Posted by: James Wapotich | August 12, 2011

Trail Quest: Arroyo Hondo Preserve

If you’re looking for a trail that lets you connect with both the beauty and the rich history of our coastal mountains then the Arroyo Hondo Preserve may be the answer. Located along the coast between Refugio State Beach and Gaviota State Park the 782-acre preserve with its variety of terrain and scenery can be a great place for discovering our natural heritage.

There are number of different trails through the preserve, many of which are old ranch roads. The trails that follow the creek are suitable for almost all ages and all the trails are generally well marked and in good shape. There are several different loop hikes one can make depending on your time and how far you want to hike. One option described here is to make a large circuit, about 5.5 miles, through the preserve which allows you to hike the majority of the trails including the Outlaw and West Ridge Trails. A map of the trails is available near the barn by the parking area.

Arroyo Hondo Preserve Santa Ynez Mountains Santa Barbara Hike

Hollister Meadow

To get to the preserve from Santa Barbara take Highway 101 past Refugio State Beach and watch for the preserve entrance on your left, about 4 miles past Refugio. You’ll know you’ve gone too far if you arrive at Gaviota State Park. The turnoff is a simple road with just a small placard placed at the entrance. From the turnoff follow the road down into the canyon and cross the bridge to the parking area near the barn.

The Arroyo Hondo Preserve is open during the day on the first and third weekends of each month from 10:00 to 4:00 and also offers docent lead hikes starting at 10:00 on the first Saturday and third Sunday of each month. Visiting the preserve is free although a reservation is required. Docent led hikes are a suggested $5 donation. One can also rent the site for group events. For more information go to or call (805) 567-1115.

Santa Ynez Mountains Arroyo Hondo Preserve Santa Barbara Hike Trail

Docent pointing out the topography along the Lower Outlaw Trail

For this particular hike I decided to tag along with the docent lead hike, which I highly recommend. The docents are knowledgable and provide a rich context with which to experience the preserve and the docent lead hikes are short enough to still allow plenty of time for exploring on your own.

One of the first stops on the docent lead hike was to the former site of the Chumash village of Tuxmu, near where the preserve has installed a fish ladder or series of artificial pools in the creek as it flows under Highway 101 to support the recovery of the steelhead trout population.

Santa Ynez Mountains Arroyo Hondo Preserve Santa Barbara Hike Trail

Standing there near the estuary of Arroyo Hondo Creek imagining the steelhead returning I started to have a sense of just how numerous the Chumash may have been. As the docent was describing how the trout start out as freshwater rainbow trout, some of which swim out to the sea and become steelhead only to later return and spawn much like the salmon, I started thinking about just how many creeks there are along the coast that flow year round and how each of them could have served as a location for a Chumash village or camp.

This site was first visited by westerners when Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo’s expedition sailed up the coast in 1542. At that time the Chumash village of Tuxmu was still occupied, but by the time of Portola’s overland expedition through the area in 1769 the village had been abandoned.

Back at the Ortega Adobe, we learned that it was Jose Francisco Ortega, the first commandante of the the Santa Barbara Presidio who first occupied the land after the Chumash in 1794. And that the land remained with the Ortega Family until 1889 when it was sold. From 1863 to 1900 the Adobe also served as a stagecoach stop.

In the early 1900s the land was purchased by the Hollister Family and was then sold in 2001 to the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County which continues to manage the property.

From the Adobe the trail continues up the canyon along the main road past the barn. At about the quarter mile mark you’ll pass the West Ridge Trail on your left, which is the return route for the large loop hike. A little further up the trail crosses Arroyo Hondo Creek and continues past Hollister Meadow. The meadow situated along the creek with its tables and shade makes for an ideal picnic area.

At the half mile mark the trail branches, to the left the road continues upstream and to the right the Lower Outlaw Trail begins and climbs away from the creek and eventually rejoins the road a half mile later. For the larger loop take the Lower Outlaw Trail to the right.

Santa Ynez Mountains Arroyo Hondo Preserve Santa Barbara Hike Trail

View towards the Santa Ynez Mountains from the Upper Outlaw Trail

Arroyo Hondo Canyon has also served as the hideout for several well known fugitives including Joaquin Murrieta, Jack Powers and Judge Edward McGowan, hence the name Outlaw Trail. From the Lower Outlaw Trail one can catch the Upper Outlaw trail which makes a steep climb up to the ridge where you can view neighboring Tajiguas Canyon. Taking in the contrast between the landfill at Tajiguas and the scenery in Arroyo Honda Canyon I couldn’t help but reflect on our own history and the challenges we face as we try to balance modernity and preservation.

The Upper Outlaw trail continues along the ridge and at the half mile mark branches as it forms a small loop through the sandstone hills and chaparral. The whole trail up and back is about 2 miles roundtrip.

Back on the the Lower Outlaw Trail continue up canyon as the trail returns to the creek and crosses. From here you can make a side trip along the Creek Trail which ends about quarter mile later. The creek at this point with its pools is ideal for spotting trout.

From the creek crossing continue downstream along the Brandy’s Creek Trail, which follows along the opposite side of the creek as the hike in and connects back with the main road just below Hollister Meadow.

Arroyo Hondo Preserve Santa Ynez Mountains Santa Barbara Hike Trail

A short way downstream along the Brandy’s Creek trail look for the unmarked West Ridge Trail on your right. The West Ridge Trail as its name implies traverses the western ridge of Arroyo Hondo Preserve. The trail climbs out of the canyon for the first half mile, switchbacking its way uphill before arriving at the ridge, which it then follows towards the coast, transitioning from chaparral to wild grasses before dropping back down into the canyon for a total of about 1.5 miles. From here follow the main road back to the parking area.

Regardless how far you hike you will get to sample some of the diverse history and beauty of the region and may even be tempted to come back for more.

This article originally appeared in section A of the August, 12th 2011 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


  1. […] In 2001 The Land Trust for Santa Barbara County purchase a 782-acre site along the coast near Gaviota, now known as Arroyo Hondo Preserve. […]

  2. […] in Santa Barbara County. Dr. Cummings recently led a well attended mushroom walk on the trails at Arroyo Hondo Preserve, hosted by the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County. The timing of the event was fortuitous, as the […]

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