Hike Santa Barbara
Hiking the hills behind Santa Barbara is magical near sunset.
Hiking the hills behind Santa Barbara is magical near sunset.

Some of the very best hiking in Southern California is along trails through the mountain canyons right behind Santa Barbara and Montecito. The creekside paths, the mountain tracks, and the marvelous views of the Pacific, the islands and “America’s Riviera,” add up to world-class walking.

After college, I moved to Santa Barbara and have lived here and hiked here ever since. I’ve been blessed to make a career out of being a hiking expert and for the opportunity to walk about and write about trails across the state and around the nation.

No matter how far I roam, it’s great to get back to the trails near home. The Santa Ynez Mountains are my home mountains, where I hike with friends and family, where I hike alone to re-focus my thoughts and restore my spirit. I love leading hikes for Santa Barbara school kids, faith-based groups and conservation organizations, as well as for private groups and companies.

Thirty years of hiking around Santa Barbara, and here it is in the bookstores: "HIKE Santa Barbara."
Thirty years of hiking around Santa Barbara, and here it is in the bookstores: “HIKE Santa Barbara.”

I wrote HIKE Santa Barbara to share my favorite trails with locals and with the city’s many visitors from all over Southern California and from all over the world. This Trailmaster Pocket Guide is an opinionated guide to hikes you’re sure to like, not an exhaustive detailing of every trail.

If you’d like to get your very own copy of HIKE Santa Barbara sped to your doorstep, head for Amazon or the Trailmaster Store.

The wild side of Santa Barbara has long been an attractive destination for visitors and residents[ alike. At the start of the 20th century, the Hot Springs Hotel in Hot Springs Canyon was an internationally famed destination. And when visitors weren’t taking the healing waters they were taking hikes to Cold Spring Canyon, San Ysidro Canyon, Mission Canyon and Inspiration Point.

Even the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce has long encouraged hiking in the local mountains. In 1902 it promoted “Chamber of Commerce Trail,” though hikers of that era preferred “Rattlesnake Canyon Trail,” and that’s how the trail through Rattlesnake Canyon is known today.

Hike to the end of the rainbow--or at least to a crest in the Santa Ynez Mountains.
Hike to the end of the rainbow–or at least to a crest in the Santa Ynez Mountains.

Just as they impressed earlier generations of hikers, the Santa Ynez Mountains charm the modern hiker with antiquarian oaks and sycamores lining the canyons and a host of seasonal creeks washing the hillsides. In spring, the chaparral blooms and adds frosty whites and blues to the gray-green plants. The mountains look particularly inviting after the first winter rains.

Not all is beautiful on the trails behind Santa Barbara. Hillsides were scorched by the Tea Fire and Gap Fire in 2008 and by the Jesusita Fire in 2009. San Roque Canyon, Rattlesnake Canyon, Mission Canyon and the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden were among the hiking locales blackened by these blazes. The native chaparral regenerates quickly, however, and it’s been astonishing, even to locals, how rapidly the flora has recovered.

The trails generally follow creeks to the top of the range. Typically, Santa Barbara’s front country trails start in lush canyon bottoms, zigzag up the dry canyon walls, and follow rock ledges to the crest. Many of the trails intersect Camino Cielo (the Sky Road), which follows the mountain crest. From the top, enjoy sweeping views of the Pacific and Channel Islands, the city and coastal plain.

The jaunt around Romero Canyon is a Trailmaster favorite. Even teens enjoy it!
The jaunt around Romero Canyon is a Trailmaster favorite. Even teens enjoy it!

The trails are usually kept in pretty good shape thanks to the volunteer efforts of local hikers and trails groups such as the Montecito Trails Foundation that keeps a watchful eye on some 150 miles of trail. I’ve described a variety of hikes from easy nature walks to challenging adventures. Many of the hikes have options so that you can make the best use of your time on the trail.

From the viewpoints, hikers can decipher the region’s confusing orientation; that is to say, the east-west direction of the coastline and the mountain ranges. Even veteran SoCal hikers can get momentarily baffled when looking south to the ocean. And when the sun seems to set in the north, well, that really confuses visiting hikers! Geographically challenging the range may be, but that soft south light illuminating the mountains makes them all the more magical.

When Santa Barbarans say they are “going over to the valley” what they are going over is the Ynez Mountains and what they are going over to is the Santa Ynez Valley. Along with Santa Barbarans, legions of visitors from across the nation and around the world are going over to the valley these days.

They go to the valley for two reasons: to sample internationally acclaimed wines and to savor the valley’s stunning scenery, a rustic region of ranches and vineyards framed by bold mountain ranges. The Trailmaster suggests a third reason to go to the Santa Ynez Valley: good hiking. The hiking includes trails along the back side of the Santa Ynez Mountains along the Santa Ynez River; a few paths in the wine country itself (though public parkland is scarce) and the high country around Figueroa Mountain, complete with conifers and fabulous vistas.

Hike smart, reconnect with nature and have a wonderful time on Santa Barbara’s best trails.
Hike on.
–John McKinney