Backcountry beach camping on Santa Rosa Island is one of the rare treats afforded in Channel Islands National Park.
While Santa Cruz Island is the largest island off the coast of Southern California, only one-quarter of it is open to the public. Coming in second at 83 square miles, Santa Rosa Island offers the most land on any of the islands to explore.
Backcountry beach camping is not for everyone. There are no designated sites outside of Water Canyon Campground, no picnic tables or restrooms. Shade is limited and reliable water can only be found in nine canyons. No campfires are allowed, only cookstoves. Nevertheless, for experienced backpackers, backpacking on the island can be just as rewarding as backpacking in the local backcountry.
Camping is permitted on the beaches above the high tide line. From Aug. 15 to Sept. 15 the beaches between East and South Points along the south shore are open to dispersed camping, and from Sept. 16 to Dec. 31 all the beaches are open except those along the eastern shore between Carrington and East points, and around Sandy Point. For a complete list of rules and regulations, go towww.nps.gov/chis.
The closest beach for camping on the north shore is Cow Canyon, about 10 miles round-trip; and the closest recommended beaches along the south shore are at San Augustin Canyon, Ford Point and La Jolla Vieja Canyon, 16, 18, and 22, miles round-trip respectively.
The easiest way to reach the island is through Island Packers, www.islandpackers.com, which offers boat rides to all five of the islands within Channel Islands National Park. Santa Rosa Island can also be reached by air through Channel Islands Aviation,www.flycia.com.
For my own traverse of the island, I hiked to Cow Canyon the first day, and then crossed over the island to the south shore via Black Mountain and Soledad Peak, camping the second night near La Jolla Vieja Canyon.
In the morning, I make my way up La Jolla Vieja Canyon to look for a suitable place to filter enough water for the day. The meandering canyon is lined with cattails but there are several pools with flowing water. As with Cow Canyon from the day before, recent rains have improved both the flow and flavor of the water. Intermittent year-round water can also be found in Lobo, Soledad, Arlington, Wreck, San Augustin, Old Ranch House, and Water canyons.
From La Jolla Vieja Canyon, I day hike west along the south shore towards Johnson’s Lee, where a U.S. Air Force station was once located. The hike is about 4.5 miles round-trip along an unpaved access road that follows the coast.
About a mile from La Jolla Vieja Canyon, a short side road leads down to Officer’s Beach. The beach is completely empty. However, as I continue over the next rise, I hear elephant seals. They are hauled out on the next beach over sunning themselves, napping, sparring and everything else elephants seals enjoy doing when not swimming and hunting in the ocean.
The road then meets the only paved road on the island, and arrives where Santa Rosa Island Air Force Station P-15 was once located. In 1950, the Air Force leased land from Vail & Vickers Ranch. The Air Force built radar, receiving, and transmitting facilities on the highest point of the island. A base was built along the coast with more than a dozen different buildings. A paved road led from the landing pier to the base and up to the summit of Radar Mountain.
At one time there were more 300 personnel at the station. The base, however, proved too costly to maintain due to its island location. It was closed in 1963, and operations were relocated to a facility near Point Conception. The abandoned buildings and material left behind were utilized and repurposed by the ranch over the years. National Parks Service later utilized several remaining buildings. Today, just the auto maintenance building from the station remains.
From the maintenance building it’s less than a quarter of a mile down the road to where the landing pier was located.
Returning to La Jolla Vieja Canyon, I gather my gear. From here, the unpaved road continues eastward, moving away from the coast and wrapping its way into an unnamed canyon before working its way over to Wreck Canyon.
On a previous visit five years ago, the creek crossing in Wreck Canyon was the best source of water on the south shore I found close to Ford Point. Now, however, it is choked with cattails; a good reminder to check with the rangers beforehand to learn about current conditions.
The road then climbs out of the canyon and arrives at the signed turnoff to Ford Point, about two miles from La Jolla Vieja Canyon.
The trail down to Ford Point follows an old Jeep road. Near the point, the views extend east out along the coast toward East Point and western Santa Cruz Island. From here, a single-track trail turns inland, before following a small ravine down to the beach.
The long, pristine beach at Ford Point is broken into two halves by a large rock outcropping; a route along the bluff connects the two segments. Both sections can sometimes have places to camp above the high tide line.
From the easternmost beach, an off-trail route continues up along the bluff, tracing the top of essentially a giant sand dune and leading over toward San Augustin Canyon.
As the trail arrives overlooking what could be called San Augustin Point, the trail branches. The trail to the right leads down to the cobblestone beach, where there can sometimes be a level place to camp above the high tide line.
The trail to the right continues along the western side of San Augustin Canyon, passing through grassy hillsides dotted with lupine, black sage, coastal sagebrush and coyote brush.
The trail then crosses the creek. Just downstream from the crossing is a trickle of water flowing into a sandstone pool.
From the crossing, the trail becomes more serious about climbing out of the canyon, tracing now the eastern side of the canyon and making its way along the ridge that separates San Augustin from the next canyon over.
The ridgeline then levels out briefly, passing the wreck of a small airplane. According toIslapedia.com, the plane was flown by two hunters intent on poaching non-native elk found on the island at the time. Their plane crashed as they tried to land and they hiked out to the main ranch building claiming engine failure. When they returned to recover the plane, they discovered that cattle from the ranch had eaten the fabric covering much of the plane’s frame, leaving it unusable.
The trail then makes the final push up the ridge, veering west around what could be described as San Augustin Peak, and arriving at San Pablo Road. Here, the views open up to the north across the channel towards the Santa Ynez and San Rafael Mountains.
Essentially a single-track trail, San Pablo Road traces the top of the summits overlooking the south shore. About a mile from the top of San Augustin Trail, the road arrives at a large cement trough fed with water from Clapp Spring. Water from the spring but must be filtered.
From here, it’s less than a mile to Wreck Road, which leads toward Water Canyon Campground. The road traces the edge of Water Canyon and as it reaches the coast offers views out across Bechers Bay towards Santa Cruz Island.
Wreck Road arrives at the coast just south of Water Canyon and joins Coastal Road. To reach the campground turn left; Coastal Road crosses Water Canyon Creek and then meets the side road that leads up to the campground.
The campground has 15 sites available through Recreation.gov. Each site has a two-sided, covered windbreak, a picnic table, and a metal food storage box to keep items safe from inquisitive foxes, mice and ravens. The campground features potable water and restrooms, and can make a nice base camp for exploring the island. The campground is about 1.5 miles from the landing pier.
A satisfying day hike from the campground is to visit the Torrey pines, about 4.5 miles round-trip. To reach the grove, follow Coastal Road south toward Skunk Point and look for Torrey Pines Trail, which leads up into the grove, on your right.
During the last ice age when the climate was cooler and wetter, Torrey pines could be found along coast of California. Today, they are the rarest pines in the United States, found in just two locations, near San Diego at Torrey Pine State Natural Reserve and here on Santa Rosa Island, where island fog helps keeps temperatures cooler and provides additional moisture for the trees.
The grove also provides a chance to sit back in the shade and experience the timelessness of the islands. To hear the sound of the wind through the trees and watch birds flit amongst the branches, framed by views of western Santa Cruz Island.