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Santa Rosa Island

Santa Rosa Island is the second largest of the Channel Islands and lies about 26 nautical miles (nm) from Santa Barbara. The island is nearly 17 nm long, 10.75 nm wide at the widest point, and 53,000 acres or 83 square miles in total area. The island has a relatively low profile with the exception of a rugged central mountain range.

The highest peak in the range is Vail Peak, at 1589 feet.

It is a diverse island of grass-covered rolling hills, steep canyons, creeks, rocky inter-tidal areas and sandy beaches adorned with sand dunes and driftwood. The Chumash, the native peoples who inhabited the Channel Islands for well over twelve millennia called this island “wima,” the Chumash word for “driftwood.” It is thought that the island is so named for the driftwood (sometimes redwood) logs that would wash ashore here. They would use these logs to craft dugout canoes called “tomols” with which they would travel and trade from island to island and to the mainland.

In the 1970’s and 80’s scuba divers flocked to Santa Rosa to take advantage of the many species of game fish available. Talcott Shoals, which lies off the northwest section of the island, is a large plateau that offers various terrains for divers. The western section of Talcott becomes more dramatic in its topography and offers not only hunting opportunities for game-divers, but great underwater photography opportunities as well. The shipwreck of the Aggie, which lays in 25 to 50 feet of water along a ridge, is readily accessible to divers at Talcott. The east end of Santa Rosa has a wonderful assortment of pinnacles that are covered in corynactis (strawberry anemone) and large schools of fish. Santa Rosa Island lies at an intersection of warm-water and cold, nutrient-rich currents. A diverse web of marine life can be found and enjoyed in these pristine waters.

Kayaking at Santa Rosa Island is a fascinating way to experience a wild California seascape. The sandy beaches and cliffs are breeding and resting areas for sea birds and seals and sea lions. Kayaking will often give you views and access to wildlife that you might not get in any other way. However, being a wild place means that we are at the mercy of the wind and waves. There may be times when the conditions are not favorable for kayaking, or when kayaking at particular location may require you and your group to be experienced paddlers.

Hiking with Channel Islands Expeditions on Santa Rosa Island will lead you down some of the several trails and roads traverse the island, providing plenty of opportunities to enjoy the spectacular scenery Santa Rosa provides. These trails and roads range from the relatively flat route to Water Canyon Beach to the rugged, mountainous path to Black Mountain.

A variety of Torrey Pine (Pinus torreyana var. insularis) grows on the island. The population of this endangered species is estimated at approximately 1000 trees. This ancient grove is just a remnant of a much larger forest of Torrey pines that once existed in the Pleistocene era, some 12,000 years ago. A trail that leads to this exceedingly rare species of pine tree can be accessed from Becher’s Bay, the island’s main landing.

Keep a sharp eye out for the Island fox, Spotted skunk, and Munchkin dudleya (Dudleya gnoma); one of the six endemic plant species on the island. 

Archeological and paleontological sites are abundant on the island. In 1994, the world’s most complete skeleton of a pygmy mammoth (Mammuthus exilis) had been excavated; a dwarf species related to the Columbian mammoths. In 1960 archaeologists discovered humans remains dating back 13,000 years at Arlington Springs on Santa Rosa Island. These remains are among the oldest human remains in the Americas and were discovered by Phil C. Orr, curator of anthropology and natural history at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Orr believed the remains were those of a 10,000-year old man and dubbed them the “Arlington Springs Man”.

Santa Rosa Island was originally part of a Spanish land grant. The island was used as a sheep ranch during the mid-1800s by the More family. Then during the cold war the United States Air Force maintained a radar base on the island. In the late 1970s Mobil Oil Corporation was granted exploration rights on the island. Both explosive and vibroseis exploration methods were used. Extensive surveys and geological maps were made at that time. Finally, in 1980, Santa Rosa Island was included within Channel Islands National Park.

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.

Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz Island is the largest island off the continental United States. Located 23 nautical miles (nm) off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, the island is 22 miles long, from 2 to 6 miles wide, and is 97 square miles in area. The Chumash that inhabited this island for well over 11,000 years call this island ‘limuw,’ meaning “in the ocean.” The island Chumash consider this island to be the cradle of their civilization; the birthplace of their people. The scenic beauty of Santa Cruz is reflected in its many landforms including its two rugged mountain ranges. The highest peak on the island is Devil’s Peak, at 2450 feet. Deep canyons, year-round springs and streams, plus 77 miles of craggy coastline cliffs, giant sea caves, pristine tide pools, expansive beaches, and a central valley are features of the unique island. The central valley splits the island along the Santa Cruz Island Fault with volcanic rock on the north and older sedimentary rock on the south. Lying directly on the boundary between cold northern and warm southern waters, this island hosts unique plant, animal, and marine communities representing nearly 1000 miles of marine diversity from California’s coastline.

