I have always wanted to see a mountain lion in the back country but I never have. Perhaps that is for the best since sometimes what you wish for isn’t what you really want when presented with it. If you hike in the Gaviota area, however, there is a remote possibility of coming face-to-face with one.
In many ways, Gaviota, which means “seagull” in Spanish, is the perfect place for these big cats to live. The sharply canted layers of sandstone and clay hills create a unique environment. As you drive along the coastline in this area you will notice the long band of rolling, grassy-green hills and the thick layers of sandstone which jut out at the top of them.
It appears at first glance if the chaparral has been bulldozed away where the grasses now grow, creating these open hillsides, but that is not the case. It is just the peculiar way these layers have been juxtaposed. Above the sandstone are more layers of sandstone and they are very suitable to the growth of the chaparral. But below the sandstone ridges, nearer Highway 101 the hillsides are composed of thick clays and these are perfectly suited to grasses.
West of Gaviota State Park there are miles and miles more of the grassy hills and it is this kind of country the lions seem to love. So when you hike here at every one of the trailheads you will notice signs proclaiming this to be “mountain lion country.” Is there anything to fear?
The answer is most likely no—but—there have been problems in the past and it is possible there will be again. On March 12, 1992 a Lompoc boy was badly mauled by a mountain lion, turning what was to be a pleasurable afternoon into a nightmare.
Mom and dad were hiking near Las Cruces with their boys. Darron and his twin brother were about two hundred yards ahead of their parents as they casually made their way down the trail. Suddenly a male lion, weighing about 135 pounds, charged out of the brush, knocked Darron down and then began dragging the boy uphill back into the brush.
The father’s quick thinking saved his son’s life. Grabbing a rock he hurled it at the cat and was fortunate enough to strike it between the eyes. The mountain lion dropped the boy and took off but it was cornered and killed by government hunters two weeks later.
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.
Perhaps, after reading this, you will be firmly convinced this is not an area you will want to go hiking. But, especially in the springtime, when the grass is tall and a rich green and the wildflowers cover the hillsides, Gaviota turns into one of the most beautiful places to hike along the Santa Barbara front country. I especially like the long hike up to the top of Gaviota Peak where you can see forever, and the long ridgeline between the beach and the Las Cruces area.
In the evening hours as you walk along this ridgeline you will feel like you are in never, never land. On the east side of you tall layers of sandstone arch high to create Gaviota Peak; to the west the hillsides seem to drift one after another off into the sunset.
I hike here often, perhaps 5-10 times a year, and I have yet to spot one of the big cats. Perhaps it will be on one of the next trips I do, or around the next corner, but I try to take the precautions listed above to minimize the dangers should I be unlucky enough (or lucky, depending on how you want to look at it) to make contact with a mountain lion.