What is it about a waterfall that inspires us to walk that extra thousand yards, drive that additional half an hour, make that otherwise inexplicable knee-jerk detour off the highway for the privilege of gazing upon liquid pouring over a 66.4-foot sandstone cliff into the stillness of a secluded canyon in an unpronounceable Santa Barbara County park a couple of miles off the 101 Freeway?
That's what crosses my mind when the sign for Nojoqui Falls County Park flashes past the passenger window about 30 miles north of Santa Barbara.
After a good rainfall in the late winter or early spring, Nojoqui (pronounced no-HO-wee) Falls is rumored to be the Santa Ynez Valley's own little Niagara-that-could, hiding away from the windmills and fudge shops between Gaviota and Solvang.
Except for a 6-inch deluge two weeks ago, the rainfall has been unseasonably light this year in the Coastal and Gaviota ranges, which feed Nojoqui Falls. But a waterfall is a waterfall. So of course I'm going to pull over and schlep my 5-year-old son up a hill to see the magnificent Nojoqui Falls.
"Most people drive right by," says resident ranger Dan Stasulis, whose small fenced-in property at the park's base sits next to a massive oak tree, a grassy picnic area and a sign emblazoned with "WATERFALL" in bold white letters with an arrow pointing up the road.
"It's pretty light today," he says, about the park's star attraction. "But usually around this time of year, after a good hard rain, it just comes ripping down. If you stand anywhere near it, you'll get soaked from the spray alone."
A single car is parked in the lot near the trailhead when we pull in. And it's just pulling out.
"Just a trickle today," says the driver about (one can only assume) the falls. But there's not a hint of disappointment in his voice. "It's still worth it."
The hike up to the falls takes about 10 minutes -- or 14 when you're led by a kindergartner periodically stopping to pick up monster-sized maple leaves and compare them to the dimensions of his head. It's more like a walk, a jaunt even, but through a sylvan little canyon that might launch a dozen Grimm's fairy tales.
We're canopied in a tilted forest of sycamores, laurels and oaks, flanking us from both sides. We cross over three little wooden bridges, up a short flight of stone stairs, over giant crunchy leaves and oversized tree roots. It's Saturday morning, and no one's here.
"It's kind of spooky, but I like this place," says my son, reading my mind.
A narrow stream runs faintly in the opposite direction, picking up a little volume as the falls draw closer. And closer. Until the falls -- the great Nojoqui Falls -- are upon us.
They're just a trickle today, but flowing resolutely and wide-angle-lens-defyingly tall. Estimates have varied about the height of these falls, most of them zealous overestimates. A recent article in a local Santa Barbara paper had them listed at 164 feet. Which, says Dan the ranger, is just shy of 100 feet off the mark.
"The county's official height for it is 66.4 feet," he says. "So that's what I'm going by."
It's more than enough to feel like Nojoqui Falls County Park has held up its end of the deal. We drove a little out of our way for this, and here they are. The Nojoqui Falls. All 66.4 trickling, spray-free feet of them.
We walk right up to them with impunity. We stare at them and think our own private waterfall thoughts.
"I'm ready to go now," says my son.
So am I.
But not without us both agreeing 14 minutes later in the car that we're happy we came.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Planning this trip
Nojoqui Falls County Park is about 30 miles north of Santa Barbara (just past the Gaviota tunnel and California 1 turnoff). Take the Old Coast Road exit east to Alisal Road (left only), and drive north to the park (on the right).
Nojoqui is open 8 a.m. to sunset. Admission and parking are free. Leashed pets are welcome.
Info: (805) 934-6123,
Looking to break a sweat and gain a little more altitude? Gaviota State Park (just south along U.S. 101 before the tunnel at Gaviota Pass) is an easy commute from Nojoqui and has a 3-mile tramp to the top of 2,450-foot Gaviota Peak. The trail, one of the area's most popular rambles, boasts some of the best views in Santa Barbara County at the summit. On the west side of the highway is Gaviota Overlook, accessed by a 1.5-mile ranch road that leads to equally nice -- and closer -- views of the Channel Islands and the Pacific.