Photo by Chuck Graham

Cuyler Harbor, San Miguel Island

Words and Photos by Chuck Graham

After a fitful sleep amongst giant coreopsis and curious island foxes, I put in at idyllic Cuyler Harbor, and glided around knobby Harris Point, past the length of Simonton Cove and daunting Castle Rock, otherwise known as "Shark Park.” From there I picked my way around Point Bennett, the largest seal and sea lion rookery in North America. A cacophony of bellows, snorts and barks from five different species of pinnipeds clung to me well past Cardwell Point to the south. In all, it was an epic, 27-mile paddle around one of the most rugged and remote locales in the Golden State.

I’d love to go back, but I cant.

Access to California’s San Miguel Island is on an indefinite hold. Kayakers can’t so much as stop to stretch their legs on the island.

My solo kayaking excursion around the windswept San Miguel was arguably the highlight of my 9-day circumnavigation of the Northern Channel Islands, part of the Channel Islands National Park and 40 miles off the California mainland.

The National Park Service (NPS) manages the San Miguel Island, but it's been owned by the U.S. Navy since 1934. Especially during World War II and up until the 1970s, the Navy used the breathtaking isle as a bombing range. According to the Navy live ordnance still remains across the islet hidden in its native flora, so the Navy finally decided they needed to assess the situation and shut the island down to public visitation.

The military said it would move expeditiously to conduct its risk assessment, but they have yet to begin a sweep of live ordnance across the lonely isle, nor posted any signs regarding prohibited access. In the meantime, the NPS has been allowed to keep a skeleton crew on the island.


Looking at San Miguel Island in the distance. Photo taken from Santa Rosa Island.

The westernmost of California's Channel Islands, San Miguel receives less than 2000 visitors a year. Before the Navy closed access, the NPS allowed ranger-led hikes to places like Caliche Forest, Point Bennett and Harris and Cardwell Points, and anyone could wander off trail and explore the isle on their own. The 9,325-acre island is a lot of ground to cover for just one resident ranger.

The NPS has future plans to expand public visitation with campsites near Point Bennett. But if the Navy is so worried about the possibility of unexploded ordnance, why did it wait until now to address it? The Navy closed the island in April, with the busy summer tourist season looming on the horizon. Why not wait until the off-season to shut the island down? The Island Packers ferry doesn't transport visitors to San Miguel after October, meaning winter visitation is almost zero.

Theories as to what is really going on at San Miguel range from somewhat plausible to downright crazy. Those include a complete takeover by the military, a defense against drug-running Mexican cartels, and the Malaysian airliner–which at least one internet conspiracist believes crashed just off-island.

For now, anyone wanting to see San Miguel Island will have to do so from a boat or by the seat of a kayak, preferably during the 3-mile sprint across the San Miguel Passage west of neighboring Santa Rosa Island.


San Miguel Island in the distance