In my last article, I discussed the Santa Barbara Channel and its islands in general. This article will focus on two of five islands in Channel Islands National Park: San Miguel and Santa Rosa.

The national park was established in 1980 to protect the islands and make them accessible to the public. (Note: There are three other islands in the Channel Islands that are not in the national park: San Nicolas, Santa Catalina and San Clemente. The U.S. military owns San Nicolas and San Clemente, and Santa Catalina is a thriving commercial tourist island off the coast of Los Angeles.)

Channel Islands National Park consists of 249,354 acres, half of which are under the ocean since the park's boundary extends one nautical mile from the shore of each island. Four of the five islands in the park are a westward extension of the Santa Monica Mountains. Before the sea rose over 130 feet thousands of years ago, the four islands of Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel were a single landmass called Santarosae Island.

North American Galapagos Islands

The Channel Islands are often referred to as the North American Galapagos Islands because of the 145 unique plants and animals found nowhere else on earth. Like the Galapagos Islands of South America, isolation allowed evolution to proceed independently on the Channel Islands. The four animals unique to the Channel Islands are the island fence lizard, island deer mouse, island spotted skunk and island fox.

The island deer mouse exists on all eight of the Channel Islands. It can survive with very little freshwater as Santa Barbara and Anacapa islands are without rivers. The island spotted skunk exists only on Santa Cruz Island and Santa Rosa Island. It used to also live on San Miguel Island, but no longer. A small population of skunks inhabit Santa Cruz Island, but Santa Rosa is home to over 3,000 island skunks.

The island fox is the largest native land mammal and lives on all three islands in the park. It does not live on Santa Barbara and Anacapa islands due to lack of freshwater. 

I have been out to the islands on whale watching, kayaking, and hiking trips, but what did I really know about the Santa Barbara Channel itself and the history of the islands? How were they formed? What unique plants and animals live in the Channel and on the islands?

Over a hundred unique species of plants evolved on the Channel Islands. They are too numerous to cover in this article, but for more information, visit

San Miguel Island

At 14 square miles, San Miguel (Chumash: Tuqan, translation unknown) is the westernmost and third smallest of the eight Channel Islands, as it is only 14 square miles, or 9,325 acres. The U.S. Navy owns it, but the island is administered by Channel Islands National Park and is open to the public.

The Chumash and their ancestors lived on San Miguel for 12,000 years. Today, there are over 600 fragile archeological sites on the island. The oldest is 11,600 years old and is one of the earliest evidence of humans living in North America. Other archeological resources include caliche forest (sand castings of ancient vegetation) and fossil bones of the Pleistocene pygmy mammoths, whose height was 4 to 6 feet at the shoulders.

Wind and weather from the North Pacific create a harsh but beautiful island made up of a 500-foot-high plateau and two 800-foot rounded hills. San Miguel hosts a wide variety of plants, seals, sea lions and birds. Although lush plants cover today's landscape, a century's worth of sheep ranching and overgrazing caused scientists in 1875 to describe the island as "a barren lump of sand."

With the grazing animals removed, giant coreopsis, dudleya, locoweed, lupine, buckwheat, coastal sagebrush and poppies are growing back, returning San Miguel to its more natural state. Also making a comeback, after years of hunting, are the thousands of pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) that breed, pup and sun on the island's 27 miles of isolated coastline. A ranger-guided hike can take visitors to Point Bennett to see over 30,000 seals and sea lions and up to five different species lying out on the point's beaches at certain times of the year.

In the spring and summer, the skies are filled with birds. Boaters entering Cuyler Harbor receive a greeting from western gulls, California brown pelicans, cormorants, and Cassin's auklets that nest on Prince Island. Black oystercatchers, with their bright red bills and pink feet, feed along the beach. Terrestrial residents include the western meadowlark, rock wren and song sparrow, an endemic subspecies. Peregrine falcons have recently been restored to the island. They are nesting successfully once again after years of decimation by the pesticide DDT.

In short, San Miguel is well worth a trip for the hardy visitor who likes to hike on a beautiful, windswept island.

Santa Rosa Island

Santa Rosa Island is the second largest of the California Channel Islands. It encompasses 84 square miles, 52,794 acres, is 15-miles long and 10-miles wide. It is 26.5 miles from the mainland, 3 miles east of San Miguel Island and 6 miles west of Santa Cruz Island. The highest point on the island is Vail Peak, at 1589 feet tall.

The island was the site of at least three large Chumash settlements. Human remains found on Santa Rosa date back 13,000 years. These remains are among the oldest record of humans in North America.

