Set Sail to San Miguel Island

”San Miguel Island

San Miguel Island, a U.S. Navy owned island operated by the National Park Service is
the windward and westward most island in our 8 Channel Islands archipelago. The
island gets battered by open ocean swells and relentless westerly winds most days of
the year. I have voyaged to San Miguel many times during my sailing career and
traversed through many rough seas to get there.
One fine day this past summer we sailed from the leeward side of Santa Rosa Island
through the San Miguel Passage and into Cuyler Harbor. Prince Island a small islet is
perched in the entrance to Cuyler Harbor making it feel as if you have sailed into a
south pacific atoll. The anchorage is a gorgeous crescent bay with several hundred feet
high cliffs plummeting into a sprawling white sandy beach with sand dunes at its eastern
end. There are only 3 trees left on the island, palm trees on the beach in Cuyler which
were planted for the set of the 1935 MGM Mutiny on the Bounty film starring Charles
Laughton and Clark Gable.
For the previous two years San Miguel Island had been closed to the public by the U.S.
Navy for the purpose of clearing the island of anything unsafe left over from naval
operations during WWII. That afternoon we were the only vessel in the Anchorage and
we decided to take the hike up to the monument for Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo the early
1500’s explorer who was rumored to have died and been buried on one of the Channel
Islands.
The short trail to the monument runs along the side of a steep canyon leading from the
sand dunes on the beach to the top of the cliffs. Atop the cliffs you have a spectacular
view of Cuyler Harbor and Prince Island. Looking eastward Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz
Islands are visible on a clear day.
After a short visit at the monument and a few pictures we hiked to the ranger station and
were greeted warmly by George, a ranger who spends 1 week on 1 week off San
Miguel year round! He said we were only the second visitors at the island since its
closure! George looked to be in his Eighties and was surprisingly very spry. He led us
on a hike to the Caliche Forest about 4 miles round trip. Now I mentioned earlier that
there are only three trees on the island, the palms on the beach… The Caliche Forest is
an ancient forest that is no longer filled with living trees, rather a Caliche or calcium
carbonate buildup of what used to be there. The calcium in the soil hardened into a
concrete like form that stands erect where the roots and trunks of the trees used to
stand. Hundreds of years of wind and rain have eroded these forests almost to nothing
and within a short time the forest will cease to exist.
San Miguel Island has many hiking trails, however most are required to be led by a
ranger. The hike to Point Bennet is incredible, I have done this 8 mile hike before and
the reward is breath taking. The end of this strenuous hike lands at the southern end of
the island, Point Bennet, home to 30,000 pinnipeds, one of the largest concentrations of
pinnipeds on earth!! The sound of these mammals is something that has to be
experienced to be believed.
I am so grateful to have this playground in my back yard and I encourage anyone and
everyone to go discover this National Park and all its beauty.
-Captain Spencer MacRae