The Playground is a circular boulder field about three-fourths of a mile in diameter that you can see from the Goleta Valley. It features the best rock scrambling anywhere in Santa Barbara, with channels and water-worn crevices separating the sandstone into individual pieces, making it seem something like a picture puzzle. You’ll discover beautifully sculptured sandstone “art forms”, a network of rough-hewn trails that don’t really lead anywhere but allow you to romp through most of the boulder field, and of course, the Narrows.
This is an off-trail route that is not maintained and is often overgrown in places. Parts of the trail are eroded and you'll need to be careful as you negotiate your way down to the boulderfield.
Through the first part of the Narrows you walk with your shoulders touching the walls, a perfect place to practice “chimneys” if you are a rock climber. In several more hundreds of yards the walls close in, but this time large boulders and tons of earth have been poured into the opening, making this appear to be a box canyon. At the base the rocks have formed a superstructure of sorts and the earth covers it to create a small cave-like entrance leading into a dark interior.
Hunched over you can make your way for fifty yards, then it is on all fours to scramble through a tunnel not more than two feet high, with only a starburst of light to lead you on. At one point the way ahead is in total darkness. Just when proceeding further seems hopeless the cave makes a dogleg to the left and as you turn the corner there is more light.
Fifty more yards brings you to the end of the cave and into a chamber the size of a small bedroom. Water falls from directly overhead, a shower of trickles. From here the only way out is by climbing a series of boulders stacked one upon the other. At this point, deep inside the bedrock, there is just enough light to distinguish the interior features, an indirect and soft glow that heightens the sense of adventure. The underside of the rock is cold to the touch and the air is crisp, in contrast to the warmth topside. Water seeps drop by drop into a tiny pool, not enough to sustain much life, but enough for a cluster of maidenhair fern growing by the edge of a thimble-sized basin.
It is a miracle that in the space of a few feet such disparate plant communities as the chaparral and the ferns can exist, each with such seemingly different needs, plants from climatic periods that existed so many millions of years apart. But that juxtaposition is what makes the vegetation of the mountain wall, nondescript in appearance from the city, so surprising, and so delightful, when confronted up close.
When most people think of the mountain wall, they think chaparral, for it dominates the eye, but pockets of prehistoric beauty still remain, albeit hidden—a surprising beauty that is all the more special because it is rare. Perhaps not as surprising as this hidden beauty is the fact that I haven’t included much of a trail description with this information. But why should I? Places like this should be found on your own, part of the process of discovery, that I’ve found so important to me.