Located ninety miles north of Los Angeles on the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara is often referred to as the “American Riviera” because of its geography and climate similar to that of the French Riviera. The Santa Ynez Mountains are a backdrop to this city of 88,000 whose average high temperature ranges from 65F in January to 76F in August. Is that about perfect or what!
With peaks over 4000’, the Santa Ynez Mountains provide us with trailheads within ten minutes of town. The Great Day Hikes in Santa Barbara by Diane Soini whets our appetite with the seductive sounding – Three Pools Beyond Seven Falls! It’s the first hike featured in our guidebook. It’s got to be a winner, winner, chicken dinner.
We are warned about parking. Be careful to park with your tires completely within the line or you will be towed. They are not kidding about that. That puts enough fear into us so we obediently do as we are told. At the end of the serpentine Tunnel Road from town there are maybe 15 to 20 parking spots. Plenty more lie further down the road among the Mediterranean-style haciendas of the foothills.
The trail begins on a fractured eight to ten foot wide paved road. It’s a fire road at best with no regular vehicular traffic. With access to many of the Tunnel Trails, the weathered tar path climbs steadily into the nearby mountains of the Los Padres National Forest. On this near 80 degree January Wednesday afternoon under an Arizona sky (not a cloud), we see many other hikers in conversation and loving life.
After three quarters of a mile we bear left, guessing that this is the trail. On a trail that is not well-marked, we cross what appears to be a river bottom of Mission Creek. The California drought of 2014 has taken its toll on this parched stream-bed. It looks like a better home for Gila Monsters than polliwogs and minnows. There is no water, no pools; soon we are bushwhacking and climbing boulders.
In the direct sun, we have chaparral and scrub brush scraping our legs. With no other hikers in sight, we abandon ship and retrace our steps. There will be no pools or falls for us today.
Then we hit the jackpot. Inspiration Point seems to be the hike of choice for what I am guessing are gaggles of UCSB (University of California, Santa Barbara) students on the trail during the first week of the spring semester. Though the guidebook calls it a moderate hike, every hike in the Front Country of Santa Barbara is a steady climb. Warned of kamikaze bike riders by our author, we find that a bit of hyperbole; the two mountain bikers that we see pause and slowly pedal by us. On our first full day in California, we are falling for the warm weather and the active lifestyle in a big way.
The trail to Inspiration Point is obvious though not really well-marked either. With other hikers coming down from the summit, we know we are on the right track of this 3.5 mile round-trip hike that takes us to the top in about an hour.
The drought is severe and widespread. We are in the quote rainy season and the land is burnt and withered. We could be in Maricopa County (the desert county where we lived in Tempe, AZ). Trees and brush are gasping for water. Is the Sonoran Desert of Arizona spreading to the coast? Will water replace oil as the most precious and fought over natural resource?
In a dry year, rainfall can be less than six inches here. By comparison, Phoenix, AZ averages 7 to 10 inches per year. By the way, snow has not fallen within the city, though there were a few flakes in 1939. Santa Barbara must draw snowbirds from New England and the Midwest by the yard-full.
The switchbacks make for an easy climb on a day of full sun; by the way, it’s 20 degrees in York, Maine today. The shade of the chaparrals is a welcome relief.
Catching glimpses of the Pacific Ocean at various points on the trail, Hannah and I know we are the fortunate ones who can travel mid-winter. Just yesterday morning we left snowy New England where its residents are hunkering down under the threat of snow and for another cold winter’s day and night.
Atop the mountain at 1750’, we just smile at our good fortune as we look over the foothills and shoreline of Santa Barbara.
California has its hooks in me. Our friend Tree’s statement (I want to be somewhere in the winter where I can be active outside.) resonates with me today as it did when she said it a month ago in Maine.
Some 43 years ago I began my teaching career at Patrick Henry Elementary School some 120 miles to the south in Anaheim, California. As a 22 year old, the allure of freedom and possibilities of California drew me West. Today the soothing, swaying rhythm of the Mamas and Papas California Dreamin’ plays over and over in my head and runs deep in my soul.