This is absolutely my very favorite trail. Within a few yards of your car the pools begin. Deep and shaded by alders, the perennial creek offers scores of places to spend an afternoon. Even the name suggests something special. Cold Springs represents the shortest distance you can travel to get the furthest away from Santa Barbara. Above the trailhead you will find bedrock pools and places to sunbathe, overlooks of the coastline and a route to the mountain crest, the one memorialized by Stewart Edward White in his epic book, The Mountains. Though no trail leads up into it, you’ll find a beautiful waterfall hidden deep in the watershed.
The canyon beauty begins at the road’s edge. Alders thickly covered with green leaves flutter in the breeze. Twenty yards upstream are the first pools. Even if you only have an hour, this is a place where you can enjoy a few precious minutes of quiet. With the canyon walls and alder boughs for privacy, sandstone boulders for resting spots, and the creek’s incessant babble for companionship, you’ll fall in love with it, too.
From the parking area the path follows the east side of the stream, gradually rising through a forest of live oak before returning back to the creek and a profusion of alders. A very beautiful twin-spouted waterfall and bench from which to enjoy it can be spotted near the side of the creek. In a thin opening, easily missed, you’ll find the turnoff to the West Fork trail.
Beyond here the East Fork trail heads away from the creek, switching back and forth several times to a point where there is a nice view of West Fork canyon. From there the trail is level. It is also is narrow and a bit dangerous unless you are careful; the mountainside falls away rather precipitously. After a half mile the trail rejoins the creek at a lovely grouping of alders, a small waterfall and a pool.
The trail then crosses the stream, heads left up into a chaparral then switches back to the right, bringing you to a bedrock canyon where there are a number of waterfalls and pools. The open sandstone ledges and sunning spots are very popular for afternoon lunches.
This also marks the end of the canyon section of the East Fork. A hundred yards beyond, the trail turns right, crosses the creek, and rises up a strike canyon into the chaparral. Continue up the creek if you like. Though it rises rather steeply, the hike up canyon is worthwhile. Many surprises await you if you have the energy to travel far enough. Even if you don’t get too far there are plenty of places to stop and have a place all to yourself.
The main trail follows the side canyon, which was formed by the weathering of the easily-eroded Cozy Dell Shale. The path curves in a clockwise direction around the canyon then begins to switch back and forth up to a viewpoint where there are several power line towers and very nice vistas. The dirt road built to service these towers leads into Hot Springs Canyon and eventually over to San Ysidro Canyon.
Just before the last switchback leading up to the towers you’ll notice a trail intersection. This marks the beginning of the Cold Spring Ridge Trail which will take you back down to Mountain Drive. To many, the combination of the canyon hike up and ridge hike back down is the best loop hike in the Santa Barbara area.
If your intent is to continue towards the crest you will reach the powerlines about a quarter mile beyond the loop intersection. Follow the Edison Jeepway fifty yards east and you’ll spot the start of the upper section of the Cold Springs Trail on the left. It rises quickly up into the Matilija Sandstone. The route curves around the east side of a large knoll, which you will appreciate very much if you are hiking up in the afternoon, because the knoll shades this section, which is steep.
As you round the final curve you’ll notice an intersection leading down into Hot Springs Canyon. There is a “No Trespassing” sign posted at the entrance and the trail hasn’t been maintained for quite awhile. That sign is likely to go away soon as the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County has raised the funds to purchase the private ranch that includes the Hot Springs and is in the process of transferring it to Los Padres Forest.
A mile further up, after a series of switchbacks, the solitary eucalyptus trees will tell you that Montecito Peak is not too far ahead. The trail crosses the western flank. If you want to hike to the top of the peak continue on the trail until you are almost past it. The route leads very steeply up the north side of the 3214’ Montecito Peak. It is a 2500’ (a half mile!) climb from the trailhead to the top but what a feeling once you are there.
After this the trail continues upward along a ridgeline and then curves left into the upper end of Cold Springs Canyon. Gradually the steepness begins to lessen and the walking becomes easier as you enter the Juncal Formation. From there is it a half mile of much more pleasant walking to the crest.
From here you can continue on down the back side of the Santa Ynez Mountains, either to Forbush Flats or all the way to the river (see the Forbush trail description). Or you can turn right on Camino Cielo and walk east several hundred yards to the San Ysidro Trail and drop back down it.
Often, once I reach the road I head up off the trail and find a resting spot on top the cement water tank. Perhaps a more fitting way to say this is I often head up to the top of the tank to collapse after the effort of getting here. These tanks have a very interesting design. Their wide tops are sloped gradually inward to an opening in their centers and are used to collect rain water for use during the fire seasons. For me they are great spots to kick back.
It is also a great place to reflect on the words which White authored a hundred years ago:
“It left you breathless, wonder-stricken, awed. You could do nothing but look, and look, and look again, tongue-tied by the impossibility of doing justice to what you felt. In a little....the change had come to you, a change definite and enduring, which left your inner processes forever different from what they had been.”
Perhaps you have felt these feelings. I know I have.