SANTA BARBARA - Half a century ago, when Southern California was in the throes of a post-war real estate boom, the citizens of Santa Barbara recognized a treasure in their possession: beautiful coastal expanses that were infinitely more appealing in their natural state.
Over the ensuing years, these open spaces were zealously guarded, and today, residents and visitors can escape the developed world by taking just a short drive out of town. It's a hiker's paradise, no matter your preferred terrain.
Ascending a mountain summit? Plunging deep into
Here are four commendable hikes, one for each category:
Along the stretch of Central Coast just north of Santa Barbara, the mountains rise steeply from the water's edge. Gaviota Peak, for example, juts to 2,458 feet in less than three inland miles. The view at the top is reward enough for the relentless ascent on a dusty fire road.
The trailhead is just beyond the tunnel that bores through the Santa Ynez Mountains as U.S. 101 turns sharply inland and north. Bring plenty of water, because the hike is six miles round trip and there is no shade for most of the climb.
After a walk through a shady forest of oaks, alongside a brook that was robust even during last year's recent drought, most hikers take a short detour to some hot springs (signs point the way). There are a few pools for lounging, where rock walls have been crudely fashioned to capture bathtub-warm, sulfur-scented water that is gray in color. But don't get too comfortable; there's a lot of trail ahead.
Cross the dam to find a narrow trail that ultimately regains the fire road. Now the work begins.
And this is particularly true at the ultimate ridge -- because the breeze is cooled by the ocean and scented with sage from the hillside below. Turn right to the summit, and drink in a superb view. There was a little bit of haze on the water during my visit, so the Channel Islands offshore were just faint outlines on the horizon. Point Conception stabbed into the ocean at the right. Below, 101 was just a ribbon of asphalt clinging to the coastal bluff. The view to the south took
Between here and the Mexican border, there are precious few open coastal spaces of similar scope. That thought alone was justification for lingering a bit to savor it.
At the edge of triangular-shaped Tin Can Meadow, it appeared someone had placed a gray boulder on top of another rock.
Until it moved. It was an owl, perched serenely in the early morning, looking down on the buff grasses for the movement of an unsuspecting rodent. I observed the majestic bird for many minutes from a short distance away, and it seemed utterly unconcerned.
This was just one of the rewards of a six-mile round-trip hike of Rattlesnake
In his book "Walking the California Coast," John McKinney writes that the Chamber of Commerce thought the name of the region too foreboding when it established a trail here in the early 1900s, but efforts to name it Chamber of Commerce Trail never took hold -- understandably. It's been called Rattlesnake Canyon Trail to this day.
The narrow track cuts back and forth across a stream as it climbs into the canyon. The air is scented with sumac, but at times you might forget that you're on California's Central Coast. The scene more closely resembles the Adirondacks, as painted by Winslow Homer in the 19th century -- steep rock
The trail ultimately climbs to Gibraltar Road, which affords a sweeping view of the town and the coastline.
Because of its proximity to residential areas, the trail is particularly popular with exercise enthusiasts, who power-walk while closing out nature with MP3 headphones or conversing loudly with each other. But not even the owls seem perturbed by them.
Three state parks pepper the coastline north of Santa Barbara: El Capitan, Refugio and Gaviota. From any of them, a visitor may take an unhurried stroll along a coastline that has been spared the luxury home development so prevalent from Malibu to south Orange County. The only signs of human intrusion along here are 101 and the railroad tracks, both of which pick their way along the coastal bluff.
From any of these parks, it's possible to walk for great distances along the beach, but the terrain isn't always hospitable. From El Capitan, heading south, you'll alternately walk on a dirt path, wet beach sand and a field of wave-polished stones.
But the series of coves along the way, which are not otherwise accessible to the highway above, provide some wondrous serenity. The shore break slaps against sand-colored boulders. Gray seagulls rest atop pungent patches of kelp at the water's edge. Pelicans glide close to the water's surface just offshore.
Before setting out, it's absolutely imperative to check a tide table. The swath of sand is not wide along this coastline, and many an unsuspecting beachcomber has padded along wet-packed sand on the outbound leg only to slosh through shore break and scramble over slippery boulders on the return. The most advisable strategy is to depart an hour or so before the lowest tide and return as the tide starts coming in.
And if that prospect seems at all daunting, it's possible to enjoy the coastal beauty while staying basically in one spot. El Capitan State Beach has picnic grounds in a phenomenal setting -- on a grassy shelf perched above the water's edge at the south end of the park. The beach is fairly wide on both sides of this spot.
