Dan and Hannah Hike the Tunnel Trail in the Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Barbara, California

The Santa Ynez Mountains from our downtown motel

The Santa Ynez Mountains from our downtown motel

A mere ten minutes from our downtown Santa Barbara motel we turn left on to the winding Tunnel Road heading to the mountains and roadside trailhead parking.  It’s a mid-morning in January and the temperature is a Mediterranean 75F without a cloud in the sky.

TT fire warning sign at start of the trail

Climbing the weathered paved trail into the mountains for a good ¾ of a mile, we are looking for the seven-mile round-trip Jesusita Trail.

Spanish – the language of passion and melody.  I missed a golden opportunity to learn Spanish when I taught many Chicano kids in the Phoenix, AZ area for eight years in the 1970s.  Just say Jesusita (Hey-sue-see-ta).  It’s lyrical and flows off the tongue.

For a second day the trails are poorly marked.  We see one sign for the Jesusita Trail and then we are on our own.   With a hike of 1200 foot gain (i.e., from the lowest point on the trail to the highest there is a difference of 1200 feet), we are looking for a good three hour workout on our last day in Santa Barbara.

What we guess is the trail is a steep climb up a wide fire road.  That doesn’t sound right, but we see no alternative.  Straight up the hill we trudge. One half mile later the trail dead-ends at the base of one of the most beautiful transmission towers you have ever seen.  I’m kidding.  It is the typical erector set tower that is kin to the tacky, garish highway billboard.  We have no sense that the trail exits from this plateau.  With no intention of bushwhacking through the brush, we say no mas.

TT han inching up trail

TT han inching down from trail

The climb down from the transmission tower is worse.  The dry, loose stone trail has us slip, sliding away.  We brace our legs and inch side-saddle down the quote trail.  Hannah hugs the side of the trail knowing this can’t be good for her once broken left leg.  We escape and, as we did yesterday, look for a Plan B.

TT tunnel trail sign

We double back down the trail to the Tunnel Trail sign.  What the heck?  Let’s give it a go.  It’s billed as a 9 to 11 mile hike so today we will not reach the summit of the nearly 4000’ La Cumbre Peak, the highest peak in Santa Barbara.  But 40 minutes up and then 40 back will give us a solid morning of hiking.  Goats have worked this trailhead to clear vegetation to minimize the fire danger.

Hannah takes to the switchbacks of the Tunnel Trail

Hannah takes to the switchbacks of the Tunnel Trail

In Great Day Hikes in Santa Barbara by Diane Soini we learn that the Tunnel Trail is one of the most popular hikes in the area.   A YELP review is encouraging – Great hike.  Took me about 5:30h roundtrip, but that’s b/c I did take lunch and take time to eat at the top.  A tough, sweaty 3h up, and a relatively easy 2h down.

Pacific Ocean from the TunnelTrail

Pacific Ocean from the Tunnel Trail

Immediately we fall in love with the trail.  Generally just wide enough for one, the trail has switchbacks that make the mountain ascent a challenge but very doable.  Hiking through the chaparral and brush country under a cloudless sky, I feel like we are in a desert landscape something similar to what you would find at South Mountain Park in Phoenix, Arizona.  In the midst of this terrible drought in California, every so often we see a yellow flower the size of a small button.

Dan hiking the Front Country of the Tunnel Trail

Dan hiking the Front Country of the Tunnel Trail

From the Santa Barbara Independent newspaper – Long-term water planners are now suggesting the state is in the worst water predicament since the 1880s.  Grabbing national headlines is the fact that 17 communities throughout California are now officially without water. Hydro geologists are tossing about the term “mega-drought”… 

It’s a serious, steady, challenging climb under a full sun.  With what we imagine is the summit always in view, we know that we will return next winter to hike the entire Tunnel Trail.

University of California at Santa Barbara

University of California, Santa Barbara

After some time by the pool for Hannah at our motel and a siesta for me, we take The 101 highway north in the late afternoon to see the campus of UCSB (University of California, Santa Barbara).  A good three or four miles from town right on the Pacific Ocean, this campus of 21,000 students reflects the melting pot that is California.  Caucasian students (39%),  Hispanics (29%), Asian students (23%), and American-Africans (4%) make up most of the student body.

Bike racks in the late afternoon

Bike racks in the late afternoon

We notice the campus is made for biking.  Bike paths cross the campus like an intricate morning spider web.  With signs promising a $181 fine for bike riders taking short cuts off the bike paths, I don’t see a single bike rider pedaling off any bike path during our hour on campus.

Recycling at UCSB

Recycling at UCSB

And aren’t these bins so California!  As a New Jersey kid I always thought that all the social and cultural trends began in California, jumped to the East Coast then oozed from the West and East into the rest of the country.  You do remember that California was the first to have “right on red” turns for drivers before anywhere else in the country.

TT york and sb temps

We are sold on the California coast.

Dan and Hannah Hike to Inspiration Point in the Front Country of Santa Barbara, California

IP map of SB

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.

IP parking

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.

IP D at first gate

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.

IP H on first part of trail

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.

IP on 7 pools rocks

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.

IP dry river bed

Trail to Inspiration Point

Trail to Inspiration Point

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?

IP map of drought

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.

IP H with sunlight to IP

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.

The Pacific Ocean in the distance

The Pacific Ocean in the distance

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.

Inspiration Point

Inspiration Point

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.

IP Mamas and Papas 2