Diving at Santa Cruz Island is probably the most diverse of all eight Channel Islands. Being on the break of the warm southerly and colder northern currents creates marine habitat for many different species. Being the largest of California’s Channel Islands, there is a wide variety of different dive spots to explore around Santa Cruz Island, each with its own unique characteristics. 

The northwest section of the island is volcanic with steep faces and hosts some of the world’s largest sea caves. The southeast section is more sedimentary with large plateaus and thick kelp beds. Santa Cruz offers more places to find good diving during rough weather periods than any other island due to its size and many coves. Seals, sea lions, bat rays, and many schools of fish are common sights while scuba diving with Channel Islands Expeditions along this island’s shores.

Given it’s ample 77-mile coastline, Santa Cruz Island has vast number of kayaking destinations that you are able to visit with Channel Islands Expeditions. In fact, traveling with CIX is the only way to see a vast majority of the island’s scenic shoreline, as most of the island itself is closed to conventional tourism. 

Santa Cruz Island has huge variety of flora and fauna that live on and around it’s craggy cliff lines and giant sea caves. The west end of Santa Cruz Island is where you’ll find one of the world’s biggest sea caves, Painted Cave – so named for the vibrant lichen growth on the cave walls. Measured at a towering 160 ft at its entrance, Painted Cave stretches back into the basalt cliff for over a quarter-mile before you reach its terminus. Expect to see plenty of playful sea lions and seals as well as a host of bird life here or anywhere else you paddle on Santa Cruz Island. 

There are several hiking trails and roads that traverse the eastern portion of Santa Cruz Island that is part of the Channel Islands National Park. While visitors may explore this section, no hiking is allowed beyond the national park boundary onto The Nature Conservancy property to the west without first obtaining a permit. Landings onto Santa Cruz are either by pier or by skiff. Potential landing areas include Prisoners Harbor and Smugglers Cove. 

Once on the Santa Cruz, a well-marked trail system will take you to several scenic overlooks of the island’s coastline, as well as to areas of natural and historical significance. Consult your Channel Islands Expeditions trip leaders as to what may be possible on your expedition, as there is such a vast array of options to explore on this island. Wherever you go, be sure to keep a sharp eye out for some of the island’s many endemic species found here and no where else in the world, including the Island scrub jay and the Island fox.

Archaeological investigations indicate that Santa Cruz Island has been inhabited for at least 10,000 years. Chumash of limuw had their largest village, swaxil, located near present day Scorpion Anchorage. The island had over 10 villages and was home to over 1,200 people. They developed a highly complex society dependent on marine harvest and craft specialization. The island Chumash produced shell-beads that they used for currency. This formed the backbone of an intricate inter-island and cross-channel trading system with the counterparts on the mainland. Their trade was made possible by tomols, plank canoes constructed from driftwood and sealed with tar and pitch. In teams of as many as ten people, the Chumash would paddle across the channel and trade shell-bead money and island goods for food staples and other goods from the mainland.

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and his men made first contact with the Chumash of limuw in 1542. The journey would eventually be Cabrillo’s demise, as he is rumored to have died in the winter of 1543 on San Miguel Island, though some postulate we very well could have died on Santa Cruz. The explorers and missionaries that visited after him discovered the complex aboriginal society of the Chumash. Legend has it that on one such visit during a gift exchange, a staff with an iron cross atop of it was forgotten. The next day, the Chumash paddled in a tomol to the expedition’s ship and return it. From that day, the island was called “La Isla de la Santa Cruz,” meaning “the island of the sacred cross.”

By the early 1800’s the Chumash were said to have ‘voluntarily’ moved to the Santa Barbara and Santa Buenaventura missions. Thus ended 10,000 years of habitation by the Chumash on Santa Cruz Island. The Mexican government claimed the island as its own territory in 1821 before California’s independence movement began in 1838. Santa Cruz Island was gifted to Andres Castillero for his role in brokering a shaky peace in California. He would be the first of many private owners who would shape the island into what it is today.

The ranching period on Santa Cruz began with a small sheep ranching operation managed by James Barron Shaw and grew to be one a well-recognized operation by the 1860’s. Ownership of the ranch passed on to the businessman Justinian Caire in 1886, who had a vision to establish both sheep and cattle ranching on Santa Cruz Island as well as one of California’s first commercial vineyards. Caire’s legacy of ranching and land husbandry would remain until the National Park Service bought the east end of Santa Cruz Island from Caire’s descendants in 1980 and the last of the flocks of sheep were taken off the island in 1999. The Nature Conservancy came into full ownership of the west end of the island, including Main Ranch in the central valley in 1987.

