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. Nicknamed The American Riviera®, Santa Barbara exudes a Mediterranean feel with its coastline, vegetation, and architecture. 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. You’ll find everything from easy, flat paths through manicured gardens to difficult climbs that reach towering heights over the Pacific. Scenic views are everywhere, and at the end of the day, you can enjoy some of the best dining and finest wines in the country. Here are 8 of our favorite trails that highlight the best of what Santa Barbara has to offer.
1. Nojoqui Falls
This hike at the Nojoqui Falls Park may be short (.65 miles out and back), but the payoff is getting to see a spectacular, 80-foot waterfall. The park is located about 40 miles from downtown Santa Barbara, just beyond the Gaviota Tunnel on the 101 Freeway. The hike itself winds its way up 175 feet through a shaded canyon covered with a canopy of oaks and laurels. While at times steep, the wide trail is accessible to anyone, with a scenic wooden bridge and stone steps. The falls are at the strongest in the spring, and after a heavy rain it becomes quite powerful. But even when the falls are a smaller trickle, it’s still a sight to behold.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. Gaviota Hot Springs
If the trail to Gaviota Peak has your legs screaming, you can take a detour to a natural hot springs that isn’t far from the main trail, about a tenth of a mile. But even if you don’t do the long hike to the peak the hot springs are less than a half-mile from the road. Take the trail from the parking lot and when the trail splits, take the left fork. You’ll follow Hot Springs Creek until you hit the spur that will take you to the creek’s source. The sulfur-tinged water isn’t overly hot, and the pool isn’t very deep, but it does offer a nice feeling when you drop your feet in.
5. Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens
Where else can you find more than 1,000 native California plant species all within walking distance? The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is a great place to explore on our own or with a docent to help you discover everything to see in this 78-acre preserve. You’ll find more than 5 miles of paths to explore everything from cool redwoods groves to meadows full of wildflowers in the spring. The Porter Trail offers the best scenic views of the area. You’ll also find an authentic Japanese Teahouse and Garden, as well as the historic Mission Dam, which was built in 1807 to provide water for the Santa Barbara Mission. The garden is only about a three-mile trip from downtown Santa Barbara.
6. Tequepis Trail
The Tequepis Trail is another challenging hike that features 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
Originally written for Visit Santa Barbara.