INTO THE PASS
The iconic image of Gaviota is the towering wooden railroad trestle that bridges a gap in the coastal bluff. That picturesque feature will likely find its way into every photo you snap from the Gaviota Pass Trail, which zigs and zags its way up a steep slope on its way to the knife-edge pass.
The terrain here is sandstone, and the trail has been ground to the consistency of dune sand by the tramp of hiking boots over the years. Higher up, sandstone boulders have colorful splotches of red, the result of oxidation. Erosion of the soft rock has also created a number of caves along the way.
There is a confusing network of trails up on top, none marked with signs. So we never found a promised overlook of exclusive Hollister Ranch, and instead turned inland toward the pass itself.
But this was a clear case of the five-mile round-trip journey being more important than the destination. On a weekday, the trail was all but deserted. Sunlight fought its way through a thick cloud cover and produced silvery patches far out on the ocean. Traffic hummed along 101 far below. And the trestle was a constant reckoning point, occasionally rewarding us with the sight of a train clattering over its length.
IF YOU GO
EL CAPITAN STATE PARK: The state park is 17 miles north of Santa Barbara of U.S. 101. Day use fee is $8. Hiking along the beach is best at low tide. Note: There is also beach hiking a bit farther north at Refugio and Gaviota state parks.
GAVIOTA PASS: At Gaviota State Park, bear right before the entry kiosk and drive up the hill to the parking area at the trailhead. The hike to the pass is five miles round trip.
GAVIOTA PEAK: Just after passing through the Gaviota Pass tunnel on U.S. 101 north, exit at Highway 1 (Lompoc), turn right to the frontage road, then right again to where the road dead-ends at the parking area. The hike is six miles round trip.
RATTLESNAKE CANYON: Navigation of the twisting roads in the Santa Barbara foothills is not easy. You might want to consult a map first. The trailhead is across Las Canoas Road from Skofield Park, in the hills northeast of the Santa Barbara Mission. Access it from Mission Canyon Road, which passes to the right of the mission. The hike to the Gibraltar Road overlook is six miles round trip.
EL CAPITAN CANYON MAKES CAMPING CUSHY
SANTA BARBARA -- Wind-blown leaves in the frying pan. Drippy condensation on the inside of the tent. A sleeping pad that can't quite cushion that rock or acorn or whatever it is digging into your hip.
Camping isn't for everyone. Or everyone in a particular traveling group.
El Capitan Canyon, along U.S. 101 just north of Santa Barbara, presents a compromise. It offers safari tents, which are outfitted with wood floors, beds with linens, electric lights and small space heaters. Guests can cook dinner on a camp stove and gather folding chairs around a fire ring, but when it's time to go to sleep, more civilized creature comforts beckon. Also, a short walk away is a bathhouse, with showers and toilets that flush -- further smoothing out the concept of roughin' it.
The private campground also has cabins with bathrooms, and for all guests there is a heated pool plus a market and deli.
This comparative camping luxury comes with a price, though -- a steep one. During the peak months of April through November, a safari queen at El Capitan rents for $145 a night. (Cabins, by contrast, are priced from $225 to $350). Triple digits for a tent - and you still have to walk to the bathroom and cook dinner on a rusty grill grate. But for families that have both camping devotees and others who want sheets and showers and maid service, this might be just the thing.
Although the campground's Web site characterizes this as "beach camping," don't believe it. It is set in a canyon -- though a beautiful one -- that is inland of El Capitan State Park, U.S. 101 and the South Pacific railroad tracks. The beach is fairly convenient, but to get there guests must trek out of the canyon, under the highway and through the state park. Bikes are available for guest use, but they are one-speed cruisers, and that climb from the beach involves a long stretch of brutal pedaling.
The state park campground has a more enviable setting -- some of the sites have ocean views -- and its basic rate is $25 per night. But it is also subject to crushing demand; most of the summer is already booked up.
Reservations may be made online up to a year in advance, and availability is a little looser now and in the fall. A campground map reveals the prime campsites -- close to the ocean bluff and far from the highway -- while a master calendar reveals open dates by campsite.
El Capitan Canyon: www.elcapitancanyon.com; (866) 352-2729.
El Capitan State Park: www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=601 (click on "Online Reservations" for availability); (805) 968-1033.