The Chumash called the island "Wi'ma," meaning driftwood. This name is from the Torrey Pines forest located on the island — there is only one other forest like it in the world.

By the 1820s, all the Chumash had been removed from the Channel Islands and brought to the missions on the mainland. For the next 20 years, there were no permanent island residents on Santa Rosa. The only visitors were passing mariners, fishermen and otter hunters. Mexico, which had gained its independence from Spain in 1821, viewed these foreign otter hunters as a threat to claim the islands for themselves. The Mexican government ordered the distribution of land grants to Mexican citizens, including Santa Rosa Island.

We have the perfect setting for fires: thousands of acres of wilderness with rugged terrain and few roads; rainy winter weather that allows grass and brush to grow, followed by months of hot, dry weather; prevailing winds as well as sundowner winds; and people, who are the cause of most fires.

In 1843, Alta California governor, Manuel Micheltorena, granted the entire island to brothers Jose and Carlos Carrillo. They were prominent residents of Santa Barbara. Within a month, the brothers sold the island to Carlos' married daughters and their husbands, Alpheus Thompson and John C. Jones. They built the first structures on the island and established Rancho Viejo or "Old Ranch."

From the mid-19th century until 1998, the island was used for cattle and sheep ranching under a long list of owners. In 1859, T. Wallace More purchased the part of the island belonging to the Joneses. By 1870, More and two of his brothers had purchased the entire island, eventually grazing over 80,000 sheep. A severe drought in 1876-78 forced the Mores to slaughter 25,000 sheep to be sold for meat and fat. In 1893 A.P. More died, and the island was sold to the Vail & Vickers Co., which introduced cattle ranching to the island. Members of the Vail family ranched on the island until 1998, nearly 100 years after the Vail & Vickers Co. began cattle ranching on the island.

After the United States joined World War II, the military negotiated a lease with Vail & Vickers in 1943 to set up an early warning radar facility on the south side of the island. The Army Corps of Engineers built a radar system at a location now called Signal Hill and a cantonment about 3 miles away. The site was closed when the war ended. The buildings and materials were left to be used by the ranch. In response to the Cold War, in 1950, the Air Force 669th Aircraft and Warning Squadron used 336 acres on the south side of the island. The Navy added missile-tracking facilities in 1952. The Air Force closed the base in 1963, as Vandenberg Air Force Base was taking over these responsibilities and the original equipment was outdated.

Today, visitors of Santa Rosa Island are in for an experience with windswept landscape, rugged beauty and unique features. There are many miles of hiking trails and sandy beaches, spectacular views, a fantastic grove of Torey Pine trees, historic buildings and Lobo Canyon, one of the most amazing hikes on the Channel Islands. Warning: Santa Rosa is not for the faint of heart. Most of the time, the island has howling winds, and visitors need to walk long distances to campgrounds and trailheads. However, for those willing to take the challenge, beauty and adventure rewards are well worth it. It truly is like nowhere else on Earth.

In my next article, I will cover the last three islands of the Channel Islands National Park: Santa Cruz, Anacapa and Santa Barbara islands, as well as take a brief look at the other three Channel Islands not in the park: Santa Catalina, San Nicholas and San Clemente. Meanwhile, best wishes for happy and safe holidays.

23 stories explaining the Central Coast's history, landscape, and traditions from Judith Dale

Judith Dale has written several columns highlighting the culture, geography and history of the Central Coast. Get better acquainted with our beautiful slice of California with this collection of her work. 

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We have the perfect setting for fires: thousands of acres of wilderness with rugged terrain and few roads; rainy winter weather that allows grass and brush to grow, followed by months of hot, dry weather; prevailing winds as well as sundowner winds; and people, who are the cause of most fires.

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At one time, Hollister and his partners, the Dibblee Brothers, owned all the land between Refugio Beach and Point Conception. They owned all the land grants around Point Concepcion, the Ortega family’s Refugio Grant, the La Purisima Mission lands and the San Julian Ranch.

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We often overlook and take for granted the importance of the river to our past development and more importantly to our future development and quality of life.

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Judith Dale looks back to 1920, offering a timeline of progress the U.S. has made over the last 100 years. In most areas such as life expectancy, industry, technology, and position in the world, the U.S. has come a long way. However, many of the social/cultural challenges the country faced in the 1920s, are still with us today.

Former mayor of Buellton, Judith Dale built her career in education and continues to serve the local community as Santa Barbara County 3rd District representative to the Library Advisory Board and board member of the Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital Foundation. She can be reached at