Channel Islands National Park

Santa Rosa Island
The view from Santa Barbara Island, Channel Islands National Park.
The view from Santa Barbara Island, Channel Islands National Park. (James Forte/National Geographic/Getty)

The second largest park island is Santa Rosa. Nearly 24 kilometers (15 miles) long and 16 kilometers (10 miles) wide, its 22,250 hectares (53,000 acres) exhibit remarkable contrasts. Cliffs on the northeastern shore rival those of Santa Cruz Island. High mountains with deep-cut canyons give way to gently rolling hills and flat marine terraces. Vast grasslands blanket about 85 percent of the island, yet columnar volcanic formations, extensive fossil beds, and highly colored hill slopes are visible. Rocky terraces on the west end provide superb habitat for intertidal organisms including astounding concentrations of black abalone. Harbor seals haul out and breed on the island's sandy beaches. On the eastern tip of the island, a unique coastal marsh is among the most extensive freshwater habitats found on any of the Channel Islands. The entire island is surrounded by expanses of kelp beds. Consequently, its surrounding waters serve as an invaluable nursery for the sea life that feeds larger marine mammals and the sea birds that breed along the coastal shores and offshore rocks of all the Channel Islands.

Beneath Santa Rosa's non-native grasslands are the remains of a rich cultural heritage. More than 180 largely undisturbed archaeological sites have been mapped. These include several associated with early man's presence in North America. Chumash Indian villages and historic era camps of early explorers and fur hunters are evident. Some historians think Santa Rosa may be Cabrillo's final resting place.

In the 1840s and 1850s, Santa Rosa was a cattle rancheria. After the cattle industry of old spanish California collapsed in the 1860s, sheep were brought to Santa Rosa and soon became its economic mainstay. Sheep grazing continued into the early 20th century, but when the island was sold to Vail Vickers Company in 1902, the sheep were removed and cattle reintroduced. Though the impact of introduced grains, insects, sheep, pigs, deer, elk, and cattle was severe, examples of Santa Rosa's native plant communities survive. These tend to be restricted to rocky canyons and upper slopes. Native and endemic plants include the tree poppy, island manzanita, and an endemic sage. Native Island Oaks grow on protected slopes, and two groves of Torrey pine are visible near Bechers Bay. More than 195 bird species are found on Santa Rosa. With its extensive grasslands, the island supports large populations of European starlings, horned-larks, meadow larks, house finches, and song sparrows. Shore birds and waterfowl favor the brackish habitat found on Santa Rosa's eastern tip. This marsh and the island's running streams and springs provide habitat for tree frogs and Pacific slender salamanders.

Other terrestrial animals include the gopher snake, deer mouse, and two species of lizard. The island fox may be frequently seen. The endemic spotted skunk—found only on Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz islands—is only rarely observed.

The National Park Service acquired Santa Rosa Island in 1986. It is open to public access at Bechers Bay and Johnson's Lee. There is a primitive campsite near Bechers Bay—you must obtain a permit to camp. Backcountry permits are also required to go beyond the beach. Contact Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center for current information.


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