Posted by: James Wapotich | August 7, 2011

Trail Quest: Bill Wallace Trail

If you’re looking for an opportunity to hike one of Santa Barbara’s newest front country trails then the Bill Wallace trail may be the answer. Named in honor of Santa Barbara County Supervisor and environmental activist, Bill Wallace, the trail is part of El Capitan State Park and offers greats views of the coast and a chance to visit this portion of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

The Bill Wallace trail is the result of the combined efforts of the California State Parks, El Capitan Canyon Resort, Friends of Channel Coast State Park and the the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County. The trail traverses the 2,500 acres of former ranch property surrounding El Capitan Canyon Resort that is now part of El Capitan State Park. Originally purchased by the Land Trust in 2002, the land was transferred to the state Department of parks and recreation, however due the state budget crisis it wasn’t open to the public until just recently.

Bill Wallace Trail Santa Ynez Mountains El Capitan State Beach Pacific Ocean

View from the Bill Wallace Trail

The hike along the Bill Wallace trail is about 12 miles round trip and makes a large loop starting near the coast, following one side of El Capitan Canyon up into the hills and then returning back along the opposite side of the canyon. The trail follows an old oil road within the former ranch and is fairly well maintained and leads through both coastal foothills and chaparral backcountry gaining about 1,000 feet along the way. A brochure of El Capitan State Park which includes a map of the trail can be found at

To get to the trailhead, take Highway 101 to El Capitan State Beach and instead of heading toward the ocean, head inland and then turn left along the frontage road. Continue past the entrance to El Capitan Canyon Resort to the entrance for Ocean Mesa Campground and park immediately inside on the left. This is the parking area for this part of the state park, parking here is free.

Bill Wallace Trail El Capitan State Beach Santa Ynez Mountains

View near the beginning of the Bill Wallace Trail

The trail continues along the outside of the Ocean Mesa Campground and arrives at a trail juncture with a sign describing the trail and two arrows marked easy and hard. Having hiked both, I can say the hard route is only slightly steeper, as both trails climb uphill and then meet a mile later. This part of the trail provides some great views of the coast as well as the return trail on the other side of the canyon.

The trail continues along the ridge toward the Santa Ynez Mountains and is well marked with signs much of the way. At about the 2 mile mark the trail turns and descends into the canyon and a mile later arrives at an access road within El Capitan Canyon Resort. From here one can make a shorter loop and follow the road back out to the frontage road and return to the trailhead, about 5 miles roundtrip. Or one can turn left and continue up the canyon along the road a short way to where the trail continues, on the left, along the old unpaved oil road. Please respect private property at all times.

Santa Ynez Mountains Bill Wallace Trail El Capitan State Beach

Santa Ynez Mountains

From here you’re committed to the full 12 mile loop as the trail gradually climbs into the Santa Ynez Mountains. This portion of the trail surrounded by chaparral feels the most rustic and provides one an opportunity to see this part of our coastal mountains up close. Along the way you’ll find signs counting off the miles you’ve hiked so far. This will either help you gauge your progress or lament your fate depending on how hot it is.

At the 6 mile mark the trail arrives at a plateau where one finds a picnic table. From here the trail descends down into the upper reaches of El Capitan Canyon and a half mile later arrives at the creek. The creek provides a welcome opportunity to cool off and a shady place to rest. The water in the creek for this time of year is remarkably cool and clear. The trail then crosses the creek and climbs out of the canyon towards the ridge. This section of the trail is also the steepest.

Santa Ynez Mountains El Capitan State Beach Creek Bill Wallace Trail

El Capitan Creek

The trail then travels south along the ridge as it begins its return toward the coast and offers views of El Capitan Canyon and neighboring Las Llagas Canyon. At about the 9.5 mile mark the trail branches with Canyon Trail descending into the canyon and the Overlook Trail continuing along the ridge. The Bill Wallace Trail follows the Canyon Trail down to El Capitan Canyon Resort and from there out to the park entrance where one can take the frontage road back to Ocean Mesa Campground.

Continuing along the Overlook Trail one can bypass the campground almost completely. The trail follows the ridge to an overlook with picnic tables and provides some exceptional views of the coast before continuing down into the canyon. This last descent has several trail junctures, each returns down to the canyon, however the most direct route is found by continuing toward the coast. This last route arrives right behind the El Capitan Canyon store where one can find a soda and even a meal. From here continue to back to the trailhead.

Regardless of how far you hike you’ll get to see a unique part of our coastal mountains.

This article originally appeared in section A of the Sunday, August 7th, 2011 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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