Posted by: James Wapotich | March 31, 2019

Trail Quest: Cardwell and Harris Points, San Miguel Island

Harris Point hike San Miguel Island Channel Island National Park

Harris Point

San Miguel Island is the westernmost of the Northern Channel Islands, and in some ways the most remote.

There are three ranger or docent led hikes on San Miguel Island. The long hike out to Point Bennett, about 14 miles roundtrip, and two relatively shorter hikes to Cardwell and Harris Points, both about six miles each roundtrip.

The easiest way to reach the island is through Island Packers,, which offers boat rides to all five of the islands within Channel Islands National Park.

The campground on the island features nine campsites, each with a picnic table, metal food storage box, and low wind break. Reservations are made through There is an outhouse, but no potable water and little shade. Visitors must bring all the water they’ll need for the duration of their stay. A half-mile trail from the harbor leads to the campground and continues up towards the ranger station.

The hike to Cardwell Point starts from the ranger station and heads southeast, passing through non-native grassland dotted with coyote brush, giant coreopsis, lupine, and dudleya. The views eastward extend out towards Santa Rosa Island. The trail then arrives at a bluff overlooking a remote beach. Here, crouching on the bluff, visitors can watch California sea lions and Northern elephant seals hauled out on the beach below. The spot offers some of the best viewing on the islands.

Northern elephant seals spend most of their time in the water. They migrate twice a year to forage for food, diving underwater. They can stay under for up to two hours and reach depths as much as a mile; and feed on squid, octopus, and a variety of fish. They spend just ten percent of their time on land, typically in large groups, either to molt, between April and August, or during the breeding season from December through March.

Northern elephants seals were nearly hunted to extinction in the late 1800s for their blubber which was used to produce oil for lamps. Only a small population of 40-100 remained on Guadalupe Island off of Mexico. From this group, Northern elephant seals have since recovered to over 175,000. Their range extends along the Pacific Coast from Baja California to Alaska. Northern elephant seals can be found on San Miguel, Santa Rosa, and Santa Barbara Islands, where they benefit from the relative isolation these islands provide.

During the last ice age, when the sea level was 300-400 feet lower, the four islands off our coast, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel, were part of a single, larger island called Santarosae. Between 11,000-9,500 years ago, rising sea levels inundated the lowlands of Santarosae creating the four separate islands we see today.

The earliest evidence of man on the island dates back 13,000 years ago at Arlington Springs, on what is now Santa Rosa Island, when Santarosae was still a single island. The remains are some of the oldest found in North America.

There are two theories on how native people first reached North America from Asia. The one probably most familiar to many of us is that during the last ice age, people crossed the land bridge between Siberia and North America that was created by lower sea levels, following big game herds such as mammoths and mastodons. They continued south through an ice-free corridor as the glaciers began to retreat, dispersing out across the vast expanse of North America and into South America.

Another theory suggests that native people followed the coast around the North Pacific, that was also relatively free of ice, following what has been dubbed the “kelp highway” and utilizing the resources provided by kelp forests and found along the coast.

The early Chumash were likely drawn to Santarosae for these same resources. They journeyed to the island using boats made from tule reeds bundled together, traveling when the sea was calm. The might’ve left the mainland near what is now Point Mugu where the distance to the island was the shortest, arriving near what is now Anacapa Island.

Santarosae featured a broad coastal plain, plenty of marine sea life to hunt and fish, and shellfish to harvest, as well as reliable water in enough locations to make remaining on the island feasible. Over time villages arose. There are 21 recorded village sites on the northern Channel Islands.

Roughly 1,500 years ago, the Chumash developed their wooden-plank canoe or tomol, which dramatically increased both trade and social interactions between the islands and the mainland, and along the coast.

Chumash territory extended from Malibu to Morro Bay, out to the northern Channel Islands, and inland to the Carrizo Plain. Within that area were eight language groups, collectively referred to as Chumash by ethnographers. It’s estimated that prior to the arrival of the Spanish, there were roughly 22,000 Chumash and about 150 village sites.

