San Miguel Island
Wind-battered San Miguel Island is the westernmost of California’s Channel Islands lying 45 nautical miles (nm) from Santa Barbara. San Miguel is the sixth largest of all eight offshore islands at 9,500 acres or 14 square miles, including offshore islands and rocks. The island at its furthest extent is 8 miles long and 3.7 miles wide. The highest peak is San Miguel Hill, at 831 feet. Its maritime location makes San Miguel subject to high winds and lots of fog. The cold, nutrient-rich water surrounding the island supports a diverse array of sea life that is not found on the southern or eastern counterparts.
Channel Islands Expeditions can take you to this windswept tableland of lush grasses and wildflowers, with 27 miles of jagged, rocky coastline dotted with sandy white beaches. An impressive Caliche forest (sand-castings of an ancient forest) near Cuyler’s Harbor reminds us that San Miguel once supported much more varied plant life than it does now. The westernmost beach, Point Bennett, is the only place in the world where up to five different species of pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) can be found. When the weather permits, scuba diving and kayaking with these creatures is a truly unique experience.
San Miguel has some of the most spectacular scuba diving found anywhere off the coast of California. On a given day the water can be 10 to 15 degrees colder at San Miguel so proper equipment (7 mm wetsuit minimum or drysuit) is needed to enjoy this remote dive location. The topography at its offshore pinnacles makes a diver feel small. Mountainous pinnacles can go from 20 feet of water to 200 on some walls. More varieties of seals and sea lions can be viewed here than any other Channel Island. Protected coves, banks, offshore rocks and pinnacles make this a sought-after destination for scuba divers. Weather protects this island from too much human visitation so patience is needed to dive here on a nice day. A nice day at San Miguel is about as good as it gets.
Weather, weather, weather. Anyone who sets out to enjoy a day of kayaking around San Miguel Island needs to understand that the weather at this remote island can change in a minute. Generally, it would be considered a more advanced area to kayak but good weather periods do happen. The remoteness and wildlife at this island make kayaking incredibly unique. Large seal and sea lion colonies are spread out along the shores. Many varieties seabirds call this home and dolphins and whales are commonly sighted near shore. Special arrangements can be made on private charters for island to island kayaking. Advanced kayakers have found the downhill run in a northwest wind to be invigorating. Attempting this should be done by only those who have the skill and endurance along with support vessel assistance supplied by Channel Islands Expeditions on its multi-day liveaboard excursions.
There are several trails that traverse San Miguel Island providing a variety of hikes. Many parts of the island are closed to protect wildlife, fragile plants, and geological features, so hikes outside of the Cuyler Harbor beach, Cabrillo Monument, and Lester Ranch site are done with a qualified naturalist or Park Ranger. Longer hikes are available on Channel Islands Expeditions multi-day liveaboard excursions to San Miguel. A vigorous 16-mile hike to Point Bennett will take you to see one of the most spectacular wildlife events on our planet. Over 30,000 seals and sea lions can be hauled out on the point at certain times of year.
There is no pier on San Miguel Island so all landings are done by inflatable skiff at Cuyler Harbor. Landing on the island can be an exciting experience as the surf can make the landing challenging. Channel Islands Expeditions has developed a “launch line” procedure that has made this operation much safer for our passengers.
Being the most westerly of the Channel Islands, San Miguel Island is more prone to receive the brunt of any weather systems that move through the area. Most of the time a strong northwest wind blows across the island and these winds typically exceed 25 mph and can surpass 50 mph. When strong high pressure is over the mainland, the winds often cease creating a surreal environment. On warmer days the fog will burn off only to have the strong northwest wind blow in additional fog from the open ocean. On foggy days the temperature will rarely exceed 55°F.
The National Park Service maintains two airstrips, a ranger station and a research station on the island. San Miguel is normally staffed by a ranger who enforces park laws, while also sometimes providing interpretive services for public visitors. The island also hosts scientists that study pinnipeds and manage the Island fox (Urocyon littoralis) captive breeding program that is conducted on the island. Volunteer interpretive rangers often fill in for regularly paid rangers due to budget deficits within the park. Park employees and researchers are flown to the island by Channel Islands Aviation. Public visitors are not permitted to fly in.
Archaeological research has uncovered over 600 fragile and relatively undisturbed sites belonging to the native peoples that once lived here. Some have been radio-carbon dated to 11,600 years ago. Because the northern Channel Islands have not been connected to the adjacent mainland in recent geological history, the paleoindians who first settled the island clearly had boats and other maritime technologies. Rough seas and risky landings did not daunt the Chumash who lived there in later times, nor did they deter the first European explorer, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, in 1542, who first claimed the island for the Spanish crown, named it “La Posesion.” San Miguel is also rumored to be Cabrillo’s burial place (there is a monument there in his honor).
Ranchers raised sheep from 1850 to 1948. One of the longest homesteaded ranching families were the Lesters, a family of four that parted their way from the island during Pearl Harbor due to the dangers the war posed on them. The detailed information was written and published in a book called “The Legendary King of San Miguel Island,” by Elizabeth Sherman Lester. Later, the United States Navy used the island for a bombing range.
San Miguel is world famous for its pinniped viewing. In the winter, as many as 30,000 individual seals and sea lions of five different species can be seen at one time on Point Bennett, where they breed and birth their pups. Other wildlife includes the Island fox (Urocyon littoralis), a species that is found only on the Channel Islands. Over one third of the bird-life in the Channel Islands National Park lives here on San Miguel Island. Species like the California brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis californicus), cormorants, and Cassin’s auklets all breed on the island and its surrounding islets. Terrestrial birds include the Western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta), Channel Islands song sparrow (Melospiza melodia graminea), and Peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus).
A geologic feature called the caliche forest attracts many people. This ghost forest was formed by caliche sand castings of plant roots and trunks. Today the plants are long gone, leaving behind the eerie stone replicas. Come springtime, San Miguel’s wildflowers are spectacular due to the abundance of fog and moisture. Any one of these natural features is stunning in its own right. Together, they make for a photographer’s paradise.