A Guide to California's Cant-Miss Los Padres National Forest

View from Little Caliente Hot Springs.
View from Little Caliente Hot Springs. Andre Theus
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If you ask someone from California if they’ve heard of Los Padres National Forest, there’s a good chance you’ll be met with a blank stare. Covering 1.7 million acres of California’s Central Coast from Monterey to northern Los Angeles—with ecosystems ranging from semi-desert to redwood forest and elevations varying from sea level to almost 9,000 feet—it’s an area so vast you might not realize you’re going through it unless you happen to notice the signs.

Protected Space

The view from Lookout Point on Highway 154 between Solvang and Santa Barbara.
    Karen Bakar
The view from Lookout Point on Highway 154 between Solvang and Santa Barbara. Karen Bakar

Despite its relative anonymity, Los Padres is California’s second largest national forest and is just as much a treasure as the Golden State’s more prominent attractions. For those visiting Santa Barbara, it makes for an unforgettable, adventure-filled side trip. The western fringe of Los Padres is only a few minutes drive from downtown Santa Barbara, and it encompasses the rugged Santa Ynez Mountain range, whose peaks afford some of the most stunning views of the Pacific coastline.

Traveling to Santa Barbara from the Santa Ynez Valley, you’ll get a nice introduction to Los Padres if you follow scenic Highway 154 instead of Highway 101. Along this old stagecoach route that winds through the mountains, you’ll pass Lake Cachuma, which has facilities for camping, boating, and fishing. Enjoy the breathtaking views as you descend toward the ocean.

An interesting detour is the cultural landmark of Painted Cave. Located along a windy, one-lane road off 154, this tiny State Historic Park features an enclosed cave with paintings made by Central California’s early inhabitants, the Chumash Indians.

With Los Padres as their backyard, those who live in Santa Barbara and its surrounding communities embrace an active, outdoor lifestyle. Fortunately for visitors, this national treasure, established as a protected area in 1898 by President William McKinley and officially named Los Padres in 1936 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, is available for all to enjoy. It is comprised of 10 congressionally designated wilderness areas, creating a vast playground for hiking, backpacking, camping, biking, fishing, swimming, horseback riding, rock climbing, and other outdoor pursuits.

Trails and Vistas

Hiking on the Romero Canyon Trail. 
    Karen Bakar
Hiking on the Romero Canyon Trail. Karen Bakar

Hiking is undoubtedly the best way to experience Los Padres, and within only about 15 minutes of Santa Barbara, there are dozens of trails of varying lengths and elevations. Most trails, except those in designated wilderness areas or otherwise marked, allow mountain biking as well.

One of the more popular trails in Santa Barbara is the Rattlesnake Trail, so named not because you’ll necessarily run into one of the infamous reptiles, but because it’s in Rattlesnake Canyon. The 3.5-mile route is shady and well maintained, and there are no mountain bikes allowed. Hikers and mountain bikers can head to Romero Canyon for a strenuous but fun uphill trek along a creek and through patches of clover. The first two miles are shady, but along the longer fire road you’ll soak in the sun and enjoy sweeping views of the coast.

If you’re short on time, but still want million-dollar views, you can always drive up to East Camino Cielo Road and hike to Montecito Peak. The trek is only about a mile from the trailhead and rewards with a spectacular 360-degree vista.

Fun and Adventure

Wildlife spotting in Little Caliente Hot Springs.
Wildlife spotting in Little Caliente Hot Springs. Andre Theus

Los Padres has plenty of trails with special perks. Two miles into the San Ysidro Trail, you’ll come to a waterfall that’s particularly impressive after a period of rain. The more challenging Three Ponds Beyond Seven Falls Trail is an adventurous mix of hiking, bouldering, and water fun, while Red Rock attracts families and teenagers on warm weekends to enjoy the deep swimming hole, picnic spots, rock climbing, and campgrounds along the Santa Ynez River.

Another favorite among locals is The Playgrounds off West Camino Cielo Road. There are no swings or slides here, but there is plenty of fun to be had rock climbing, scrambling over sandstone boulders, and squeezing through rock crevices.

One of Santa Barbara’s best-kept secrets is its hot springs, the perfect way to sooth your muscles after a grueling hike or bike ride. Hot Springs Canyon, 462 acres of land that was deeded to Los Padres in 2013 for expanded public access, is only about 15 minutes from Santa Barbara, and its springs can be reached by a number of trails. Farther away, in the Pendola Recreation Area, are Big Caliente Hot Springs and Little Caliente Hot Springs. With four nearby campgrounds, this is a popular weekend destination that requires either a long, mountainous drive, partly along a dirt road, or a long and strenuous hike.

Want to give your legs a rest? Hop in the saddle and explore Los Padres on horseback. Rancho Oso, about half an hour outside of Santa Barbara, not only offers trail rides, but you can also stay overnight in a variety of accommodations including tents, cabins, and even a covered wagon or tipi.

Backcountry Beauty

Many of Santa Barbara’s trails serve as points of departure for backpackers in search of a more substantial wilderness adventure. Blue Canyon, which has three places to camp, is located just behind the Santa Ynez Mountains, but can feel like a million miles from civilization. There are meadows that burst with wildflowers in the spring, and the creeks run fresh and clean after a good rain.

The beauty of backpacking is that it allows one to truly appreciate the wild beauty of this area. Los Padres is home to 468 species of wildlife and 1,200 plant species, making it one of the Earth’s most biologically diverse regions. While backpacking in Los Padres, look out for a California condor soaring overhead. Nearly extinct 30 years ago and still endangered, the condor is making a comeback in California thanks to conservation efforts that all can appreciate.

Getting the Most Out of Your Trip:

• The area of Los Padres near Santa Barbara is mountainous, so almost every hike you do will involve some elevation. Because many trails are uneven and rocky, it’s a good idea to wear proper hiking shoes.

• Driving in the Santa Ynez Mountains of Los Padres is beautiful, but many of the roads are narrow and windy, and there are sections with no guardrails. Be sure to keep your eyes on the road and avoid driving when visibility is low.

• Some areas of the forest require passes or permits, with the most common one being the Adventure Pass, which is $5 per day or $30 per year and sold through the Forest Service and select retailers in Santa Barbara, including Big 5 and REI. Hikers do not need to purchase an Adventure Pass for trails with amenities. For information, visit www.fs.usda.gov/main/r5/passes-permits, or call 805-968-6640.

• Dogs are allowed in Los Padres, but must be on leash in developed recreation sites, and are not allowed in swimming areas (except guide dogs.)

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