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10 Top-Rated Hiking Trails in Santa Barbara

Written by Karen Hastings
May 31, 2019

Seductively squeezed between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the sea, Santa Barbara offers some of the most scenic day hikes in California. Standing atop these rugged peaks, you can gaze out over striking views of the city, the ocean, and the Channel Islands shimmering on the horizon. Stroll through shady, oak-studded canyons, where swimming holes and waterfalls make perfect picnic venues, or wander through wildflower-flecked meadows.

Wildlife sightings are an added bonus on Santa Barbara hikes. Along the coast, clifftop trails offer spectacular views of the Pacific, where you can see harbor seals basking in secluded coves, and if you're lucky, dolphins and even whales not far from shore. Hiking trails also lace the Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens, though access requires an entry fee. Wherever you hike, make sure you stick to the marked trails, and keep an eye out for poison oak.

From easy family-friendly hikes through sycamore-studded canyons to challenging summit climbs, Santa Barbara is a hiker's haven. Explore the area's beautiful scenery with our list of the top hiking trails in Santa Barbara.

1. Inspiration Point from Tunnel Road

A hiker enjoying the view from Inspiration Point | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

One of Santa Barbara's most popular hikes, Inspiration Point is true to its name, culminating at a small summit with gorgeous 180-degree views of the city, ocean, islands, and Santa Ynez Mountains. This 3.75-mile, out-and-back, moderate trail is a great hike for visitors to Santa Barbara, as it provides a lovely overview of the entire area.

The shortest version of the trail begins at Tunnel Road and continues along Tunnel Trail to Jesusita Trail, ascending about 800 feet in elevation to the summit. Besides the breathtaking views from the summit, highlights of this hike include the wide-open canyon views, creek crossings, and distinctive sandstone rock crags rising from the rugged landscape. Once you reach the summit, linger for a while and enjoy the beautiful Santa Barbara views before tackling the return descent.

The best time of day to attempt this hike is later in the afternoon, when the light turns to a rich honey-hue, and the trail offers more shade. This is a dog-friendly trail and it's popular with local trail runners and mountain bikers. Note that parking is limited at the trailhead, and tickets are frequently issued for parking violations. You can access the trailhead at Tunnel Road, off Mission Canyon Road.

2. The Douglas Family Preserve

The Douglas Family Preserve

The Douglas Family Preserve | Damian Gadal / photo modified

Known by long-time locals as the Wilcox property, the 70-acre dog-friendly Douglas Family Preserve is one of the most rewarding of Santa Barbara's easy hikes. Named for its movie star donor, Michael Douglas, and his father, Kirk, this much-loved trail is a favorite with dog owners because it's one of the few areas in Santa Barbara where your furry friends are allowed to roam off leash in designated areas.

Skirting magnificent sea cliffs, the three-mile trail winds through eucalyptus trees, oaks, and cypress trees, with stunning views of the ocean and Arroyo Burro Beach below. This beautiful trail is also family friendly, although children should steer clear of the cliff.

Lucky hikers might spot dolphins or whales offshore, and monarch butterflies flit through the eucalyptus trees here during winter. Red-tail hawks are also common, perched atop the trees. One corner of the park is a popular launching spot for hang gliders.

You can reach the preserve from the east at Medcliff Road and park near the intersection with Selrose Lane, or access it via a trail through the estuary from the Arroyo Burro (Hendry's) Beach parking lot.

If you want to incorporate a beach walk into this hike, you can make this a loop hike. From the preserve, simply stroll through the residential area along Medcliff Road, turn right onto Mesa Lane, and descend the stairs at Mesa Lane Beach. From here, you can stroll along the water's edge back to Arroyo Burro Beach, but you'll have to time it for low tide.

3. The Coastal Vista Trail: Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve

Harbor seals at the Carpinteria Seal Sanctuary | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Harbor seals are the highlight of this spectacular clifftop walk in Carpinteria, about 12 miles from downtown Santa Barbara. The entire stretch of this flat and easy one-mile trail threads along the edge of towering sea cliffs in one of the largest open spaces left along Santa Barbara County's south coast.

Along the way, you can peer down upon harbor seals basking along the shore at the Carpinteria Seal Sanctuary and watch these gentle creatures frolicking in the surf and crawling up the beach like giant caterpillars. From December through May, the beach is closed for the seals to birth without disturbances.

From the harbor seal rookery, the trail continues to the coastal salt marsh, through Tar Pits State Park, past eucalyptus trees and scenic ocean lookouts with views to some of the Channel Islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, and Santa Rosa. Plein air artists often prop up their easels along this stretch to capture the gorgeous views. Birding is also popular—the salt marsh is home to more than 200 species. Bring binoculars to spot the wildlife.

