For those of you who have been to the Playground you will understand what is meant by a garden of rocks. There are no trails but many small openings which lead throughout the hundred acres or so of bedrock. There are all sorts of shapes and sizes and lots of nooks and crannies and caves and tunnels to keep you busy for quite awhile. The hike getting here is not easy but that is as it should be.
After the Jesusita Fire, to satisfy concerns residents in Mission Canyon had regarding safe access out of the area during periods of high fire danger, Santa Barbara County designated the upper canyon area as a “no parking zone” on Red Flag Days. Cars parked there will be ticketed or towed on those days.
Off Trail Route
The hike up to the Rock Garden is designated an an unoffical off-trail route, meaning that it is not maintained and it is up to you to know whether you have the skills and ability for the hike. Please read the Off Trail information in the section on "Being Prepared" before heading up to the peak.
Though it is 1,600’ of elevation gain to the Rattlesnake Connector, getting there is the easy part. Bob and I had spotted the trail on an earlier hike. Now was the time to find out what it was like, or if it even went where we thought it did.
The route up the ridgeline we had found the week before was just 50 feet up from Tunnel Trail, hidden enough so you wouldn’t spot it if not looking for it. Bent over we made our way under the low-hanging brush and started up the trail. The first part goes through a narrow opening and over a small knoll. This part was easy. But then the work began, a steep uphill climb directly up the ridge and completely covered with chaparral, a gain of about 400’ straight up.
Finally we reached a knoll. Still surrounded by chamise, but only waist high here, we could take measure of where we were. Directly in front and above us we could see where the Matilija Sandstone began, steep headwalls. Unlike the Cathedral Peak hike, which proceeds directly up the thin ridgeline, what was in front of us was more like a wall. Rather than assaulting this from the side, as at Cathedral Peak, we were coming at it from the front, head on.
Here the real climbing began, in and out of the boulders, up over rocky ledges, the route finding a little bit more difficult—almost but not quite rock climbing but at times nearly so. There are places along the way which you will really appreciate, slabs of rock jumbled on top of each other with little openings and beautifully-sculptured sides. There is one I liked the best. Fifteen feet long, ten feet wide and perhaps three feet thick, it lay atop a series of others, nearly level, a great spot to rest and take in the views. What was most impressive to me was the eye-level view I had from there of Cathedral Peak.
I looked up, a bit dismayed. We were still nowhere near the top! I was getting pretty tired but I trudged on, knowing it wasn’t much farther. The trail continued to wind its way to the top and the manzanita began to predominate as we reached the 3,500’ foot level, its wonderfully green leaves and rich red limbs a perfect contrast to the orangish-reds and yellows of the rock. One final climb brought us to the top.
In front of us was a huge field boulders which seemed to go on and on. The pine forests were everywhere, providing a distinctly different character from that of the Playground. My first thought was of a fairyland, like that in Bryce Canyon, spires of enchanting colors and shapes, and thin openings leading in and out of them.
As we neared the top of one of the many formations, Bob and I sat for awhile and looked out on what lay below us. There were rocks everywhere, huge ones, thirty-to-fifty feet high. The pines were almost as numerous, rising out from the spaces between the boulders. Manzanita clung to the fringes of the rock, covering the ground in front of us like a garden.
“It’s a rock garden,” Bob said after a while.
“Yes it is,” I thought, and this is how it got its name.