Channel Islands National Park
Wind and weather sweep across the North Pacific to batter the shores of the westernmost of the northern islands. This creates a harsh and profoundly beautiful environment. San Miguel is about 13 kilometers (8 miles) long and 6 kilometers (4 miles) wide. It is primarily a plateau 120 to 150 meters (400-500 feet) in elevation, but two rounded hills emerge from its beautiful, windswept landscape.
San Miguel boasts outstanding natural and cultural features. Some of Channel Island's best examples of caliche are found here. Enormous numbers and a variety of seals and sea lions haul out and breed on its isolated shores. The Channel Island's largest mammal, the island fox, can be seen on San Miguel. San Miguel's fragile treasures include more than 500 relatively undisturbed archaeological sites, some dating back thousands of years. Juan Rodriques Cabrillo, who discovered California, is believed to have wintered and died at Cuyler Harbor in 1543. Although this grave has never been found, a monument overlooking Cuyler Harbor was erected in 1937 to commemorate his northern voyage of discovery.
In the 1850s Capt. George Nidever brought sheep, cattle, and horses to San Miguel. An adobe he built may be the earliest structure on any of the Channel Islands. Its remains are barely visible today. In 1930, Herbert and Elizabeth Lester became the island's caretakers. The family left the island in 1942 after the suicide of Herbert Lester, who had become known as the "King of San Miquel." The island was used as a bombing range from the mid 1940s to mid 1950s. Staying on the trail is particularly important on this island because live ordinance is still occasionally uncovered by shifting sand.
Backcountry and camping permits must be obtained in advance of your visit. Contact park headquarters, 805-658-5711, for permits and information. Landing by boat is permitted only at Cuyler Harbor. Daytime use of the beach does not require a permit. If you go beyond the beach area at Cuyler Harbor, however, you must have a backcountry permit. Landing elsewhere is prohibited. The primitive campsites on San Miguel must be reserved in advance at park headquarters; there are no fees. Stays are limited to two nights and a maximum of 30 campers. Camping dates are subject to the availability of the San Miguel Island ranger. From 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. campers are restricted to the campground and the Lester Ranch Historic Area, designated by the old fence-line. Camping on San Miguel will test your ability to adapt to the island's sometimes harsh surroundings. Strong winds, rain, and fog are constants. Bring a strong tent, sleeping bag, and warm waterproof clothing. You will need water, a stove, a first-aid kit, and toilet paper. A pit toilet facility is provided, and wind shelters are installed in each campsite. All garbage must be carried out when you leave.
For half-day visits to the island, the caliche forest is a popular destination. Once you hike from the beach to the island's top, it is about 5.5 kilometers (3.5 miles) from the ranger station to the caliche forest. Caliche is a mineral sandcasting. As with all park resources, it may not be collected. Take all the photographs you want. The island has been greatly altered by extensive sheep grazing, but you can still see an array of distinctive native plant species. Coreopsis and other flowering plants produce beautiful displays in the spring.
If you can spend more time on the island, try the 24 kilometer (15 mile) round-trip hike across the island to Point Bennett. With binoculars you may see thousands of breeding seals and sea lions from an overlook about 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) from the beach. Depending on the time of year, you may see the California sea lion, stellar sea lion, northern elephant seal, harbor seal, northern fur seal, and Guadalupe fur seal at Point Bennett. All except the Guadalupe fur seal and Stellar sea lion breed on the island.
Seasoned hikers who make this long, cross-island trip to Point Bennett will never forget seeing one of the world's outstanding wildlife displays.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication