Though at first the trail winds past a home and then follows a graded dirt road for a half mile, the upper end of the canyon is picturesque as it winds through a series of narrows formed by a thick layer of Matilija Sandstone. You’ll find an 80’ waterfall at the upper end of the canyon section. Several connector trails lead to the east and west, making several short scenic hikes possible, none of them too far from your car. A dirt road leads across the upper end of the canyon, providing access to Hot Springs Canyon on the west and Romero Canyon on the east. A great climbing wall can be found a mile up from the trailhead, with routes of varying difficulty.
Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult
Points of Interests: Canyons, Creeks, Swimming Holes, Waterfalls, Family Friendly, Out & Back
User Types: Hikers, Equestrians, Mountain Bikers, Dog Walker, Trail Runners, Rock Climbers
Locations: Front Country, Montecito
Sub Regions: San Ysidro Canyon
Download Directions: Download PDF Map Directions
San Ysidro Canyon, like Cold Springs, begins high in the Juncal Formation and thus the creek flows late in the summer when other creeks are nearly dry. It is a beautiful canyon and a nice one for taking trail novices because there is such a range of options.
San Ysidro is a canyon of contrasts. In the lower canyon you pass by the San Ysidro Guest Ranch where you can spy tennis courts, swimming pools and cottages of all sorts, including one named for President John Kennedy when he stayed here after marrying Jacqueline. There are also several magnificent estates along the way, one of which is landscaped along either side of the Old Pueblo Trail.
Then suddenly, the trail drops down into the canyon and civilization is left behind. The road bobs up and down on the edge of the creek and there are glimpses of the mountains which lie just ahead of you. Side trails lead off at regular intervals and as you reach the top of one knoll a wall of sandstone appears on the west side of the canyon where most likely you will be able to sit and watch the climbers making their way like spiders up one of a number of routes.
Oddly, the canyon is much narrower where it passes through the Cozy Dell Shale than at this point, where it courses through the usually resistant Coldwater Sandstone. This is due to the peculiar nature of the geologic layers of the Santa Ynez Mountains which do not run parallel to the crest, but pass obliquely over the crest and then dip to the east across the mountains and under the coastal plain.
The character of each layer changes as it descends from top to bottom. For instance, when crossing the top of the mountains, Coldwater Sandstone crops out as intricately worn boulder fields, such as those at Lizard’s Mouth or the Playground. Closer to Santa Barbara this sandstone angles down to form the Mission Crags and the magnificent toothed shape of Cathedral Peak. At lower elevations the sandstone forms exquisite narrows such as those at Seven Falls and Rattlesnake Canyon.
As it dips under the coastal flood plain, as it does in San Ysidro Canyon, the sandstone is well eroded and the canyons are wider. This occurred during the Pleistocene, the period of rapid uplift, when the canyons were much deeper and continued farther seaward, perhaps as much as three miles.
The trail begins just before the locked gate crossing on San Ysidro Creek. A small sign marked with the San Ysidro Ranch brand is fastened to a nearby oak tree. The path continues along the driveway for a hundred yards, then winds around the rear of a house and up onto a paved road. Follow this up to a wide dirt road that has a chain link gate partially across it and head up it. After a half mile you will come to a thick sequence of Coldwater Sandstone forming a deep “V”, a gateway to the inner canyon beyond.
Just before this “V” several connector trails lead off to the east and the west, providing access to the canyons on either side. The Old Pueblo Trail is to the right, leading east, sharply uphill, and over a ridgeline to upper Park Lane and the Buena Vista Trail. The McMenemy Trail is not too far beyond. This trail crosses San Ysidro Creek and leads up onto a grassy plateau above the San Ysidro Guest Ranch.
To reach the upper end of San Ysidro Canyon follow the dirt road through the narrow “V” created by the Coldwater Sandstone. Look for a large sandstone wall on your left. This is a popular rock-climbing area.
The road continues bobbing up and down along the right side of the canyon for another third mile through very pleasant forests of oak and sycamore. Occasionally there is an opening from which you can catch a glimpse of the upper canyon. The Buena Vista Catway is on the right. It turns sharply back to the right and is easy to miss.
Eventually the road turns left, crosses the creek, and heads up to Hot Springs Canyon. If you’ve gotten to the creek crossing this means you just missed the trail turnoff leading into the upper canyon. Look for the trail just before the road turns left.
The path wanders for a mile through canyon vegetation and oak woodland before heading up into the chaparral. This one mile section is the prettiest part of the canyon. The Cozy Dell Shale dominates, and the canyon is filled with small waterfalls, numerous pools, and many short paths leading down to picturesque spots for relaxing or picnicking.
As you continue on, the canyon narrows and steepens as the trail passes into the Matilija formation. Along one section you’ll find a pipe railing to aid the climb upward, though it is hardly needed. You might also follow the creek through the narrows if you are adventurous enough to brave the rock scrambling and occasional willow thickets. You won’t find it easy going but there are several waterfalls in the narrows which you can’t see from the trail which are very nice.
Eventually you will drop back down to the creek at a point where the canyon splits into an east and west fork. The trail crosses the creek and begins a steep uphill climb. This marks the beginning of the Juncal Formation, as well as the point at which you will no longer have access to water. You’ll need plenty if you plan to continue up to the crest.
The creek crossing is a favorite turn around spot for many hikers. If you‘d like to keep this a relaxing, cool, and moderately easy hike, stop here and explore each of the upper forks. You’ll discover the 80-foot waterfall not too far up the west fork. You might also try exploring the east fork. There is no trail, but the rock hopping is fun and the creek is very pretty.
If you are heading to the crest, the trail begins to climb immediately beyond the creek crossing. Several switchbacks provide 300’ of elevation gain, bringing you out on the side of the mountain and above the west fork of the creek. From here the trail contours above the west fork for three-fourths mile then switches back and forth up a prominent ridgeline. Hiking to the crest adds another two miles, but the effort of making it to the top is well worth it.
From Camino Cielo, the Cold Springs Trail is only a short distance to the west and it is tempting to make this a loop trip back down. This loop is one of my favorites. A good choice if you want to do the loop is to have a shuttle car at the Cold Springs trailhead to take you back to San Ysidro Canyon. That way you can enjoy a dip in the pools in lower Cold Springs.
To loop all the way back to the San Ysidro trailhead continue down the Cold Springs Trail to the catway and follow this east back into the upper canyon. Alternative routes down the Saddle Rock and McMenemy trails or Girard and McMenemy trails are also possible.