Posted by: James Wapotich | November 19, 2011

Trail Quest: La Cumbre Peak

If you’re looking for a hike that provides both a great workout and views then the hike to La Cumbre Peak may be the answer. The peak is one of the highest found in the Santa Ynez Mountains right behind Santa Barbara, in fact if you’ve ever stood in downtown Santa Barbara and gazed at the mountains you may have looked at La Cumbre Peak without even knowing it. The hike to La Cumbre Peak along the Tunnel Trail is about 10.5 miles roundtrip.

Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbra Day Hike Santa Ynez Mountains Tunnel Trail

Arlington and La Cumbre Peaks

To get the trail head, find your way to Mission Canyon Road in the foothills behind Santa Barbara heading towards the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden and veer left onto Tunnel Road. The Tunnel Trail begins where Tunnel Road ends and so parking is found along the road.

Both Tunnel Trail and Tunnel Road take their name from the Mission Tunnel that carries water from Gibraltar Reservoir to Santa Barbara. The 3.7 mile tunnel through the mountains was completed in 1911.

From the end of Tunnel Road, the trail follows the paved road to a locked gate and then from there continues along the paved access road eventually crossing Mission Creek by bridge just before arriving at the southern portal of the tunnel. From here the paved road continues a little ways further before becoming a dirt road at which point it branches with the Edison Catway continuing to the right towards the power lines and both the Jesusita and Tunnel Trails continuing to the left. Shortly after this intersection the trail branches again, with the Jesusita Trail continuing to the left towards Seven Falls and Inspiration Point and the unsigned Tunnel Trail heading more or less north to the right.

Los Padres National Forest Tunnel Trail Santa Barbara Day Hike Santa Ynez Mountains

From here the Tunnel Trail climbs away from the creek and the number of people on the trail thins down dramatically. The lower part of the trail is somewhat steep and the damage from the 2009 Jesusita Fire is still noticeable on this south facing slope where the regrowth has been at a slower pace. The trail like most front country trails, is in good shape and is easy to follow. There is little shade however along much of the trail and so you’ll want to bring plenty of water and allow the better part of the day for the hike.

At about the 2 mile mark one can start to see both Arlington and La Cumbre Peaks from the trail. From here the trail continues its climb and at the about the 2.5 mile mark arrives at the Rattlesnake Connector Trail which leads down into Rattlesnake Canyon.

A little while later the Tunnel Trail arrives at Mission Falls, which generally only has water when it has recently rained but is visible from the trail. At the falls the trail can look like it disappears, but instead turns up a small creek briefly before continuing to follow the contour of the mountains as it continues its climb towards Camino Cielo. Throughout this section you may notice plants such as Bay Laurel and Holly Leaf Cherry rebounding from the fire.

Bay Laurel Los Padres National Forest Tunnel Trail Santa Ynez Mountains

At about the 4 mile mark the Tunnel Trail arrives at East Camino Cielo, here the North Tunnel Trail continues down the backside of the Santa Ynez Mountains towards Gibraltar Dam. At this juncture turn left and continue west along East Camino Cielo Road towards La Cumbre Peak. This part of the hike leads through numerous pine trees along the ridgeline of the Santa Ynez Mountains and offers expansive views of the San Rafael Mountains stretching out to the north as well as the Santa Ynez River valley below.

At about the 5 mile mark one reaches the turnoff for La Cumbre Peak and then arrives at the top with hopefully a strong sense of accomplishment and some satisfaction knowing that the rest of the hike is all downhill. At La Cumbre Peak there are public restrooms and picnic tables available.

Los Padres National Forest Santa Ynez Mountains La Cumbre Lookout

La Cumbre Lookout

At the peak you will also find the old La Cumbre Peak Lookout Tower now boarded up and closed to the public. Originally built during the 1920s as part of a wave of lookout towers built throughout the National Forest, its purpose was to support the early detection and suppression of forest fires as part of an overall strategy of fire prevention. The lookout was rebuilt in 1945 with an innovative design at the time, giving it a look resembling an air traffic control tower. The lookout was closed in the early 1980s when advances in aerial and satellite surveillance combined with increased fire reporting from the general public made maintaining the lookout less of a priority.

From La Cumbre Peak on a clear day one can take in panoramic views along Camino Cielo to the west, and stretching up the coast past Goleta towards Gaviota and down the coast past Carpinteria towards Ventura as well as out towards the Channel Islands. La Cumbre Peak can also be reached by car from East Camino Cielo Road and can make for a great picnic site.

Regardless of how far you go you’ll get to explore a part of our local front country and have a sense of the role that the mountains have played in the local history of Santa Barbara.

This article originally appeared in section A of the November 19th, 2011 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


  1. […] to White Mountain, which is the next prominent mountain visible to the east of La Cumbre Peak from Santa Barbara. There is a fairly well established social trail from Gibraltar Road, near the […]

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