When it comes to combining the mountains and the sea, it’s tough to think of a better place in the country for hiking than Santa Barbara, California. The city is tucked between the Pacific and the Santa Ynez Mountains, which run east to west through the Los Padres National Forest, creating a postcard-perfect backdrop for this coastal retreat.
But more importantly for hikers, it features some amazing trails to explore. It will take some climbing, but dedicated hikers are rewarded with incredible vistas and views of the Pacific Ocean. Here are seven of the top hikes are around Santa Barbara that features incredible views—make sure to bring your camera.
1. Channel Islands National Park
While the five islands that make up this national park are just off the coast of Santa Barbara, they offer a stunning contrast to the mainland. Isolated for thousands of years, the five islands in the park have developed their own unique plant and animal life, as well as a rugged beauty that shouldn’t be missed. Each island has a unique look and feel to be explored. On Santa Barbara Island, you’ll find five miles of hiking trails that top the low mountain tops to offer incredible coastal views.
2. Gaviota Peak
The 2,458-foot Gaviota Peak is an excellent challenge for those who want a more serious hike. The 6.5-mile loop trail starts just west of Santa Barbara in Goleta, Calif., in the Gaviota State Park, about a half hour’s drive from downtown Santa Barbara. The peak is just two miles inland of the ocean, which means you’re going to have some steep climbing (there is a 2,150 foot elevation gain on the way up), and you’re going to get some excellent views of the Pacific once you get there. From the parking lot just off the 101 Freeway, the trail splits after a short distance, and you can choose to take the mostly singletrack Trespass Trail to the top. The trail does loop however, so you can take the fire road back down for another view.
3. Seven Falls Hike
The moderately easy, 2.5-mile out-and-back Seven Falls Trail is an excellent option for a hot, sunny day. Start at the Tunnel Road trailhead and follow the paved, and then dirt, access road for about a mile. Once you hit the creek, turn right and make your way up the creek bed. You’ll do some boulder scrambling and the waterfall is about a quarter mile up the trail. In the spring, the seven stone basins fill with water and it’s a nice spot for a swim. Be aware that parking is limited, and violators are quickly ticketed.
4. Tequepis Trail
The Tequepis Trail is another challenging hike that feature a high elevation gain in a relatively short distance. The trailhead is located at the edge of Lake Cachuma, about a half hour’s drive northwest of downtown on the north side of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Over the 8.4-mile round trip, you’ll discover excellent views of the lake and the valley, while gaining 2,300 feet in elevation. Starting from the parking lot for the Circle V Camp, you’ll take a short trip on a dirt road, over Tequepis Creek, and through a large metal gate that marks the boundary of the Los Padres National Forest. The trail narrows from service roads to singletrack as it rises. You’ll find some tree-covered sections, but the trail does become exposed as it nears its end just to the east of Broadcast Peak.
5. Montecito Peak
At 3,214 feet, the Montecito Peak is one of the highest in the Santa Ynez Range. If you’re up for some peak bagging, this is one to add to the list. The 7.1-mile round trip hike is demanding, with 2,450 feet in elevation gain. But the views get better as you get higher, ending with an awe-inspiring look at the Pacific Ocean and the coastal cities below. Start your hike at the Cold Springs Trail in Montecito, Calif., about six miles northeast of downtown Santa Barbara. You’ll follow the Cold Springs Creek under a welcome canopy of trees as you enter the Los Padres National Forest. You’ll eventually make your way up to the exposed ridge, where the hard climbing begins.
6. Inspiration Point
You can’t go wrong at any place named Inspiration Point. There are a couple of ways to reach the panoramic views about 1,800 feet above Santa Barbara. Taking the San Roque Road to the Jesusita Trail is just under an 8-mile round trip, with about 1,400 feet of elevation gain. A shorter alternative is to take the Tunnel Trail to Jesusita, which is about a 3.75-mile round trip, but you don’t have the ocean views on the way up. Whichever way you decide to get there, you’ll enjoy hiking through the oaks and sycamores at lower elevations, and the views at the top are, well, inspirational.
7. Lizard’s Mouth
These hiking trails on the ridge of the Santa Ynez Mountains look over Goleta, Calif., and are quite different from most of the trails found around Santa Barbara. Accessed via West Camino Cielo Road, these shorter trails are rockier and unmaintained. To reach the Lizard's Mouth rock formation, which you guessed it, looks like a lizard’s mouth, take the easy quarter-mile walk until you reach the rocky outcroppings. It’s a popular spot for bouldering, but it’s also a great spot to watch the sunset or enjoy the panoramic view of Goleta and the Pacific Ocean.
8. Cathedral Peak
Another rock-climbing destination that is also of interest to hikers, Cathedral Peak features one of the more challenging hikes in Santa Barbara. The four-mile hike to the top gains 2,350 feet in elevation—this isn’t one to do on a whim. You can access the trailhead at Tunnel road, where you’ll follow the Jesusita Trail into Mission Canyon. Follow the canyon upstream until you reach an opening that reveals the narrow trail to Cathedral Peak. It’s a strenuous climb, but you are rewarded with a fine view of Seven Falls along the way, and at the top you’ll get a spectacular look at Santa Barbara and the Pacific.
9. Douglas Family Preserve
Located in the Mesa neighborhood of Santa Barbara near the intersection of Cliff Drive and Las Positas Road, the Douglas Family Preserve is a 70-acre preserve with some incredibly scenic hikes. Named for the actor Michael Douglas, who donated much of the money to initially purchase the property from its previous owner in 1996, the preserve sits about fantastic sea cliffs that overlook the Arroyo Burro Beach. It’s a popular spot for dog lovers, since you’ll find some designated off-leash areas in the preserve. Hikers will find three miles of wooded trails that will take you through oak, eucalyptus, and cypress trees, in addition to those incredible ocean views.
10. Romero Canyon Loop
Santa Barbara is known for its mountains rising from the sea, and this 10-mile loop trail is one of the best was to experience both those elements. It’s also one of the few loop trails in the area. Romero Road was once the primary way to drive over the Santa Ynez Mountains until it was destroyed by a mudslide in 1978. It is now the domain of hikers and mountain bikers who can enjoy both the views and the challenging climb. Start at the trailhead off of Bella Vista Drive, where you’ll follow a mostly shady creek bed through a canyon before ascending to the ridgeline. Follow that and you’ll eventually climb about 2,000 feet up from the trailhead, enjoying views of Montecito, and in good weather, the Channel Islands. It is a popular spot for mountain bikers, so be cautious around blind turns.