A pivotal moment in history for the Chumash and California was Cabrillo’s arrival in 1542, just 50 years after Columbus’ arrival in North America.

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was commissioned by the Viceroy of New Spain to lead an expedition up the Pacific Coast to find new trade opportunities and search for the fabled Strait of Anian, or Northwest Passage, that would connect the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and provide a more direct route to China.

In June of 1542, Cabrillo left the Mexican port of Navidad with three ships, the flagship San Salvador, which he built, plus the smaller La Victoria and San Miguel. In September, the expedition arrived at what is now San Diego, marking the first European landfall in California.

Cabrillo, then visited Catalina and San Clemente Islands, as well as San Pedro and Santa Monica Bays, before arriving at the Northern Channel Islands, anchoring at San Miguel Island in Cuyler Harbor. They spent a week at the islands before continuing north to Point Conception. The expedition sailed as far north as Point Reyes, possibly reaching the Russian River before turning back, missing both times the entrance to San Francisco Bay, which wasn’t sighted by Europeans until Portola’s expedition in 1769.

There are differing accounts of Cabrillo’s journey as the expedition’s official report was lost and all that remains is a summary made later by investigators using the ship’s logs and charts. Cabrillo is said to have broken a limb, which became infected and developed gangrene. In one version Cabrillo fell and broke his arm, and died on San Miguel Island. In another, Cabrillo splintered his shin while going ashore on Catalina Island to save his men during an attack by Tongva Indians and died there.

After his passing in January of 1543, Cabrillo’s second in command, Bartolome Ferrer, led the expedition back to Mexico.

A monument to Cabrillo was erected on San Miguel Island in 1937, and is just below the campground; a short side trail leads to the stone cross which overlooks Cuyler Harbor.

While Cabrillo’s expedition was the first into the area, it wasn’t until Portola’s expedition 227 years later in 1769, that missionaries and settlers began to arrive in California.

Diseases brought by Europeans decimated the Chumash, and the introduction of the mission system, which sought to convert and assimilate them, slowly separated the Chumash from their traditional ways and culture.

During the 1820s, the last remaining Chumash living on the islands were removed.

In 1833, following the Mexican Revolution of 1821, the Mexican government secularized the missions. The Mission’s land holdings in Alta California, which accounted for about a sixth of the land area, were broken up and either sold off or given away by the Governors, often to friends and associates as reward for their service.

After the Mexican-American War in 1848, the United States agreed to honor these land grants in the new California Territory. Over the years, a number of these ranchos were purchased from the original Mexican families by businessmen and families from the United States, including the ranchos on both Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands.

These ranching operations, along with leases on the other the islands, marked the beginning of the ranching era on the islands, with the islands experiencing and now recovering from the affects of overgrazing.

Today, the Northern islands are part of Channel Islands National Park, which includes, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, Santa Barbara, and the eastern quarter of Santa Cruz Islands. For more information about the park, go to

The third hike on San Miguel Island is to Harris Point. The hike starts below the turnoff to the Cabrillo Monument, along the trail down to the harbor. Here, a side trail crosses Nidever Canyon and continues along the bluff, offering exceptional views out across Cuyler Harbor and towards Prince Island. The hike then continues out towards Harris Point, threading its way through predominantly lupine, interspersed with giant coreopsis, dudleya, and island poppy. The trail ends at Lester Point, which offers views of Simonton Cove and out towards Harris Point.

Gazing out at the point and listening to the wind and surf, while watching the waves roll in, it’s possible to imagine the features of Santarosae and the accomplishments of the first people to live there. And to imagine the forests and pristine coastline of this now submerged super island, and even marvel at the diversity of nature and its ever-changing landscapes.

This article originally appeared in section A of the February 18th, 2019 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

California Sea Lions Northern Elephant Seals Cardwell Point hike San Miguel Island Channel Islands National Park

California sea lions and Northern elephant seals


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