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A Bubbly Report on the Hot Springs at the End of a Trail

One of our favorite resorts was the Sulphur or Hot Springs, situated some five or six miles from Santa Barbara, to the southward. These springs would make the fortune of any town in the United States, but here are left alone and deserted, visited only by the native sick or the American sojourner in Santa Barbara. They are remarkably, and very romantically, situated; sequestered from human habitation and almost inaccessible save to the pedestrian.

--Walter Murray, 1847

“Narrative of a California

Volunteer”

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By the time the first New York Volunteers arrived in Santa Barbara in 1847, the “conquest of California” was complete. The war with Mexico was over. While garrisoned in Santa Barbara, one Army volunteer, Walter Murray, seemed to have spent most of his enlistment touringthe Santa Barbara back country and recording his enthusiastic descriptions in a journal. Particularly impressive to Murray was a pretty canyon aptly named Hot Springs for the sulfurous waters that gushed into inviting bath-size pools.

“I never yet came across a more picturesque sight, nor do I expect to in the future,” Murray wrote.

A decade after Murray’s bubbly report, Wilbur Curtiss made his way to Santa Barbara--for health reasons, as the story goes. Curtiss took the cure and left us a story chock-full of cliches: He was suffering from an incurable disease. His doctors gave him but six months to live. Then one day he met a 110-year-old Indian who attributed his longevity to some secret springs. Curtiss bathed in the springs and experienced a miracle cure.

Or so the story goes. . . .

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Fable or not, Curtiss soon felt well enough to file a homestead claim on Hot Springs Canyon and begin its commercial development.

By the early 1880s, the homestead became the property of wealthy Montecitans who built a three-story wooden hotel at the springs. Rates were $2 a day, $10 a week, including the baths. Guests enjoyed a library, a billiards room and a well-stocked wine cellar. Another attraction was hiking: Trails meandered around the hillsides and provided excellent panoramas of Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands.

By the turn of the century, the Hot Springs Hotel was more exclusive than Baden-Baden and the other fine European resorts. It was said only those with seven-digit incomes felt at ease in the healing waters.

The hotel burned down in 1920, and a small but still quite posh clubhouse was built on the site. The new spa was even more exclusive: Membership was limited to 17 Montecito estate owners who also controlled the Montecito Water Co. Members would telephone the caretaker, tell him to draw a bath, then arrive a short while later by limousine. The club burned down in the 1964 Coyote Fire.

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Since then, Hot Springs Canyon and its hot pools have been accessible to the less affluent. Hot Springs Trail--the old stagecoach road--leads to the ruins of the resort. Condition and temperature of the two hot pools vary, so hikers should use their best judgment when deciding whether to take the plunge.

Directions to the trailhead: From U.S. 101 in Montecito, just down the coast from Santa Barbara, exit on Olive Mill Road, which, after intersecting Alston Drive, continues as Hot Springs Road. Three miles from U.S. 101, you’ll reach Mountain Drive. Turn left and proceed a quarter of a mile to the trailhead, which is on the right side of the road and is marked by a Montecito Trails Foundation sign. Park in a safe manner alongside the road.

The hike: The trail climbs moderately through a wooded area, skirting some baronial estates. The first few hundred yards of Hot Springs Trail might give you the impression you’re on the wrong trail because it crosses and parallels some private driveways. However, keep following the path with the aid of some strategically placed Montecito Trails Foundation signs.

After a quarter-mile of travel, you’ll leave the villas behind. The trail veers right, dips into the canyon, crosses Hot Springs Creek and joins a dirt road. The dirt road passes under the embrace of antiquarian oaks, then begins climbing moderately to steeply along the east side of Hot Springs Canyon. Notice the stone culverts and the handsome stone retaining walls as you walk up the old coach road.

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A mile’s travel along the old road brings you to a junction. A left at the junction puts you on a power-line road that climbs over to Cold Springs Canyon. Stay right, and another quarter-mile of hiking brings you to the ruins of the Montecito Hot Springs Club. Some stone steps and foundations are about all that’s left of the exclusive club.

Nearby, some exotic flora thrive--bamboo, agave and geraniums, as well as palm, banana and avocado trees--remnants of the landscaped gardens that surrounded the spa during its glory days. Two hot pools, reconstructed by locals, offer an opportunity to take a soak. If the pools look inviting, drop in.

You can return the same way, or follow one of two routes to Cold Springs Canyon. You may double back to the above-mentioned road junction and ascend with the power-line road to the ridge separating Hot Springs Canyon from Cold Springs Canyon. Or you can follow the trail above the resort ruins and climb north, then steeply east over to that same ridge.

Once atop the ridge, marred by power-line towers, descend on the unsigned but well-maintained Cold Springs Trail 1 1/2 miles through Cold Springs Canyon--perhaps the prettiest in the Santa Ynez Mountains.

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The trail ends at Mountain Drive. You’ll turn left and walk a mile along one of Santa Barbara’s more bucolic byways back to your car and the Hot Springs trailhead.

Hot Springs Trail

Hot Springs Road to Hot Springs Hotel ruins: 3 1/2 miles round trip; 700-foot gain. Hot Springs Canyon--Cold Springs Canyon Loop: 7 miles round trip; 1,100-foot gain.


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