10 Must-Do Adventures in the Santa Barbara Outdoors

You’ll find some of California’s best surfing in Santa Barbara.
You’ll find some of California’s best surfing in Santa Barbara. Bryan Zavestoski
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With towering mountains, deep canyons, thick forests, and pristine beaches all within a 30-minute drive, Santa Barbara is a haven for outdoor adventurers. On any given weekend (thanks to the region’s year-round mild climate) you’ll be able to seek out an unforgettable experience doing the outdoor activity of your choice. We’ve selected 10 of our favorite, must-do adventures when visiting the American Riviera.

1. Surfing at Campus Point

Both experienced surfers and first-timers can find waves around Santa Barbara.
Both experienced surfers and first-timers can find waves around Santa Barbara. DieselDemon

Being a coastal city, Santa Barbara has several prime surf spots. However, one of the best and most popular is Campus Point, named after its close vicinity to the UCSB campus. From late September through January, expect swells to reach up to 15 feet on peak winter days. A couple hundred yards farther down the beach, though, is "Poles" which picks up the leftover currents from the Point—perfect for longboarding or stand-up paddle boarding over the kelp beds (especially for beginners).

2. Sea Cave Kayaking at the Channel Islands

Sea kayaking is the best way to explore the Channel Islands and some of the best sea caves in the world.
Sea kayaking is the best way to explore the Channel Islands and some of the best sea caves in the world. David Wilson

The best way to experience the natural splendor of the Channel Islands is by kayak. A grouping of ecologically rich islands off the Ventura coast, this national park not only has camping and hiking opportunities, but also some of the most beautiful sea caves in the world. The Santa Barbara Adventure Company offers a variety of sea cave kayaking tours with snorkeling, whale watching, camping, and hiking packages included. Tours range from beginner to advanced levels and are best reserved during the spring and summer months.

3. Camping at Refugio State Beach

Camp within sight of the Pacific at Refugio State Beach.
Camp within sight of the Pacific at Refugio State Beach. ars5017

This beach campground is a local favorite. Campsites sit along a crescent-shaped cove fringed by palm trees that make you feel as if you were at a secluded ocean oasis. Enjoy a weekend of fishing, snorkeling, swimming, or just snoozing on the beach, and on Fridays during the summer months, the park staff offers free sea kayaking lessons. Refugio State Beach is located 20 miles west of Santa Barbara along Highway 101 and is just up the road from El Capitan State Beach, another popular beach campground.

4. Hang Gliding over Elings Park’s South Bluffs

Elings Park is a 230-acre park that boasts incredible panoramic views of the city and surrounding beaches. To get an even more spectacular view of the Santa Barbara coastline, though, you can learn how to paraglide or hang glide off the park’s South Bluffs. It’s the ideal hill for learning and training due to the prevailing gentle winds off the Pacific. For lessons, contact one of the park’s partners: Eagle Paragliding, Fly Above All, or Fly Away Hang Gliding.

5. Cycling Gibraltar Road

Gibraltar Road offers one of the most famous cycling climbs in the country—and one of the toughest.
Gibraltar Road offers one of the most famous cycling climbs in the country—and one of the toughest. Oleg.

Considered one of the most iconic bike rides in Southern California, Gibraltar Road showcases unbelievable views, but is not recommended for the faint of heart. This is because it’s considered the toughest cycling ascent in the area, gaining approximately 5,000 feet in elevation over the course of 22 miles one way. It’s a demanding, uninterrupted 9-mile climb to the first summit then a brief 2-mile winding descent before hitting another 2-mile climb to the top. But it’s worth it for the epic views, ride-above-the-clouds sensation, and unmatched feeling of accomplishment.

6. Trail Running Rattlesnake Canyon

A view of the surrounding mountains from Rattlesnake Canyon.
    Kara Kieffer
A view of the surrounding mountains from Rattlesnake Canyon. Kara Kieffer

For a moderate level of trail running in Santa Barbara’s front country, Rattlesnake Canyon provides a 3.5-mile out-and-back trail (add another 0.75 miles to Gibraltar Road) that’s excellent for short tempo runs. Don’t worry, the trail is named after its serpentine quality and not because it’s filled with life-threatening rattlesnakes. Plus, there are waterfalls, pools, and creeks along this route that make it a scenic run through a portion of the Los Padres National Forest.

7. Hiking to Inspiration Point

The trail to Inspiration Point, which is one of Santa Barbara’s top hiking destinations. 
    Mark McKnight
The trail to Inspiration Point, which is one of Santa Barbara’s top hiking destinations. Mark McKnight

There are two routes up Inspiration Point, the most popular hiking destination in Santa Barbara. The first starts at the Cater Filtration Plant/Jesusita trailhead. The second starts on the other side of the mountain at Tunnel Trail near the Edison access road. The shorter, more efficient route is to take the Tunnel trailhead, a 3.5-mile round trip hike with about 800 feet of elevation gain. For a more rigorous hike, the Jesusita start promises a 7-mile round trip hike that’ll wear out the legs with steep climbs. Regardless of which route you take, though, the views of the ocean and the Channel Islands make this the ultimate sunset hike.

8. Bouldering at Lizard's Mouth

The aptly named Lizard’s Mouth is a popular spot for bouldering.
The aptly named Lizard’s Mouth is a popular spot for bouldering. Pete Wolf

Situated along the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains, overlooking the city of Goleta, sits a bouldering cave that has a 20-foot traverse known as the Lizard’s Mouth. To get there, you take the 154 toward Santa Ynez and then take West Camino Cielo in order to reach the trailhead. It’s a quick quarter-mile from the trailhead to Lizard’s Mouth, where you’ll soon encounter groupings of large boulders—some you can scramble atop for sweeping vistas.

9. Backpacking the Blue Canyon Trail

Explore Santa Barbara’s backcountry with an overnight backpacking trip along the Santa Ynez Fault. The trail is only 5 miles long, but goes through a narrow canyon with several en route overnight camps—Forbush, Cottam, and Blue Canyon—and a stream that flows year-round. Besides its convenient access to designated campgrounds, the Blue Canyon reveals unique blue-green rock outcroppings (hence its name), and can be customized to venture into most of the upper river canyon portions of the trail as well.

10. Post-adventure brews at Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co.

Go ahead, you’ve earned that post-adventure beer at the Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co.
Go ahead, you’ve earned that post-adventure beer at the Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. Photo courtesy of FigMtnBrew

Finally, after a weekend’s worth of satisfying outdoor adventures, treat yourself to the best craft beers born in the Santa Ynez Valley. A family-owned brewery, the Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. first opened in Buellton, Calif., in 2010 and has expanded to a total of six taprooms, one of them being in downtown Santa Barbara. Their beers represent much of the local flavor and outdoor features of the surrounding area, with names like Lizard’s Mouth IIPA, Paradise Road Pilsner, Fig Mountain Mosaic, and Los Padres Pilsner. Cheers!

Originally written for Visit Santa Barbara.

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