Posted by: James Wapotich | June 13, 2011

Trail Quest: San Marcos Foothills Preserve

The San Marcos Foothills Preserve is where one can find some of Santa Barbara’s newest front country hiking opportunities. Situated near the intersection of State Route 154 and Foothill Road this former cattle and dairy ranch, now managed by the Santa Barbara Country Parks Department makes for some nice hiking that’s both close to town and relatively undiscovered. The main trail through the preserve is about 5 miles round trip and connects the two main entry points to the preserve and includes a short side trail up to the overlook viewpoint.

Santa Barbara Hike San Marcos Foothills Preserve Santa Ynez Mountains

San Marcos Foothills

As a former ranch much of the trails are simple farm roads, which make for good side-by-side hiking, which can make for easy conversations while strolling through our local front country foothills. The 200-acre preserve was once part of the historic La Paloma Ranch and after several owners was eventually donated to the Trust for Public Land in 2007 and then acquired by the County of Santa Barbara.

There are two primary access points to the San Marcos Foothills Preserve. The main entrance is along Via Gaitero and the other is along Antone Road. Until this spring either one could have served as a beginning point, however this year’s storms have washed out the trail crossing at Cieneguitas Creek less than a half mile from Antone Road and so the best place to start is from Via Gaitero as it allows for more hiking.

San Marcos Foothills Preserve Santa Barbara Hike Santa Ynez Mountains Oak

Coast Live Oak

To get to Via Gaitero find your way to Via Chaparral and Cathedral Oaks near State Route 154. From Via Chaparral continue north to Salvar Road and turn right as Salvar Road crosses over State Route 154. Turn left onto Via Gaitero, which dead ends at the preserve entrance. Parking is found along the road.

From the preserve entrance the trail heads due east through Coastal Sage and wild grasses. The trail then makes its way towards Atascadero Creek moving through a mix of Oak and chaparral. And although much of the preserve was burned in the 2009 Jesusita Fire, the damage is less noticeable than on other affected trails.

As the trail descends down towards the creek it branches, turn right and continue more or less east. At times the preserve can seem like a maze of trails and roads, however the main trail through the preserve is well marked and affords one the best opportunity to experience the preserve.

San Marcos Foothills Preserve Santa Barbara Hike Santa Ynez Mountains Oaks

View from Overlook Point

At about the .75-mile mark, the trail crosses Atascadero Creek and then branches again, stay to the left heading essentially upstream as the trail then passes through an area undergoing habitat restoration. Please stay on the trail.

At this point the trail climbs to the main ridge that divides the preserve and its two main creeks. It’s along this ridge that one can find an unmarked trail that continues up along the ridge to the overlook viewpoint. You’ll know if you missed the turnoff as the main trail levels off and then begins its descent back towards Santa Barbara.

The side trail continues for about a quarter mile before reaching a small mesa covered completely in deer weed. From this vantage one can get a good sense of the scope and layout of the preserve as well as enjoy some unique views of Santa Barbara.

San Marcos Foothills Preserve Santa Barbara Hike Santa Ynez Mountains

From that intersection, roughly the one-mile mark, the main trail continues about another .75 mile before reaching Cieneguitas Creek where it would normally cross, however this year’s recent rains have eroded the creek such that it’s not possible to safely cross it. Thus making the creek a natural return point for the hike.

Regardless of how far you hike you will be treated to some unique views of Santa Barbara and a sense of the city’s rich history.

This article originally appeared in section A of the Monday, June 13th, 2011 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


  1. […] In 2007 the county of Santa Barbara acquired 200 acres of undeveloped land near State Route 154 that had been donated to the Trust for Public Land, and created what is now known as San Marcos Foothills Preserve. […]

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