Off the mountainous coast of southern California, 26 miles from the mainland, is a low-lying island who’s indigenous name was Tuqan, and which is now known as San Miguel of Channel Islands National Park. Windswept, shadeless, and a 5-6 hour boat ride from Ventura, California, San Miguel is the most difficult island of the National Park to access.
Without a dock, the only landings that can be made are via a small skiff, which can’t drop off or pick up passengers in bad weather. Camping is the only accommodation, and visitors must carry all of their own water and gear up more than 500 ft of canyon from the beach to the campsite. Tuqan isn’t a destination for every traveler, so this post will serve as both a guide to visiting San Miguel in Channel Island National Park and a digest about the island for anyone interested in learning more about it, regardless of their intent to visit.
(Please note that I will be using both the “Western” name for San Miguel as well as the traditional, Chumash name as per the information that I could find, Tuqan).
Why I Was Interested in Visiting San Miguel in Channel Islands National Park
I first started going to the Channel Islands in California when I was a kid. I was visiting Oxnard with my family, and I saw Anacapa off the shore. It enchanted me. All I wanted was to go and see it. It was like the island was calling to me. And my parents obliged me. My dad and I called a company called Island Packers and in a couple days, we were on the boat to Anacapa.
We climbed up the crazy ladder from the sea to the top of the island… and I was surrounded by the ocean, in what felt like another world. I was hooked. Hooked on the Channel Islands and in love with islands.
Over the years, my dad and I went back again and again. We kayaked on Anacapa, camped on Santa Cruz, and hiked through the mountains of Santa Rosa. We kept visiting the islands together until there was just one left (besides Santa Barbara, which has no dock atm) – San Miguel.
So, visiting San Miguel in Channel Islands National Park was fulfilling a dream. It was another adventure with my dad (and maybe the biggest to this point).
I was scared, because sometimes people can’t get picked up from San Miguel, and when I went to San Nicolas with a bunch of Channel Island fanatics (like myself) they told me most people went by plane. It felt like this impossible thing, and a huge unknown.
But it turned out that, yes, it was hard to get to. But everything was ok.
Planning an Expedition
In order to get to San Miguel, there are a few different things that you need to get in order, and there can be stiff competition, depending on the weekend that you want to go.
First, you will need to get your reservations on an Island Packers boat to the island. I suggest doing this as soon as the tickets go on sale. I bought mine early in the 2022 for a trip in October. The year before, I was unable to get tickets because they were full.
After you get your boat tickets, then keep an eye on Recreation.gov for when reservations for a campsite open up. Like the boat tickets, I would suggest trying to hop on and get reservations as soon as they open.
HOWEVER, for both your boat reservations and camping reservations, PLEASE if you decide not to go, cancel ASAP. There are people who really want to go camping and hiking on San Miguel and they can’t if we all get reservations that we don’t keep. A lot of hard-to-get outdoor places get booked up and then a high proportion of people never even go.
There are also rare day trips that Island Packers does. So, if you want to visit, but you don’t want to camp, keep your eyes out for those!
For the hikers among us though, I would definitely encourage visiting San Miguel in Channel Islands National Park for at least two nights.
How to Get to San Miguel Island
As I mention above, the main way for us normal folks to get to San Miguel is to book a trip with Island Packers. It is about a 5 hour trip from Ventura, CA to Tuqan, and sometimes a bit longer. It kind of depends on how many stops Island Packers has on their itinerary for the day.
For us, they stopped at both Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa on the way over. On the way home they also stopped in the Rainbow Cave as well. So, I think it took about 6 hours.
If you get seasick, definitely arm yourself with Dramamine, eat before your trip and lightly while on the water, and avoid sitting somewhere on the boat without fresh air or a view of the horizon.
Previously, you could also charter flights to San Miguel, but I don’t think that is possible anymore. The company that used to do that, no longer does. And folks with their own boats can also moor off the island, but I have no idea what kinds of permissions you need from the National Parks to land. You are not allowed to do solo hiking on San Miguel, so I doubt you can land without permission/permits. Visiting San Miguel in Channel Islands National Park is no easy feat.
