Four best Hikes in Santa Barbara California

Santa Barbara lies between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountain range along the central coast of California, a stunningly beautiful setting that leads it to be known as the “American Riviera”.  Both the beaches and mountains afford settings for good hiking and stunning views.  Four of the best options:

Hiking at Coal Oil Point

Most hiking in the Santa Barbara area involves one of two things: climbing up or climbing down; however, the Coal Oil Point region of nearby Goleta, CA offers excellent hikes along the beach and the bluffs that overlook them.  The point itself commands 270 degree views of the coast, including of UCSB and of the Channel Islands about 30 miles offshore.  Shorebirds are often plentiful.

To begin the hike, drive about ten miles north from downtown Santa Barbara along US-101 to the Storke/Glen Annie exit.  Take the exit and then make a left onto Storke Rd.  Turn right at Phelps Rd., drive to the end and park.  From here, a trail continues ahead into the woods for about a mile; take it.

Eventually this trail will come to the edge of the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  From there, one can chose either to hike along the scenic Bluff Trail to the right or to turn left and follow and path down to the beach; one can walk east along the beach to Coal Oil Point.  Exploring both paths is the best option.

With a knowledge of the area in mind, it is worth noting that this beach is often used for beach bonfires at night; alcohol is allowed.

Climbing Montecito Peak

Montecito Peak, when clear, affords excellent views of the entire Santa Barbara area and the Channel Islands beyond.  The hike, roughly seven miles round-trip and with an elevation change of about 2,200 feet, is rigorous but not-at-all a problem for someone in good physical condition.  The trail is well maintained if a bit rocky. 

To begin the hike, take US-101 south from downtown Santa Barbara to Hot Springs Rd. (turn left), then Sycamore Canyon Rd. (turn left), then Cold Springs Rd. (turn right), then E. Mountain rd. (turn right) before parking at the trailhead, which is near where the road fords a small creek.

Beginning up the trail, one first passes a series of small, picturesque waterfalls before beginning a steady climb.  Eventually the trail will reach a fire road; a short walk to the right leads to a panoramic view of Santa Barbara and the ocean—the trail continues to the left.  There are then a series of switchbacks.  Eventually the trail will fork, with the main trail continuing to a road at the top of the ridge and a very steep spur (the desired direction) going about a quarter mile to the top of Montecito Peak.  At the top, one is encouraged to linger and sign the logbook before retracing his steps down the mountain.

Hiking Gaviota Peak, Hot Springs and the Trespass Trail

The best mainland hiking near Santa Barbara is to be found about half an hour north along the coast in Gaviota, where a roughly six mile round-trip hike (2,000 ft. elevation gain) travels up the shaded, backside of the Santa Ynez ridge, passing hot springs along the way, before summiting at a spot with spectacular views of the ocean and uninhabited Gaviota coastline.  The trail then continues down the front face of the ridge, passing through country representative of Southern California before it was inhabited.

To begin the hike, take US-101 north for about forty minutes from downtown Santa Barbara to the first exit after it leaves the coast, turn right and park at the Gaviota Peak trailhead.  There is a two-dollar fee to park, which must be paid in exact change.

The trail, wide to allow access for service vehicles, first passes through a field before beginning its moderate ascent to the summit.  Along the way, a fork to the right leads to the Gaviota Hot Springs, which are sometimes suitable for bathing, depending on conditions.  The summit is marked by a survey marker and has a logbook.  The return down the front of the mountain—a much narrower trail, long pants recommended—is the best part; be sure to stop occasionally to take in the sheer beauty of the place.

Transiting Santa Cruz Island from Scorpion Anchorage to Smuggler’s Cove

Although not as easily accessed as the above, no hiking in the Santa Barbara area compares to hiking on the Channel Islands, about thirty miles offshore.  A strenuous day-hike on Santa Cruz Island, accessed by boat from Ventura, CA, leads to views of rocky ocean cliffs, meadows, canyons and the Island Fox, a species of miniature fox that can be found nowhere else in the world.  It is also possible to camp on the island, allowing for longer hikes.

To reach the island, reservation are required with Island Packers, the only concessioner authorized by the National Park Service to provide boat service to the island.  As of 2012, tickets are about $55 per person, round-trip.  It costs $15 per night to camp.

The suggested day-hike is about eleven miles round-trip (1,000 ft. elevation gain, twice), so be sure to allow enough time to get back to a returning boat.  Also, one must be sure to pack enough food and water for the day: there is no food sold and only one source of potable water on the island, at the campground. 

From the boat landing site at Scorpion Anchorage, hike up the west side of the cove onto the bluffs, then along them for about two miles to the end of the trail and an overlook of Potato Harbor.  One often hears, and occasionally sees, sea lions here.  At this point, backtrack to a fork in the trail and take the right fork to descend to the campground, where island foxes are often seen.  Turn right at the campground to begin hiking into Scorpion Canyon.  After a time, the trail will turn left and ascend rapidly out of the canyon; continue to follow it north.  The trail then descends through rolling meadows with excellent views of neighboring Anacapa Island before reaching sea level at Smuggler’s Cove—there are picnic tables, a rocky beach and a pit toilet here.  To return to Scorpion Anchorage, and the boat, hike directly south along the trail.

Santa Barbara is quite literally one of the most beautiful places in the United States and, likely, in the world.  These hikes offer four complementary ways of coming to appreciate that beauty.