San Miguel Island

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For the Portuguese island, see São Miguel Island.
Aerial view of San Miguel
NPS Map: San Miguel Island

San Miguel Island is the westernmost of California's Channel Islands, located across the Santa Barbara Channel in the Pacific Ocean, within Santa Barbara County, California. San Miguel is the sixth-largest of the eight Channel Islands at 9,325 acres (3,774 ha), including offshore islands and rocks. Prince Island, 700 m (2,300 ft) off the northeastern coast, measures 35 acres (14 ha) in area. The island, at its farthest extent, is 8 miles (13 km) long and 3.7 miles (6.0 km) wide.

San Miguel Island is part of Channel Islands National Park, and almost all of the island (8,960 acres (36.3 km2)) has also been designated as an archaeological district on the National Register of Historic Places. This westernmost Channel Island receives northwesterly winds and severe weather from the open ocean. The cold and nutrient-rich water surrounding the island is home to a diverse array of sea life that is not found on the southern islands.

San Miguel Island, together with numerous small islets around it, is defined by the United States Census Bureau as Block 3010, Block Group 3, Census Tract 29.10 of Santa Barbara County, California. The island is uninhabited.[1] Highest peak is San Miguel Hill, at 831 feet (253 m). Submerged rocks make the nearly 28-mile (45 km) coastline a mariner's nightmare.


Archaeological research has shown that San Miguel Island was first settled by humans at least 12,000 years ago, when San Miguel was still part of the larger Santarosae Island that connected the northern Channel Islands when sea levels were lower near the end of the Last Glacial. Because the northern Channel Islands have not been connected to the adjacent mainland in recent geological history, the Paleo-Indians who first settled the island clearly had boats and other maritime technologies.[2] San Miguel was occupied by the ancestors of the Chumash people for many millennia, who developed a complex and rich maritime culture based on marine fishing, hunting, and gathering. Rough seas and risky landings did not daunt the Chumash people. They called the island Tuquan in the Chumash language, and for many centuries, they built and used sophisticated canoes, called tomols, made from sewn planks caulked with asphaltum (bitumen). In tomols, they fished and hunted in island waters and participated in active trade with their neighbors on the other islands and mainland.

The first European explorer to land was the Portuguese explorer, João Rodrigues Cabrillo in 1542, who commanded three Spanish ships that spent several weeks on the island while exploring the Santa Barbara Channel and California Coast. Cabrillo died on the island and is thought by many to have been buried there. The last of the island Chumash were removed to mainland missions and towns in the 1820s, leaving San Miguel largely uninhabited until ranchers raised sheep there from 1850 to 1948. One of the ranch families that homesteaded the longest was the Lesters, a family of four that left the island at the time of Pearl Harbor due to the dangers posed by the war.[3]

Chinese fishermen also utilized the island in the late 1800s as a base for commercial abalone fishing, drying the meat in camps on the island for trade to Chinese communities in California and overseas. Later, the United States Navy used the island for a bombing range.

Park Service operations[edit]

San Miguel Island Ranger Station

The National Park Service maintains two airstrips, a ranger station and a research station on San Miguel Island. The Island is normally staffed by a ranger who enforces park laws, while also providing interpretive services for public visitors. The island also hosts scientists who study pinnipeds and manage the island fox 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.[4]


In July, 2011, researchers discovered that a "loomerie" (breeding colony) of the California common murre (Uria aalge californica) had returned to Prince Island, an islet off San Miguel Island, for the first time since 1912. Like penguins, the football-size black-and-white seabirds use their wings to "fly" deep underwater, but unlike penguins, they also fly in the air. This colony disappeared nearly a century ago, likely because of egg harvesting, but now their southern range is re-established.[5]

In the 1960s, northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus) successfully recolonized San Miguel Island, making the island the 3rd American (and southernmost) breeding colony. The first seals had flipper tags identifying them as being from the Pribilof or Commander Islands in the Bering Sea. Today the San Miguel colony numbers around 10,000 animals.[6]

According to the Los Angeles Times, "Great white sharks haunt the waters around San Miguel Island, where they feast on seals and sea lions."[7] An urchin diver named James Robinson is believed to have been killed by a shark off Harris Point in the area known as Shark Park in 1994.[7]

The pygmy mammoth and the San Miguel Island Spotted Skunk are two of the extinct species. Meanwhile, the island fox still lives on the island.


San Miguel Island does not receive protection from the open ocean as the other Channel Islands. Most of the time a strong northwest wind blows across the island. These winds typically exceed 25 mph (40 km/h) and can surpass 50 mph (80 km/h). When strong high pressure is over the mainland, the winds often cease.

Heavy fog is common on the island, especially during May and June. 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 (13 °C). Annual rainfall is about 17 inches, mostly falling between November and March.