Hiking on San Miguel Island
It’s no surprise that one of the things I was most looking forward to when visiting San Miguel in Channel Islands National Park was the trails. And hiking on San Miguel is a bit different from your standard hiking experience. Mostly because you are not allow to hike by yourself except from the beach up to the campground, and over to the ranger station.
That’s because the Navy used to bomb San Miguel, and there may still be unexploded ordinance on the island. So, hikers need to travel with National Park rangers or volunteers. Luckily, when you are on the island, there will be someone else there with you to offer hikes and opportunities to explore.
When I was there, we were hosted by a volunteer who had worked for the National Parks before he retired. He took us on a hike everyday, and he was a wealth of knowledge about the natural and human history of Tuqan.
The hike to Point Bennett is the premier trek of San Miguel and it is not a joke of a day hike. It is 14 miles round trip and involves hiking up and down the high point of the island twice, and traversing the rolling hills. A few different blogs that I had read before going said it was a flat hike, but I would beg to differ. It might not have massive elevation gain, but that doesn’t mean this is an easy hike.
I think most folks can do it, but go in with realistic expectations. You will be dealing with elevation gain, and 14 miles is quite a distance for one day.
But the pay-off for this hike is getting to experience the full landscapes of San Miguel. And you get to visit the beach with hundreds to thousands of seals and sea lions. I never knew how lively these fellas could be while on the beach until I saw so many of them. In particular, the babies were really active, running around in the sand, playing with one another.
On our third day on Tuqan, we lucked out, and our volunteer offered to take the group out to Lester Point. No one but us wanted to go because everyone else partied all night. So the three of us set out on the 6 mile hike.
Out in this direction, the plant assemblage is a little different than anything we had seen the day before. But this was the trail where we really saw evidence for the long history of people on this island. We crossed many middens, and walked through areas that people have been using for thousands of years.
We also were able to see the graves of the Lester family, the last people to live on San Miguel as ranchers.
And at the end of the 3 mile trek out, we enjoyed breathtaking views of the sea. I realized while I was there that the point where we stood and looked out over the ocean, was likely a place where people had been enjoying the views for thousands of years. I haven’t connected like this with a place in the past. So it was eye opening to really feel how the concept “wilderness” has changed the landscape in novel ways… by removing people from it.
San Miguel is a People Place
Today, when you are visiting San Miguel in Channel Islands National Park, you are likely to be one of only 20 people or so on the island (maybe less). It feels like “wilderness,” somewhere meant to be empty of people. Sometimes the weather and wild character of the island even makes it feel inhospitable to people. But Tuqan has been home to people for more than 11,000 years. So, people have populated this wild and beautiful place for thousands of years before recorded history. In fact, I might go so far as to say that the island misses those who once called it home. The empty place that we see now isn’t San Miguel as it has been for thousands of years.
When Europeans first came to San Miguel, the Chumash people called Tuqan home. And there are thousands of years of evidence for their time there. To anyone who is visiting San Miguel Island in Channel Islands National Park now, there are hints of many many years of people everywhere. “Middens” with layers and layers of abalone shells from the people who fished them from the sea and enjoyed them on the rolling hills of San Miguel.
This all changed when Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo arrived in 1542, signaling the arrival of Europeans. With them came disease, and struggles for Chumash freedom. Unfortunately, the indigenous people of Tuqan were forceably removed to missions on the mainland in the 1820s.
After that, sheep ranching took place on San Miguel for about 100 years from the 1850s-1950s. This led to overgrazing, and intense erosion due to the lack of plant coverage across the island. The last ranchers on the island were the Lester family.
In 1948, the Navy reclaimed the island and removed the last ranchers. They used San Miguel for target practice during this time. It wasn’t until 1978 that the National Park started offering opportunities to visit the island again. Although, to this day the island is technically owned by the Navy.
San Miguel Island or Tuqan is the traditional territory of the Chumash people.
You can learn more about them at the Chumash Indian Museum.
As well as through the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Mission Indians and the Tejon Indian Tribe of California websites.
More on the Channel Islands
If you are interested in learning more about the Channel Islands, visit my guide for insight into the other islands of the chain, both in the National Park and outside of it.
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