10 Top-Rated Hiking Trails in Santa Barbara
Seductively squeezed between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the sea, Santa Barbara boasts 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. In shady canyons, swimming holes and soothing waterfalls make refreshing rest spots and picnic venues. Wildlife sightings are an added bonus. 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, glimpse dolphins and even whales not far from shore. Hiking trails also lace the Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens, though access requires an entry fee. From easy family-friendly hikes through sycamore-studded canyons to challenging summit climbs, Santa Barbara is a hiker's haven. Before you hit the trails, be sure to take plenty of water and keep an eye out for poison oak.
1. The Douglas Family Preserve
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 their 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. Lucky hikers might spot dolphins or whales offshore. This beautiful trail is also family friendly - although children should steer clear of the cliff. 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 sidewalk from the Arroyo Burro Beach parking lot.
2. Inspiration Point
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. This four-mile out-and-back, moderate trail begins at Tunnel Trail (accessible from the Jesusita Trail) and continues for about a mile on a paved road before turning into a dirt trail beyond a metal gate. Eventually, it crosses a creek, which may not be flowing depending upon rainfall amounts. The trail ascends 800 feet to a summit with breathtaking views of the city, ocean, and islands, as well as the Santa Ynez Mountains. Cathedral Peak looms behind. 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.
3. The Coastal Vista Trail: Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve
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 a harbor seal rookery on the beach below 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 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
One of Santa Barbara's best-loved canyon trails, Cold Spring East Fork offers picturesque pools under shady alders a short stroll from your parking spot. 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 includes several creek crossings 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. 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. Look out for poison oak along the way.
5. San Ysidro Trail
Perfect for hot, sunny days, the moderately easy San Ysidro Trail in the posh enclave of Montecito remains shady most of the way. After good rains, the waterfalls and swimming hole here are a welcome reward for weary hikers. 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. 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
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 is 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 a fire road 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. Those seeking more of a workout can take the Connector trail to Tunnel Trail and East Camino Cielo for more gorgeous views. Access the trailhead via Las Canoas Road.
7. Cathedral Peak
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
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 upscale 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. 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. Tangerine Falls
When they are at full flow, the 100-foot Tangerine Falls are among Santa Barbara's most impressive cascades. Even if the falls are barely a trickle, this 2.5-mile moderately easy out-and-back hike is a great pick for a hot sunny day, since it lies mostly in the shade. The trail starts at the main Cold Spring trailhead, where the creek crosses the road on Mountain Drive in Montecito. Take the West Fork trail and continue for about three quarters of a mile until you reach the unsigned turnoff to the falls. It can be difficult to spot. Pause at the fern-fringed falls to hear the soothing sounds of gushing water over the mossy rocks after good rains. Mineral deposits have tinted the rocks a tangerine color, giving the falls their name. Stream crossing and rock hopping is part of the adventure on this trail, which ascends about 900 feet in elevation. Keep an eye out for poison oak, and wear sturdy shoes as the final climb to the base of the falls can be slippery.
10. Seven Falls
The moderately-easy 2.5-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.
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. Friendly staff, colorful rooms, and free breakfast 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.
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