Climate data for San Miguel Island (1981 - 2010)
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Average high °F (°C) 58.8
Daily mean °F (°C) 54.5
Average low °F (°C) 50.2
Average rainfall inches (mm) 2.33
Source: [8]


Hiking down to Cuyler Harbor from the campground

In May 2016, the island was reopened to tourism, following a two-year U.S. Navy survey over 18 miles (29 km) of marked trails and high-use areas. The survey intended to remove any dangerous ordnance in those areas. The NPS escorts all visitors and limits visitors to the established trail system. The island will not be open at times when no NPS personnel are available to escort visitors. Visitors must now sign an access permit and liability waiver. Access permits are available at the boat and air concession offices and at a self-registration station at the Nidever Canyon trailhead on San Miguel Island.[9]

Island Packers and Channel Islands Aviation have concession agreements to provide transportation to the Island. Island Packers has no scheduled trips for 2016. Channel Islands Aviation provides on-demand service. There is no transportation available on the islands. All areas must be accessed by foot, private boat or kayak.[10]


Eight-foot seas (2.4 m) are not uncommon in the Pacific between Santa Rosa Island and San Miguel Island. The Island has no pier so all public visitors arriving by sea arrive by skiff at Cuyler Harbor.[11] Landing on the island can be challenging, as the surf can swamp the landing boat. During ideal weather, visitors are put ashore directly in front of the trail that leads into the interior of the island. When the swell is high, visitors might be placed on the beach to the east or west, depending upon conditions.

Camping facilities[edit]

San Miguel Island Campground.

San Miguel Island includes a campground with ten sites. Each campsite includes a picnic table, wind break and an animal-proof box. The campground includes one pit toilet. Fires are prohibited due to the high winds and the inability to extinguish them. Sturdy tents are recommended as the wind can exceed 50 mph (80 km/h), even during the summer. It is recommended that campers tie their tents to the wind break to keep them from blowing away when not being occupied.


San Miguel's caliche forest

With the exception of the trail leading from the beach in Cuyler Harbor to the campground and ranger station, hiking is restricted to ranger-led outings. Many visitors participate in the 14-mile (23 km) round trip hike to Point Bennett to view the thousands of elephant seals and sea lions that reside at the west end of the island during spring and summer. Another popular hike is to the Island's caliche forest. Caliche is a type of hardened calcium deposit.

Water activities[edit]

Visitors to the island are restricted to ocean access at Cuyler Harbor. This landing is well protected from the strong ocean swell that is driven from the northwest. Cuyler has a sandy beach and visitors will often find themselves sharing the beach with elephant seals. The water is generally below 60 °F (16 °C), making it cold without a wetsuit. During low tides the harbor offers a tide pool area at the east end of the beach. Sea kayaking is not recommended for the novice as high winds can develop without notice. Bathers, divers and kayakers should be aware and alert to the occurrence of great white sharks in these waters. It is unwise to enter the water in early morning or late afternoon to early evening hours when sharks are feeding close to shore. An urchin diver was killed by a great white shark in 1994 off San Miguel Island.

Cliffs, at San Miguel Island

Coordinates: 34°2′N 120°23′W / 34.033°N 120.383°W / 34.033; -120.383[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Block 3010, Block Group 3, Census Tract 29.10, Santa Barbara County United States Census Bureau
  2. ^ Erlandson, J.M., T.C. Rick, T.J. Braje, M. Casperson, B. Culleton, B. Fulfrost, T. Garcia, D. Guthrie, N. Jew, D. Kennett, M.L. Moss, L.. Reeder, C. Skinner, J. Watts, & L. Willis 2011 Paleoindian seafaring, maritime technologies, and coastal foraging on California’s Channel Islands. Science 441:1181-1185.
  3. ^ Lester, Elizabeth Sherman (1974). The legendary king of San Miguel. Santa Barbara, Calif.: McNally & Loftin. ISBN 9780874610277. Retrieved 2013-04-26. 
  4. ^ Kallas, Anne (February 15, 2015). "Channel Islands beckon volunteers". Ventura County Star. Retrieved 30 January 2016. 
  5. ^ "After Century's Absence, Seabirds' Return Surprises Scientists". ourAmazingplanet. 2011-12-19. Retrieved 2011-12-27. 
  6. ^ Juliet Grable (2011-10-05). "Fur Seals Making a Comeback on the Farallones". Bay Nature. Retrieved 2012-12-19. 
  7. ^ a b Shark Kills Skin Diver Off San Miguel Island, Los Angeles Times, 10 December 1994.
  8. ^ "Period of Record Monthly Climate Summary". Western Regional Climate Center. Retrieved 8 October 2015. 
  9. ^
  10. ^ kayak.
  11. ^,_San_Miguel_Island
  12. ^ U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: San Miguel Island

Further reading[edit]