San Miguel Island offers wildlife and seclusion
By Alex Wilson 09/22/2011
The rewards of camping on San Miguel Island outweigh the longer voyage and challenging conditions, as compared to other Channel Islands National Park destinations. Now that I’ve seen the unique attractions of all the park’s islands, it’s apparent that San Miguel has some of the most spectacular displays of wildlife and natural beauty.
My wife, Dawn, and I spent three nights on San Miguel with our friends Allen and Monique Riedel, who write hiking books. It was a sublime experience, camping with beautiful views of the clear blue ocean and venturing to the corners of the windswept island. There were only about a dozen people on the island, which is one of the least visited in the park.
Restoration efforts have bloomed since San Miguel’s sheep ranching and U.S. Navy bombing-range days. The formerly barren island exploded in colorful wildflowers and succulents, and displays of rebounding wildlife surpassed anything I’ve seen on the other islands.
Island scientists generously shared their time explaining the value of their work, and volunteers did an outstanding job of interpreting the island’s rich cultural history.
We hiked 16 miles to visit a research station at Point Bennett, where around 100,000 marine mammals congregate. We started hearing the loud barking from miles away, and it became a roar once we got close. We were transfixed as we watched them swimming through the surf to hunt for food, as others lazily warmed themselves in the sunshine.
National Marine Fisheries Service Wildlife Biologist Sharon Melin explained her research on California sea lions and interesting facts about the other five pinniped species that use the beach, including giant elephant seals and northern fur seals.
Melin says it’s a fascinating place to work, and the few visitors who make it there are amazed. “It’s the only place like it in the world,” says Melin. “People who’ve been to Africa say it reminds them of something like the Serengeti, just seeing those numbers all in one tight space.”
Channel Islands Naturalist Corps Volunteer Joel Justin taught us about recent efforts to rescue island foxes from the brink of extinction. He demonstrated a radio device to point at roaming foxes wearing electronic collars.
Justin also took us on a trip back in time with his wealth of knowledge about pioneering sheep ranching families and Chumash middens where the shells cast aside from seafood meals rest untouched. He also explained island geology and the formation of the interesting caliche forest where sand casts of vegetation from long ago create a ghostly landscape.
There’s no pier on San Miguel, so the experienced crew members from Island Packers Cruises load passengers and gear into inflatable skiffs for an exciting landing through the surf on a tranquil crescent-shaped beach at Cuyler Harbor.
Climbing up a steep and narrow trail, from the beach to the campground on top of the island, through beautiful Nidever canyon, is a bit of a challenge, especially since campers have to carry all the gear and water they’ll need for four days. Campsites have wooden windbreaks, and visitors can also retreat to a visitor center and read books about the island.
Justin says people who are ready for the challenge find it worthwhile. “San Miguel is a very windy place, and can be a very foggy place. So as long as you’re prepared for those conditions, you can only have upside from there,” says Justin. “The hikes that we offer and the beaches there give people plenty of opportunity to explore. As long as they’re prepared for it, everybody has a great time.”