Today, Santa Cruz Island is divided between The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service. The Nature Conservancy owns and manages the western 76% of the island; the eastern 24% is owned and managed by the National Park Service.

Permanent and seasonal water sources, plus a number of microclimates, support over 650 species of plants and trees in ten different plant communities, from marshes and grasslands to chaparral and pine forests. Owing to millions of years of isolation, eight of these plants are “endemic”-they grow nowhere else in the world. Springtime is a patchwork of blooming annuals, sometimes seen from the mainland as bright splashes of color. Over 140 land bird species have been identified here. The Island scrub jay (Aphelocoma insularis), a Santa Cruz Island endemic, is a living example of “gigantism,” whereby some island animals evolve to a larger form. This bird is one-third bigger and much bluer than the mainland scrub jay. Other animals, like the Island fox (Urocyon littoralis) and Island spotted skunk (Spilogale gracilis amphialus), tend toward “dwarfism,” growing smaller over the ages. Eleven other mammal species including nine bats, deer and harvest mouse, three kinds of amphibians including the Channel Islands slender salamander (Batrachoseps pacificus), five reptiles including the Side-blotched lizard, Southern alligator lizard, Western fence lizard, Western yellow belly racer, and Gopher snake, might be seen by visitors.

Bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) were once numerous on California’s Channel Islands, but because of eggshell thinning caused by the illegal dumping of the pesticide, “DDT,” and other factors, the last known successful Bald eagle nesting in the northern Channel Islands was in 1949. By the 1960’s, Bald eagles could no longer be found on any of the Channel Islands. Soon after, Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) began nesting on the islands, and began hunting Island foxes until native fox populations declined to a threatened status. After successful trapping and relocating of the Golden eagles, the Institute for Wildlife Studies started a program in 2002 to reintroduce Bald eagles to the California’s Channel Islands funded by money from a $25 million fund to deal with the lingering effects of DDT dumped by the Montrose Chemical Corporation into the ocean near Los Angeles.

Between 2002 and 2006, 61 young bald eagles have been released on Santa Cruz Island. On March 17, 2006 wildlife biologists for the Institute announced that for the first time in over 50 years there has been a successful hatching on Santa Cruz Island. In April 2007, the Nature Conservancy announced another successful chick hatching. The chick broke free of its shell on April 13, 2007. The parents were one of the two nesting pairs who had returned to the island after making history the previous year. Both pairs were born in captivity. This second birth represented a turning point in the struggle to return the eagles to their former habitat on the island. Three nests have now been documented on Santa Cruz island as of the 2008 breeding season.

Painted Caves

Anacapa Island

Lurking Serpent

  • Anacapa is the only island to retain its Chumash nomenclature, “Eenapah” meant “island of illusion”. This was due to the inversion layer of the atmosphere that sits near the horizon some days and makes the island look much larger than it is. To us it looks more like a lurking serpent out on the Channel on clear days. Either way, the island is mysterious and has an interesting history.

Chumash Camp

  • Anacapa doesn’t have fresh water and therefor the Chumash didn’t make permanent settlements there. However, there are very large “middens” or trash piles of shells and such that suggest that the Chumash did in fact camp there when making their trade journeys to the mainland.

Navigation Hazard

USCG Lighthouse

  • In 1932 the Anacapa lighthouse was completed on the Eastern island, almost 20 years after it was begun. This light has been keeping sailors from meeting similar fates of the Winfield Scott since that time.

National Park And Marine Sanctuary

  • In 1980 congress signed into law the Channel Islands National Park which included Anacapa and Santa Barbara Islands. It also established Marine Sanctuaries around both islands. 23 years later, in 2003, 13 marines protected areas were established, including the Anacapa Marine Reserve with more protection and enforcement.This protection has allowed fish species to rebound in diversity and density. Kayaking and snorkeling in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) is a profound example of how this protection has been effective and is important for overall ocean health.All of the kayaking and snorkeling on our tours take place in MPAs so you’ll get to see for yourself!

Anacapa is a small volcanic island located 28 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. The smallest of the northern Channel Islands, Anacapa was discovered by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542. Later, in 1793, Captain George Vancouver christened the island Anacapa, a name derived from the Chumash Indian word, “’anyapax,” which means translates to ‘illusion’ or ‘mirage.’ The island’s name, the only one of the Channel Islands chain to maintain its original etymology, suits the place very well. The low rises of the sea cliffs can often be shrouded by marine haze or fog giving the island an air of mystery.

