In Chumash Footsteps on Santa Rosa

Shaped like a giant arrowhead, wind-swept Santa Rosa Island lies 30 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, 45 miles from Ventura. The newest addition to Channel Islands National Park, and one of the least-visited Channel Islands, Santa Rosa offers the hiker an Old West atmosphere with rugged terrain and a working cattle ranch.

The island is devoid of trees except for a stand of the rare Torrey pine (only one other grove, near La Jolla, exists) and scattered oaks. Most of the vegetation is wild oats and grasses.

The rolling grasslands that make up the bulk of the island are home to non-native Roosevelt elk, mule deer and assorted pigs, as well as to the indigenous bushy-tailed, reddish-brown island fox.

Santa Rosa Island had a considerable Chumash population when explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed by in 1542. Scientists who have examined the island’s extensive archeological record believe that the island was inhabited at least 8,000 years ago. Quite possibly, experts say, early man lived on Santa Rosa some 40,000 years ago.


After the Chumash era, during Spain’s rule over California, the island was land-granted to Don Carlos and Don Jose Carrillo. For many years, their families raised sheep on the island and were known on the mainland for hosting grand fiestas at shearing time.

In 1902, Walter Vail and J.W. Vickers bought Santa Rosa and raised what many considered some of the finest cattle in California. The island became part of Channel Islands National Park in 1986.

The National Park Service offers a couple of ranger-guided walking tours of the island. Hikers are transported to the more remote trail heads by four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Would-be adventurers can enjoy the Channel Islands National Park visitors center in Ventura Harbor, which serves as a nice sneak preview of the splendid park located 12 to 60 miles away in the Pacific Ocean--a series of blue-tinged mountains floating on the horizon. The visitors center not only contains exhibits on island history and ecology, but provides up-to-the-minute boat transportation information.


The national park’s boat tour concessionaire, Island Packers, takes visitors to Santa Rosa as well as to the other Channel Islands--Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara and San Miguel.

The boat ride to Santa Rosa is three hours one way. Most hikers ride out to the island and come back the same day, but arrangements can be made during the summer season to boat to Santa Rosa on Saturday, camp overnight, and return on Sunday. The fare is $52 for the day trip, $80 overnight.

During the winter, when the channel is choppy, Island Packers schedules only a few trips to Santa Rosa. During the spring, when the island wildflowers put on a fine show, voyages are more frequent. The next scheduled weekend service available to the General public (charters can be arranged by private groups) leaves Ventura Harbor on April 16. Otherwise, the summer season runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day. For a boat schedule, call Island Packers at (805) 642-1393.

Lobo Canyon (four miles round trip): Hikers frequently descend the sandstone-walled Canada Lobos, pausing to admire such native flora as island monkey flower, dudleya and coreopsis. At the mouth of the canyon, near the ocean, is a Chumash village site. The hike continues as the trail ascends the east wall of the canyon, then drops into Cow Canyon. At the mouth of Cow Canyon is an excellent tide pool area.

East Point Trail (one mile round trip): Here’s an opportunity for hikers to visit a rare stand of Torrey pines and a large freshwater marsh, where bird-watchers will enjoy viewing shorebirds and waterfowl. Trail’s end is one of Santa Rosa’s beautiful beaches.

Cherry Canyon Trail (three miles round trip): Walking Cherry Canyon offers the opportunity to see some plants and animals that are found nowhere else. The trail heads two miles up the canyon to an oak grove. On the return trip, there are far-reaching views of the interior, roaming deer and Roosevelt elk, and the dramatic sweep of Beecher’s Bay. Trail’s end is the island’s historic ranch complex.

Take a hike with John McKinney’s guidebook: “Day Hiker’s Guide to Southern California” ($16.95). Send check or money order to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Dept. 1, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

Channel Islands National Park / Lobo Canyon, East Point and Cherry Canyon Trails Where: Santa Rosa Island. Distance: 4 miles round trip around Lobo Canyon; 1 mile around East Point; 3 miles around Cherry Canyon. Terrain: Rolling grasslands and rugged canyons filled with oak and ironweed. Highlights: Rare plant life, including Torrey pines, abundant native wildlife, including deer and Roosevelt elk. Degree of difficulty: Moderate. Precautions: Travelers prone to sea sickness should take along anti-sea sickness medication. For more information: Contact Channel Islands National Park, 1901 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura 93001, (805) 658-5700.