One of the area’s premier hikes, leading you from near sea level to a half mile in the sky in just a few miles. The trail is relentlessly uphill but provides expansive views of the Las Cruces hills and the Gaviota coastline. It is possible to make this a loop by returning via the Trespass Trail, though this is a rugged route and not as well maintained.
Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult
Points of Interests: Viewpoint, Sunset, Out & Back, Loop Trip, Backcountry Camp
User Types: Backpackers, Hikers, Equestrians, Mountain Bikers, Dog Walker, Trail Runners
Locations: Santa Ynez Mountains, Gaviota Coast
Download Directions: Download PDF Map Directions
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.
Many of the people who visit this area come for the hot springs rather than the peak hike but I don’t mind that; it means I will see fewer hikers up in the high country. I try to come at least once in the fall and again in the spring to do the Gaviota Peak hike. It is like a rite of passage.
Recently the state park has started charging for parking in the lot at the bottom of the trail so you will need to make sure you have a few dollars handy when you get to the trailhead. Or if you prefer, drive back up the road a ways and parks along the chain link fence.
I suggest you stretch your legs thoroughly before heading up to the peak. The hiking is steep right from the start and there aren’t too many places where it lets up. Fortunately, the scenery is very nice along the fire road. Sycamores and oak trees crowd either side of it, creating the feeling of walking up an old country lane, and it only gets better as you head higher and higher up into the hills.
After a few hundred yards a road leads off to the right. This leads over to the Trespass Trail (Gaviota Hike #2) and is the route you will be coming back on if you decide to loop back down from the top. The turnoff to the hot springs is a quarter mile further. Beyond the hot springs intersection, the road curves left, continues out across a series of open fields and then switches back and forth through a lovely hillside filled with gnarly old oak trees.
If you’d like to see what the springs are like or want to take a dip on the way up to the peak, turn right and head up the narrow trail. The springs are not too far. You can continue beyond the springs on the trail and re-connect with the road again higher up, which means you don’t have to backtrack if you walk up to the springs.
The next mile of road hiking leads you up along the side of one ridge then back around to the north side of it. The views are incredible, taking the edge off the steady climbing. I love looking down on the Las Cruces and Hollister ranches. One of the reasons I also like coming here in the spring is the ceanothus; they fill the hillsides with their puffy clusters of white blossoms turning the mountainsides a dusky white.
Once you reach the north side of the ridge the balance of the hike is along the side of a long watershed. There are several points when you will think you’ve come to the top of the hill only to find another bit of uphill ahead of you,. But then, almost magically, you will arrive at a saddle and views to the east across San Onofre Canyon and the far coast.
The saddle is a crossroads of sorts. Directly ahead of you a path leads down into San Onofre and recently it has been re-opened, making it possible to hike for a bit in this direction, though be sure not to hike further downhill than you are willing to return back up.
The main fire road veers to the left and continues gradually uphill over a long ridge. It is about ten miles to Refugio Pass, though the private property in-between will keep you from walking all the way to it. However, you can walk out it for a mile or two and still be on Forest Service land.
To reach Gaviota Peak turn right and climb the final steep hill to the 2458’ high point. There is a very nice opening where you can sit back and enjoy the moment as well as a tin can with journals for you to read or add your own thoughts.
Most people will return the same way they’ve come up and this is probably best, but I can’t resist making a loop when it is possible, and I always like seeing new places. Unfortunately, the loop back via the Trespass Trail isn’t nearly as easy on your feet as the fire road. At first the route leads through a quarter mile of overgrown chaparral which is a bit rough on bare legs. Then you will find yourself dropping steeply down a long ridge, heading almost directly towards the ocean. The trail hasn’t been maintained, there are plenty of gullies, and the cows which graze in the area have churned up the soil. Oh well. Keep thinking, “This is an adventure. I like it this way. This is an adventure. I like it this way,” and perhaps you might even convince yourself.
After dropping nearly 1200’ in elevation, the trail ends at a saddle and turns into a wider jeep road. It hasn’t been maintained but is a very welcome relief after the section you’ve just come down. The next 1.5 miles takes you down a small creek, through some very pretty oak forests, and onto the series of open, grass-covered hillsides which parallel the freeway perhaps five hundred feet above it. It is beautiful countryside. At one point you are looking almost directly down on the Gaviota Tunnel.
About halfway back to the car the Trespass Trail drops off the jeep road. The trail follows the same basic route back to the main fire road as the jeepway but lower down along the foothills. It is another three-fourths mile back to the trailhead from here.