Anacapa is composed of three islets: East Island, Middle Island and West Island. Altogether, the islets make up a narrow island that is 5 miles long and only a ¼ mile wide. Ocean waves have eroded the perimeter of the island, creating steep sea cliffs towering hundreds of feet in height and exposing the volcanic origins of air pockets, lava tubes, and sea caves. At the east end of the island a natural bridge has formed in the ocean. The forty-foot-high Cabrillo Arch is a trademark of Anacapa and the Channel Islands National Park. The highest peak is Summit Peak 2 on West Island at 930 feet.

Diving at Anacapa Island is known for warmer waters as it is at the southern edge of the Northern chain of Channel Islands that receive tropical currents from the south. Many species that are found at the Southern chain of Channel Islands can be found at Anacapa. Lush kelp beds, Garibaldi’s, brittle stars, giant black sea bass, leopard sharks, and sea lions are common sights while scuba diving.

Photographers enjoy the clear waters and many student divers get their first island dive in its temperate conditions. Anacapa Island generally has calmer conditions as it is further to the east of the prevailing Northwest winds generated off Point Conception. Because of its proximity to the mainland, Anacapa is visited by more divers than any other island in the Northern chain of Channel Islands.

Kayaking at Anacapa is often the exclamation point at the end of a trip with Channel Islands Expeditions. Steep cliff faces, secluded coves, inlets packed with marine life, and beautiful sea caves are among just some of the sights you can explore with our expert guides. Kelp forests and sea grass flourish along this rocky coast, which serve as home and feeding ground for an abundance of wildlife. Though small in stature, Anacapa provides perhaps the most diverse sea cave experience of any of the Channel Islands. The basalt cliffs of the island are easily eroded over time by the sea, leaving spectacular geological formations that you’ll have to see to believe.

Landings are done at a pier in the landing cove at East Island. There is a staircase leading out of the cove up a steep cliff side that brings you to a figure eight-shaped trail system that is about 2 miles long. This trail will lead out to one of the most sought-after sea-scape overlooks in the national park, Inspiration Point. An interpretive trail guide is available on the island to interpret island resources. Middle and West Anacapa are not open to hiking as they are set aside for the island’s recovering sea bird populations.

Sea birds are the most conspicuous wildlife on the island. The largest breeding colony of the once-endangered California brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis californicus) is located on West Anacapa. Other sea birds include Western gulls (Larus occidentalis) and several species of cormorants. Scripps’s murrelets (Synthliboramphus scrippsi) and Cassin’s auklets (Ptychoramphus aleuticus) nest in sea caves and on isolated rocky shores. Anacapa’s rocky shores provide resting and breeding areas for both California sea lions and Harbor seals, two species you have a high likelihood of encountering while on the water with Channel Islands Expeditions. Springtime brings colorful flowers, including the strange tree sunflower called coreopsis (Coreopsis gigantea), a plant found only on the Channel Islands and a few isolated areas on the mainland.

On the night of December 2, 1853, the sidewheel steamer Winfield Scott running at full speed crashed into the rocks off Middle Anacapa in dense fog and sank. Invasive ship rats (Rattus rattus) are thought to have been introduced to the island from the wrecked ship. They had devastating consequences for the island’s seabirds and other native species, but were successfully eradicated in 2001–2002. With the rats gone, the number of nesting Scripps’s murrelets has increased by more than 80 percent in the last two decades. This is one of many recoveries following invasive species eradications from the Channel Islands.

A U.S. Coast Survey team visited the island in 1854 and concluded that although the island’s position at the eastern entrance to the Santa Barbara Channel was a natural choice for a lighthouse “it is inconceivable for a lighthouse to be constructed on this mass of volcanic rock – perpendicular on every face, with an ascent inaccessible by any natural means.”

As approximately nine-tenths of all vessels trading up and down the Pacific Coast passed inside the islands of the Santa Barbara Channel, the American Association of Masters, Mates and Pilots petitioned for a proper fog signal on the island. Funds for what would be the last major light station to be built on the west coast were finally allocated in the late 1920s.

The construction of the station was carried out in two phases and commenced in the spring of 1930. A landing dock, a hoisting crane and roads were added first, and then work began on the various station buildings. A thirty-nine-foot, cylindrical tower and a fog signal were built near the highest point on the eastern end of the island. Four Spanish-style, white stucco houses with red tile roofs were provided for the keepers and their families. Today, there is a museum on the island which houses the original crystal and brass Fresnel lens from the light beacon.