Up and Over the Santa Ynez Into Santa Barbara


On the ocean side of the Santa Ynez Mountains sit the pleasant coastal communities of Goleta, Santa Barbara, Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria.

On the back side of the mountains is the grand little canyon cut by the Santa Ynez River, as well as numerous Los Padres National Forest campgrounds and picnic areas.

If you wanted to see both sides of the mountains, you could take a long drive--through the Santa Barbara foothills, over San Marcos Pass, along Paradise Road. A better way to go to get an intimate look at the mountains is to hike up one side of the Santa Ynez and down the other.


Some of the very best hiking in Southern California is along trails through the mountain canyons right behind Santa Barbara and Montecito. The mountains look particularly inviting after the first winter rains. On upper peaks, rain sometimes turns to snow.

High point of the trek--literally and figuratively--is East Camino Cielo, or “Sky Road,” which follows the crest of the range. From there, hikers can decipher Santa Barbara’s sometimes confusing orientation: the east-west direction of the coastline and the mountain range. Even many longtime Californians are amused looking south to the ocean, and it’s a good idea to carry a map.

Your descent into Santa Barbara will be via Tunnel Trail, used in the first decade of this century by workers to gain access to a difficult city waterworks project.

This trip, for all but the very strongest hikers, is most enjoyable as a one-way outing. You’ll need to arrange a car shuttle.

Trail’s end is a winding lane lined with pricey homes. You might want to pick another locale, such as the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, to meet your friends and transportation.

Directions to trail head: From U.S. 101 in Santa Barbara, take the “Lake Cachuma, Highway 154” exit. Proceed east on California 154. At the top of San Marcos Pass, you’ll spot the historic Cielo Store, featured as “Papadakis Tavern” in the movie remake of “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” A short distance over the pass, just past a Vista Point (about 10 miles from Santa Barbara if you’re watching your odometer), turn right on Paradise Road and drive about nine miles (one mile past Santa Ynez Campground) to the beginning of the trail on the right (south) side of the road.

Directions to pickup point at end of hike: Exit 101 in Santa Barbara and head east on Mission Street one mile to Laguna Street. Turn left, curving past the Santa Barbara Mission to join Mission Canyon Road. When you reach a T-intersection with Foothill Road, turn right, travel a short block, then make a left back onto Mission Canyon Road. Proceed a quarter-mile to a distinct V-intersection; veer left onto Tunnel Road and drive to its end. Park along the road.

The hike: Matias Potrero Trail (an old Jeep road) climbs the north slope of the mountains. After a mile, you’ll reach a trail junction. Turn left (east), and in a quarter-mile you’ll come to Matias Potrero Camp, tucked away in a meadow.

Next, the trail climbs 1 1/2 miles, dipping in and out of two canyons to another junction. Devil’s Canyon Trail descends to Gibraltar Reservoir, but you join steeply ascending Tunnel Trail, climbing through chaparral for a mile to Fire Road 5N25. Turn right and ascend to East Camino Cielo Road.

From Camino Cielo, you can look northward and see several more mountain ranges in Los Padres National Forest. Turn right on the road and walk a short distance to Tunnel Trail on your left. (La Cumbre Peak, highest peak in the Santa Ynez Mountains, is 1 1/4 miles up the road.)

Tunnel Trail drops steeply for two miles, passing a connector trail that leads east into Rattlesnake Canyon. The path switchbacks down to meet Jesusita Trail, which leads right to Seven Falls and Inspiration Point. (It’s a short quarter-mile walk to the falls, a worthwhile side trip.)

Continue on Tunnel Trail, which widens into a dirt road. You cross Mission Creek on a bridge, following the paved road three-fourths of a mile to a locked gate at the top of Tunnel Road.

If you want to hike to “civilization,” continue down Tunnel Road a short half-mile to the signed back entrance to the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Join the garden trail for a half-mile walk to the Garden Bookstore (and the nearest public phone).

Other places to rendezvous? It’s 1 3/4 miles downhill from the end of Tunnel Road to the Santa Barbara Mission, and 3 1/2 miles to where locals often meet--the Earthling Bookshop and Cafe at the corner of State and Anapamu streets in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara.

Los Padres National Forest / Matias Potero, Tunnel Trails Where: Santa Ynez Mountains behind Santa Barbara. Distance: 8 1/2 miles one way, with 2,500-foot elevation gain. Terrain: Rugged range between Santa Ynez River and Santa Barbara. Highlights: Glorious views of Santa Barbara and the back country. Degree of difficulty: Strenuous. For more information: Contact Los Padres National Forest, 6144 Calle Real, Goleta 93117 (805) 683-6711.