Provides a pleasant stroll in the country on the old paved road. If you continue up the ridgeline trail there are spectacular rock formations and great views of the steep cliffs in the area of the Gaviota Tunnel. The hike out to the radio tower provides a great 4 mile trek. You can also wander out on the ridgeline which leads towards Las Cruces.
You will see warning signs noting this is mountain lion country. In the springtime especially you may encounter ticks.
Guidelines for Hiking in Lion Country
Don’t hike alone—try to hike with at least one other person or take your dog along for company.
Don’t let your children wander too far ahead of you—a lion may mistake your child for prey due to his or her size or the more animated way children often are.
Don’t run away—this may stimulate the lion to chase you. Stand still and face the lion, and don’t turn your back. Make eye contact and keep it until the standoff ends.
If you see a lion don’t approach it—give the lion as much space as you can. They will usually try to avoid a confrontation.
Crouching or bending over is to be avoided—humans standing up do not look like prey but crouched over in more of a four-legged position may make you look like dinner.
Stand tall—do everything you can to appear as large as you can. Raise your hands in the air and if you have a jacket raise it above you. Talk firmly and loudly.
Defend yourself if necessary—carry a walking stick or have a few stones in your pocket which you can throw if you need to. If attacked fight back.
For those of you who have a favorite trail, the one you think is the best Santa Barbara day hike, the Beach to Back Country hike may change your mind. The drive out to Gaviota is quite a ways, but the hike up to the radio tower and out across the Hollister ridge is one of the great springtime hikes.
The trail begins on the bluffs overlooking the Gaviota pier. This alone makes the hike unique: it is the only in Santa Barbara County which leads right from the beach up into the mountains. The first half mile of the walk follows and old paved road and is delightful. If you are camping at the park you will at least want to take a stroll out and back on this.
From the locked gate the road drops down and follows the creek through a long meadow. Aside from the short drop the path is level and the hillsides on either side very pretty, a beautiful shade of green and in the summer a mellow yellow in the springtime.
The hiking doesn’t really begin until you reach a large grass-covered hill. In March and April this hill is easily identifiable—even from the freeway. It is a bright yellow color which comes from the mustard plants which cover it. As your eyes skim up across the hill you will notice that near the top of the grassy knoll the ridge thins out and begins to head steeply uphill into the chaparral. You may be able to spot sections of the trail way up on the ridge. This is where you will be heading.
It is a bit of a challenge, and you will have climbed more than 800 feet by the time you reach the high point, but if you go slow, stop often, and admire the many views you won’t find the effort too difficult. I especially like how the view down into the canyon and across to the railroad bridge changes as you get higher and higher.
The trail cuts up the left side of the mustard-covered hill then switches back and forth several times until you are right up on the ridge. Thie first several hundred yards from the paved road is actually the most uncomfortable part of the hike. The hill is almost solid clay and the vegetation grows like wildfire, making it difficult to keep the trail open enough to be easily walked. When the grasses dry out in May and June you may also have a bit of a problem with stickers.
However, once you are up on the ridgeline the trail is well maintained and in good shape. That doesn’t mean it isn’t steep. The first section of the ridge trail is really narrow, barely ten feet wide, and takes you through a short section of limestone, then it widens a bit and the balance of the hike up the ridge leads up through sandstone.
The hiking is steadily uphill but there are plenty of excellent viewpoints along the way, both of the coastline and the Gaviota Tunnel. Best of all are the sandstone formations. Several hundred yards of climbing will bring you to the first one, a long, thin outcropping which is undercut on the north side of it to create a beautiful wind-and-water sculptured cave. This is an absolutely wonderful place.
The trail continues around the right side of this formation. Look for the side path which leads out on top of the outcropping. It is a great viewpoint and there are some interesting caves in the upper part of it too. But be very careful. The south side of the outcropping drops off a hundred feet!
As you continue uphill you will notice a second ridge north of you which has a number of outcroppings on it and what look like great caves to explore. Unfortunately, they would be pretty hard to reach. If your imagination is like mine you will most likely think of what it would be like to be a Chumash Indian sitting in one of them, gazing out over the coast, without, of course the drone of the freeway or the sight of the railroad bridge.
Not too far ahead the two ridges join together and thirty yards across from the trail there are three huge caves which look like the perfect places for the the Chumash to have spent time. The immediate urge is to find a way over to them but the chaparral is really thick and then I think to myself, they also look like the perfect places for a mountain lion to call home and the urge lessens a bit.
Just a few yards of uphill beyond this point brings you to the upper part of the wall on which the sandstone caves are located. A short path leads up to the wall and a very nice surprise: there is a route down along it to the caves. I will leave it to you to experience what they are like for yourselves. A note though—the sandstone here is steep. Be really careful if you do any exploring. The fall will be a nasty one if you make a mistake.
The trail tops out on a knoll not too far above here, drops down into a saddle then does one final climb up around another sandstone outcropping. Above this, the hiking is almost level for several hundred yards. Before you know it you will be at a small saddle leading over into the Las Cruces side of the park. As you drop over into the north slope the vegetation does an amazing shift from chaparral to oak hillside. The change is startling. But there is also more poison oak here too so be watchful.
Beyond the saddle the trail drops a hundred yards to an old jeepway. There are oak trees everywhere and it is like walking through a canopy. Occasionally there are glimpses out at the far hills which comprise the San Julian and Las Cruces ranches. To reach the radio tower turn right on the road. It leads up a slight incline for a hundred yards out of the oak forests to magnificent views to the west and north. On the western horizon you will spot a long, open ridgeline which seems to lead off into the far horizon. The Hollister Fire Road, another one of the Gaviota area’s breathtaking hikes, follows this.
Looking east, in the direction of the radio tower, you can spot the jeepway yo-yoing up and down across a narrow ridge. In the spring there are clusters of paintbrush, hummingbird sage and hillsides filled with blue-eyed grass and light purple brodiaea. Gaviota Peak looms high overhead.
This last quarter mile of walking is one of the most delightful you will find anywhere. After you reach the radio tower, the ridge drops off almost vertically on all three sides, leaving you feeling like you are on the edge of nothing. You almost are. Look for the small trail on the north side of the ridge which leads a few yards through the chaparral to a sitting rock. I think you will find this to be one of the nicest places in these mountains to sit for awhile and ponder things.
If you are like me and like to take longer hikes or start at one place and end at another, it is possible to continue on either the lower or upper parts of the Hollister Fire Road to the Las Cruces trailhead.
The shuttle is relatively short and I would encourage you to try this route. In March, April and May it is absolutely wonderful.
Rather than turning right for the walk out to the radio tower, turn left. The jeepway curves down for a hundred yards and meets up with the Hollister Fire Road. To reach the ridgeline, turn left, drop down into an oak canyon and then climb up the steep hill on the other side. A little bit beyond this you will find yourself up on the ridgeline enjoying the fine views of the hills and canyons which comprise the Hollister Ranch area.