confluence with a side creek. Water from the island should be filtered.

An alternate route from Cow Canyon back to Smith Highway is to follow the ridgeline between Cow and Lobo Canyons. An old jeep route at one time followed the ridgeline all the way to the top of Black Mountain.

This article originally appeared in section A of the December 24th, 2018 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press

Lobo Canyon trail hike Santa Rosa Island Channel Islands National Park

Lobo Canyon

Carrington Point trail hike Santa Rosa Island Channel Islands National Park

Carrington Point

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