Posted by: James Wapotich | January 25, 2019

Trail Quest: Black Mountain, Santa Rosa Island

It was after dark when the trail finally arrived at the coast, near the mouth of La Jolla Vieja Canyon. As I near the beach, I can hear the sound of elephants seals, and suddenly realize they are hauled out near where I’d planned to sleep. No worry, I would simply cross to the other side of the creek and camp there. However, on the other side my headlamp catches the glowing eyes of more elephant seals, who are just quietly resting there.

Rather than trekking in the dark to another beach, I find a small patch a safe distance from both groups, careful to make sure there is no evidence of elephant seals using the spot. With the wind now nearly constant and blowing uncharacteristically from the east, I gather four large boulders and put them inside my tent, placing one in each corner and settle in for the night, it had been a long day.

On previous visits to Santa Rosa Island I had backpacked to Ford Point on the south shore and day hiked to Lobo and Cow Canyons on the north shore, but was curious what it would be like to traverse the island north to south and visit its highest peak, Radar Mountain.

Originally I had thought of following Smith Highway arcing over to Soledad Road. However, in talking with one of the rangers prior to my trip, I learned of an old jeep road that traces the ridgeline between Lobo and Cow Canyons and leads to the top of Black Mountain. From there it was a simple matter to tie into Soledad Road. This alternate route would save me a welcome mile and a half, and have the added bonus of visiting the cloud forest on Black Mountain.

Backcountry beach camping on Santa Rosa Island is available to experienced, well-conditioned backpackers during the later part of the year, and provides a unique way to explore the island. For a complete list of all the rules and regulations, seasonal closures, and other helpful information go to

After spending my first night camped at Cow Canyon, I retrace my route through Lobo Canyon back up to Smith Highway. With no water and little shade along my intended route, I’ve loaded up on water in Cow Canyon, carrying enough for the entire 14.5-mile day.

Continuing west along Smith Highway, I soon pass on the uphill side something that looks vaguely like an old jeep road before arriving at a more evident track coming up along the ridgeline from the coast. I double back to the faint track I saw. The route is not as obvious as I’d hoped, but as I continue I find pieces of the old jeep road, which starts to become more evident as it climbs up the ridgeline between Lobo and Cow Canyons. As I continue, it becomes apparent that the foxes are the ones that use the trail the most and are keeping it alive. In the distance I can see the forested summit of Black Mountain.

The route then rounds the top of Lobo Canyon, joining the ridgeline that defines the backbone of the island. Here, the old jeep road turns east and continues along the top of the ridge towards Black Mountain.

As I continue, I pass the small forest of island oaks that draw part of their water from the fog and hug the north side of the ridge.

From the top of Black Mountain, the views extend out across Cherry Canyon, Bechers Bay, and Skunk Point towards Santa Cruz Island.

During the last ice age, roughly 20,000 years ago, the sea level was 300-400 feet lower. The four islands of our coast, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel were all part of a single, larger island called Santarosae. As the sea level began to rise, it covered the lower portions of Santarosae. Around 10,500 years ago Anacapa Island became separate, followed by Santa Cruz Island roughly 1,000 years later, with Santa Rosa and San Miguel Islands separating several hundred years after that.

From Black Mountain, a half-mile trail leads down to Soledad Road. Black Mountain can also be reached from the landing pier or Water Canyon Campground as part of an eight-mile roundtrip day hike following an old jeep road, referred to as Telephone Road.

Continuing west along Soledad Road, about a mile and a half further, the remnants of an old army camp can be seen from the road in the canyon below. A side road leads down to the site, with the most distinctive feature being a large cement star where the flagpole was located. The camp was built in 1943, and turned over to the ranching operation after the war.

About a mile later, Soledad Road arrives at the signed turnoff for Quinn Knobs Trail. The trail does not appear on the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map of Channel Islands National Park, but is a useful connector trail. The 1.25-mile trail follows a ridgeline and leads over to Wreck Road, providing an alternate, shorter way to reach the south shore.

As I continue along Soledad Road towards Soledad Peak it starts to fog up along the top of the island and a steady wind starts to blow, until I eventually have to start leaning slightly into the wind to offset its force. My concerns of hiking most of the day in exposed sunlight and not having enough water are starting to fade.

Soledad Road then intersects Signal Road; just west of the intersection is Soledad Peak, 1,574 feet of elevation. From there the road continues another half-mile before arriving at a surprisingly paved road. The road connects from Johnsons Lee, where there used to be an Air Force base to the top of Radar Mountain, the highest point on the island, at 1,589 feet.

Both Soledad Peak and Radar Mountain overlook Arlington Canyon, where in 1959, the oldest human remains found so far in North America were discovered. The remains date back 13,000 years. At that time, Santarosae was still a single island, and roughly four to five miles from the mainland at its closet point.

Santarosae was most likely reached with a boat made from tule reeds. Tule is readily available on the mainland, and such a boat is relatively easy to make in as little as three days. Tule can also be found on the islands.

The Chumash would harvest tule, allow it to partially dry, and then tie the material together into cigar-shaped bundles with a willow pole in the middle to help strengthen the boat’s structure. Several bundles were tied together, with the largest one serving as the bottom of the 10-15 foot canoe. The boat was then coated with melted asphaltum to make it more water resistant. While these boats were more commonly used in estuaries and nearshore along the coast, given calm conditions in the channel they could be used to cross to the islands. Tule boats could carry two to three people or a total of several hundred pounds.

The Chumash also made dugout canoes, which were used primarily in estuaries and were not seaworthy enough to cross the channel.

Around 500 A.D., the Chumash began developing wooden plank canoes or tomols. The tomol was a dramatic improvement over both the tule boat and dugout.

Tomols were primarily made from redwood driftwood that had washed ashore along the coast and on the islands.

Using nothing more than tools made from chert, bones, and large clam shells, the Chumash were able to hew and shape the redwood planks and drill holes in them. The planks were then sewn together with string made from red milkweed. In between the planks, the pithy core of tule was used for caulk. A mixture of melted asphaltum and pine pitch was then used to seal the seams, drill holes, and lashings. The entire project would take from two to six months.

Tomols ranged in size from 12 to 24 feet in length, and could carry up to 20 people or 4,000 pounds in cargo. The tomol not only facilitated increased trade amongst the Chumash, but helped deepen social connections by making travel between the islands and mainland, and along the coast easier.

From Radar Mountain, I follow the paved road down to the turnoff to the trail that traces the ridgeline between La Jolla Vieja Canyon and the coast. The trail is essentially an overgrown jeep road, and I was fortunate to have day-hiked the route during the daytime on a previous trip, especially now that I was hiking it in the dark through a thick, wet fog.

The trail ends at the ranch road along the south shore, arriving just west of La Vieja Canyon, where I make camp for the night, a safe distance from the elephants seals.

In the morning, after breakfast, I filter water from La Jolla Vieja Canyon, and then day hike west along the south shore to Johnsons Lee, before backpacking out via Ford Point and San Augustine Canyon, and camping the last night in Water Canyon Campground.

This article originally appeared in section A of the January 7th, 2019 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press

Off-trail route between Lobo and Cow Canyons Black Mountain hiking backpacking Santa Rosa Island Channel Islands National Park

Black Mountain is seen from the off-trail route between Lobo and Cow Canyons

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