Rattlesnake Canyon is filled with cascading waterfalls and deep pools. The alder cover provides shade and a lovely green canopy. If you hike up the creek from the trailhead or take one of the many side trails leading down to the creek you’ll find the remains of a dam built in the early 1800s to service the Mission. Within just a few minutes drive from downtown Santa Barbara you can be hiking up this picturesque canyon, lost in its wilderness beauty. A connector leading to Tunnel Trail makes it possible to hike all the way to the crest.
Overnight camping is allowed by recognized youth groups with a non-profit number.
Points of Interests: Canyons, Creeks, Swimming Holes, Waterfalls, Family Friendly, Viewpoint, Out & Back, Loop Trip, Trailhead, Trail Intersection
User Types: Backpackers, Hikers, Equestrians, Dog Walker, Trail Runners, Rock Climbers
Locations: Front Country, Santa Barbara
Sub Regions: Rattlesnake Canyon
Download Directions: Download PDF Map Directions
It is important to know that Rattlesnake Canyon is off limits to mountain biking. When the canyon was dedicated by Ray Skofield to the City of Santa Barbara it was designated as a wilderness park for the community to enjoy. In the late 1980s the City Council made the decision to close the area to mountain biking in deference to the wilderness designation.
There are numerous side trails leading here and there, down into the canyon and into locations where the trail may not be in good condition. Poison oak is also present along many of these trails and canyon escapades as well. One of the more well maintained off trail routes, known as the “East Side Trail” provides the potential for an enjoyable loop hike. The trail is open and wide in places and rough and difficult in others. It is not advisable for the kids.
The trail begins just before the entrance to Snowfield Park near a delicately-shaped stone bridge. From there, cross the creek and follow a short connector trail to a wider dirt road. For many decades this was a buggy road, running alongside the creek to a point about three-quarters of a mile upstream where a prominent layer of sandstone crosses the creek. This was the location of a stone quarry from which much of the stonework in Montecito was de rived. The old buggy road rises gradually through rolling s age-covered hills and the Sespe Formation, then heads back to the creek and the first of a series of narrows created as the stream eroded through successive layers of Coldwater Sandstone during the Pleistocene mountain-building process.
Numerous side trails lead off the main path through t he sages to small oak meadows, and they provide access to waterfalls as well as to the old Mission Dam. Beware of the poison oak though!
After the narrows, the trail crosses the creek and follows a set of switchbacks up a steep hill which opens to a large grass meadow marked by a series of Hobart Skofield’s scattered pines. Above the meadow, the trail switches back and forth several more times to a point about 200 feet above the canyon floor. From there it levels for three-quarters of a mile through chaparral shrubs that form a pleasant corridor.
A short drop down to the creek brings you to a cluster of bigleaf maple which seem to guard the entrance to the second of the Coldwater narrows. The walls are vertical and the sunlight generally indirect, as alder and maple crowns filter the sun’s rays, creating a cool, verdant feeling. This is an enchanting place and a worthy spot for lunch or a few minute’s rest.
The next several hundred yards takes you through the narrows and one of the most beautiful canyon sections in the Santa Barbara foothills. Cascading waterfalls, pools, the canopy of alder above you, and the sound of the rushing water make this very special.
A half mile more walking brings you to a large triangular meadow known as Tin Can Flat, for many years a familiar landmark. There, a small cabin was built by a man named William O’Connor. “The homesteading laws required that a dwelling be erected o n each section,” according to Public Historian Gregory King, so “O’Connor went into town , collected empty 5 gallon kerosene cans, flattened them, and had them carried back on a mule to a site he liked. Cutting branches from the nearby chaparral, O’Connor quickly put together a frame constructed from the branches and used the flattened kerosene tins to shingle the roof and tack up walls. The floor was provided by Mother Nature—the ground.”
Years later, adventurous boys used Tin Can Shack as a n overnight retreat and it was even mentioned in several of the early-day guide books. But shortly after the 1925 earthquake a forest fire burned through the canyon and destroyed the structure. If you are keen-eyed you may still spot some of the tin scattered out in the meadow.
County records show that a 160-acre section was also homesteaded in the canyon. John Stewart built a rough-hewn adobe on the side of a steep hill where he lived for several years. This changed in the 1920s when New York millionaire Ray Skofield moved to Santa Barbara and began to buy up the property in Rattlesnake Canyon, 456 acres in total, from Las Canoas Road to Tin Can Flat. He then started construction of a mansion overlooking the canyon. The work ceased after the Depression began. Later the villa was developed into the Mt. Cal vary Retreat.
From Tin Can Flat, which marks the beginning of the Cozy Dell Shale, you can either follow the trail through the meadow, cross the creek to the east side, and hike three-quarters mile up to Gibraltar Road or you can turn left and follow the connector trail up to its intersection with Tunnel Trail, which provides a full day’s loop.