To access the trail, exit from US 101 south at Ballard Avenue in Carpinteria. Drive towards the ocean and head to the bluffs parking lot. Note that dogs are not allowed near the seal rookery.

4. Cold Spring East Fork

Waterfall on Cold Spring East Fork trail | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

One of Santa Barbara's best-loved canyon trails, Cold Spring East Fork offers picturesque pools, several cascades, and a humbling look at Mother Nature's wrath. This canyon was pummeled by the 2018 debris flow, and you can still see the huge boulders scattered throughout the canyon and the remains of the road that washed away.

Today, the trail is in decent condition, and it follows along the creek with a couple of fun boulder-hopping crossings along the way. You can adjust the length of this trail to suit your hiking ability and energy level, with options ranging from an easy jaunt to the first pools, where kids can hunt for frogs and salamanders, to a strenuous 4.5-mile, one-way hike to East Camino Cielo.

The hike begins from Mountain Drive in Montecito and continues past pools and small waterfalls (after good rains). From here, the trail ascends steeply up the canyon through chaparral to Montecito Overlook, 1.5 miles from the trailhead, with beautiful views over the city. In the spring, wildflowers bloom along the hillsides, where the blackened trunks of burnt oaks rise from the lush new growth after fires roared through this canyon.

On the upper sections of the trail, you zigzag up to Montecito Peak (3.5 miles from the trailhead) and East Camino Cielo (4.5 miles from the trailhead) for spectacular views to the sea, gaining 2,675 feet in elevation to the crest.

After admiring the views, you can descend down the back side of the Santa Ynez Mountains or return back to the trailhead. This is a great hike for a hot day since the trail is shaded until the upper reaches.

5. San Ysidro Trail

Hikers on the San Ysidro Trail | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Accessed from the upscale enclave of Montecito, this is another great hike to appreciate the raw power of nature. The debris flow of January 2018 scoured this canyon, sending huge boulders tumbling down the slopes, but it's still a beautiful hike. After good rains, the rush of water in the creek provides a soothing soundtrack, with several small cascades along the way. In the spring, purple and yellow wildflowers fleck the hillsides.

The trail begins in a residential neighborhood along paved roads before hitting the dirt trail. For most of the way, it follows the San Ysidro Creek through a cool canyon. After about two miles, you reach an 80-foot waterfall, which gushes after good rains and barely trickles in the dry season.

When the pool here is full of water, you can enjoy a refreshing dip and turn around at the waterfall for an easy 4.4-mile round trip hike or continue, zigzagging steeply upwards through dry chaparral and oak forests to the 3,450-foot summit at East Camino Cielo. From here, the views of the mountains, the sea, and, on clear days, the Channel Islands are gorgeous.

This is a great hike for hot, sunny days, as the trail remains shady to the waterfall. If you make it all the way, the trail is a nine-mile roundtrip hike, giving the calves and lungs a good workout as it gains 2,674 feet in elevation.

You can access the trail from the end of East Mountain Drive to the left of Park Lane in Montecito. Look out for poison oak and bring plenty of water for the steep climb.

6. Rattlesnake Canyon

Rattlesnake Canyon in the spring | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Yes, rattlesnakes do sometimes sun themselves on this trail, however chances are slim that you'll actually see one. About 15 minutes from town, this fairly easy five-mile, out-and-back hike is usually a little less crowded than Inspiration Point in the adjacent canyon, and it's one of the only trails in the front country where bikes are banned.

A large sign marks the trailhead, which lies near Skofield Park. The trail follows a creek through chaparral, oaks, and sycamores, and continues up to a meadow. Look for wildflowers after the rains. From here, you can return the way you came for a 3.5-mile hike, or take a fork in the road and zigzag up switchbacks about a half mile to Gibraltar Road, where you can breathe in beautiful views across the mountains to the sea. This is a popular spot with local rock climbers and hang gliders.

If you want more of a workout, you can take the Connector trail to Tunnel Trail and East Camino Cielo for more beautiful views. Access the trailhead via Las Canoas Road.

7. Cathedral Peak

View of Cathedral Peak

View of Cathedral Peak | dailymatador / photo modified

Cathedral Peak is one of the most challenging, yet rewarding hikes in Santa Barbara. This strenuous four-mile round trip hike gains 2,350 feet in elevation and is not suitable for children or anyone with agility issues. Access to the trailhead is from Tunnel Road, about three quarters of a mile beyond the locked gate. Follow the Jesusita Trail until it descends into Mission Canyon.

After continuing upstream, an opening in a wall reveals the steep and narrow hiking trail to Cathedral Peak, which requires climbing over boulders and weaving through thick chaparral. Along the way, you can see beautiful views of Seven Falls. The approach to Cathedral Peak, one of the Mission Crags, is steep and requires sure footing, but once at the top, the views are spectacular. From here, you can peer right over Santa Barbara to the sea.

