Posted by: James Wapotich | November 4, 2011

Trail Quest: Zaca Ridge

There are a surprising number of trails to explore in the area between Figueroa Mountain Road and Zaca Ridge. These trails are found on the property owned by Midland School, but are open to public provided hikers obtain a hiking permit at Midland. The lower trails through the foothills and along Alamo Pintado Creek offer a wide variety of scenery and are accessible to almost all ages and can make for some nice day hikes. There is also a way to hike to Zaca Ridge and back making a large loop. The hike to Zaca Ridge is challenging and is not recommended for first time hikers.

Zaca Lake Ridge Trail Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Hike

Zaca Lake seen from the Zaca Ridge Trail

To get to the trailhead, from Los Olivos, take Figueroa Mountain Road and head north towards Midland School, 5100 Figueroa Mountain Road. In order to hike you will need to fill out a one day hiking permit at Midland. Turn into the campus and cross the bridge, there you will see a metal box on a post with the hiking permits. From Midland School continue a short way further along Figueroa Mountain Road. Just before the road crosses Alamo Pintado Creek and begins its climb towards Figueroa Mountain there is a large pullout on the right for parking. From here continue on foot along the road, across the creek and to the right about 100 yards to the signed trail head.

The trail then follows Alamo Pintado Creek, which still has some water in it. As with the drive from Midland and along much of the first part of the trail you’ll easily recognize Grass Mountain in the distance. Grass Mountain rises to almost 3,900 feet with much of its front face covered in wild grasses, visible to the left is Zaca Ridge. In contrast the trail starts at about 1,300 feet. This section of the trail through Birabent Canyon is some of the more scenic with its mix of riparian plants and pines and passes near where the Chumash village of Soxtonokmu was located. [For a map of the trails scroll down to the bottom of the post]

Grass Mountain Zaca Ridge Midland Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Hike

View of Grass Mountain from the trail

At about the half mile mark the trail crosses Alamo Pintado Creek and then branches. The noticeable landmark at this crossing is a large Sycamore tree. The trail around the left side of the Sycamore tree climbs out of the canyon and ultimately towards Coulter Pine Ridge which is the first part of the Zaca Ridge loop. The trail to the right continues upstream, passing the return trail from Grass Mountain and about a quarter mile later branches with one trail exploring still further up Birabent Canyon and the other looping back around to Figueroa Mountain Road. This smaller loop, about 2.25 miles involves walking back to the trailhead along Figueroa Mountain Road for the last quarter mile.

From this intersection continue uphill until you come to a noticeable rocky ridge, here the trail slowly splits off in two directions with the trail to the right crossing the ridge and continuing north into Maple Canyon and the trail to the left paralleling the ridge before continuing on towards Coulter Pine Ridge. From here the trail continues uphill, eventually crossing a small wash and arriving at a dirt road. Here the trail branches again with the trail to the right heading back down into Maple Canyon, which can make for a nice loop hike back to Alamo Pintado Creek.

From the road the trail to Coulter Pine Ridge continues uphill to the left and offers some nice views of the Santa Ynez Valley. At about the 1.5 mile mark the trail arrives at small saddle. Here the hike to Zaca Ridge becomes much more challenging. The trail becomes less distinct as you basically follow the ridge line continuing uphill the rest of the way until it connects with Zaca Ridge. At the top of the first rise you will be able to make out a route along this connector ridge towards Zaca Ridge and at about the 2.5 mile mark you leave the Midland property and enter the Los Padres National Forest. This hike is not for inexperienced hikers.

Coutler Pine Zaca Ridge Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Hike

The trail to Coulter Pine Ridge

The hike along the connector ridge is steep and the trail becomes more overgrown the closer to the top you get. At about the 3 mile mark you reach Zaca Ridge. From here continue east along Zaca Ridge. The trail is overgrown but flagged and is easiest to follow along the south side of the ridge. About a quarter mile later the trail arrives at a signed intersection, with the trail to the left heading down towards Zaca Lake which is privately owned and not open to visitors. The hike continues east along Zaca Ridge with the trail becoming an easier to follow narrow lane through the chaparral as it travels along the north face of Zaca Ridge offering some great views of Zaca Lake.

At the about the 4.25 mile mark the Zaca Ridge Trail reaches a small saddle where you’ll find a second trail sign. From here turn right heading towards Grass Mountain. The Zaca Ridge Trail continues east towards Zaca Peak and eventually connects with Zaca Ridge Road which is an alternate way to access the Zaca Ridge Trail. From this intersection you are essentially hiking towards the back of Grass Mountain. At about the 5 mile mark you’ll arrive at Grass Mountain and enjoy sweeping views of Coulter Pine Ridge, Figueroa Mountain and the Santa Ynez Valley.

Coulter Pine Zaca Ridge Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Hike

View towards Zaca Ridge from Grass Mountain

From the the top of Grass Mountain it is a steep descent back down to the Midland property and into Birabent Canyon. At about the 6.5 mile mark the trail arrives at Alamo Pintado Creek, making the whole loop about 7 miles. If you plan to hike to Zaca Ridge and back allow yourself the whole day and bring plenty of water.

Midland School was founded in 1932 and is unique among boarding schools in that it actively incorporates the land into its curriculum, a number classes including the sciences and art are taught in part on the land. It is this connection to and awareness of ones local environment that can become the foundation for both self-reliance and a greater understanding of the world around us. In 2009 Midland School with the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County and the Trust for Public Land created a conversation easement to preserve the Midland property in perpetuity.

Grass Mountain Los Padres National Forest Midland Santa Barbara Hike

Grass Mountain

There are also several trails on the property that are open horseback riding, for permission and more information about the horse trails contact Midland School directly. For more information about Midland School visit

Regardless of how far you hike you’ll will get to see some of the remarkable scenery of this part of Santa Barbara County and may even be inspired to return for another visit to explore more of the area.

This article originally appeared in section A of the November 4th, 2011 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

Midland School Trails map birabent canyon los padres national forest Figueroa Mountain Road hiking Grass Mountain Zaca Peak


  1. […] Lake. And although I didn’t mention it in the article, you can also make a great loop using Zaca Ridge and Coulter Pine […]

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