For more of a workout, you can continue to La Cumbre Peak, although the route is not well defined.

8. Romero Canyon Loop

Bush poppy

Bush poppy | brewbooks / photo modified

Climbing mountains that rise close to the sea, this moderate 10-mile loop offers more stunning panoramas of the city and ocean with less people than some of the other view hikes. It's also one of the front country's few loop trails. Romero road once took drivers over the Santa Ynez Mountains until it was devastated by mudslides in 1978 and closed to the public. It's now a popular hiking and biking trail.

The trailhead lies off Bella Vista Drive beyond a gate in Montecito. For about two miles, the trail follows a shady creek bed through the narrow canyon before ascending to the ridge line through chaparral. From here, you can gaze out over gorgeous views of Montecito, the sea, and the Channel Islands. Along the way, you'll encounter several creek crossings and beautiful wildflowers in the spring.

If you walk along the ridge line to the west, you'll reach Romero Saddle, an elevation gain of 2,000 feet from the trailhead, and the road will lead you back down. Bring plenty of water as the second part of the hike is exposed to the sun.

9. Seven Falls

Canyon view from the Seven Falls trail | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

The moderately-easy, 3.2-mile out-and-back Seven Falls trail offers cool cascades after good rains and fun boulder hopping when the falls aren't flowing. Park at the popular Tunnel Road trailhead and continue past the Tunnel Trail turnoff on the Jesusita trail until you descend into Mission Canyon.

After a few creek crossings and some boulder scrambling, the falls lie about a quarter of a mile up the trail. These seven stone basins usually fill with water in the spring, cascading down in steps. When the water is deep enough, it's a beautiful spot for a swim.

You can access this trail via Tunnel Road, although the parking is limited, and violations are swiftly ticketed. Leashed dogs are permitted on this trail.

10. Stevens Park

The oak-studded Stevens Park trail | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Of all the Santa Barbara hiking spots, this trail is often overlooked due to its location in the heart of a residential area of Santa Barbara. The trailhead starts at Stevens Park, but once you venture beyond the parking lot and the children's playground, you find yourself strolling through a forest of ancient oaks and sycamores, through flower-flecked meadows, and along a cool rushing creek. This 1.6-mile out-and-back hike is a fantastic family hike, with a couple of creek crossings to keep the kids entertained. If the creek is flowing, it's usually easy enough to boulder hop your way across.

This trail also connects with the Jesusita trail in case you're up for a longer hike. You can take your pooch, but dogs must be kept on a leash.

Where to Stay in Santa Barbara

  • Luxury Hotels: In a superb State Street location, a block from the beach, the Moorish-meets-Spanish-Colonial Hotel Californian is a stylish Santa Barbara newcomer. Swim in the rooftop pool, relax in the Turkish-style spa, and dine in the chic Mediterranean restaurant.

    Tucked behind hedges, a short stroll from downtown, Simpson House Inn pampers guests in its individually decorated rooms and cottages sprinkled amid an acre of English gardens. For easy access to the beach and hiking trails, stay in Montecito's elegant Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara.
  • Mid-Range Hotels: Across the street from East Beach and the bike path, the great-value Santa Barbara Inn is handy to Funk Zone restaurants and family attractions like the zoo, while Harbor House Inn, at the other end of the waterfront, offers studios with kitchenettes, perfect for longer stays. Right near Stearns Wharf, the family-owned Marina Beach Motel has affordable rates, friendly staff, and free loaner bikes.
  • Budget Hotels: Cheap digs are hard to come by in pricey Santa Barbara, but the retro Agave Inn delivers on affordable rates and a great location, steps to shops and restaurants. The friendly staff and colorful rooms are highlights. In a historic Spanish Revival building, the Holiday Inn Express Santa Barbara is right downtown and only a 15-minute walk to the waterfront.

More Related Hiking Articles on PlanetWare.com

Choosing the Best Hiking Boots: Whether you are heading off on local walks or backcountry hiking trips, a good pair of hiking boots is important. Better traction and stability on the trails will likely mean less injuries. See our articles on the Best Men's Hiking Boots of 2019 and Best Women's Hiking Boots of 2019 to help you choose a pair that's right for you.

More Places to Hike in California: The state's diverse wilderness areas provide outstanding opportunities for hiking. Find out about the best places to hit the trails with our articles on the Top-Rated Hikes in Yosemite National Park and Redwood National and State Parks, home to the tallest trees on the planet. The famous Pacific Crest Trail also slices through California. Experience a taste of this legendary trek with our article on the Best Day Hikes on the Pacific Crest Trail.

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