Posted by: James Wapotich | January 14, 2012

Trail Quest: West Camino Cielo

If you’re looking for a place to take in the views that also offers almost endless opportunities for exploration then the areas along West Camino Cielo known as Lizard’s Mouth and the Playground may be the answer. The main attraction of both of these locations is the giant sandstone outcroppings and boulders that dominate the landscape. And while there are no designated trails at either location, there are plenty of paths to find, follow and create through the rock formations and chaparral. The hike to Lizard’s Mouth is less than a mile round trip and is the easier of the two hikes.

To get to the trailhead for Lizard’s Mouth from Santa Barbara take State Route 154 and turn left onto West Camino Cielo, just before the top of San Marcos Pass. West Camino Cielo then winds its way west towards the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains. The trailhead for Lizard’s Mouth is on the left hand side of the road, just before the Winchester Canyon Gun Club, which is about 4 miles in from State Route 154. There are several pullouts along the way, from which you can begin your hike, you’ll want to hike more or less southwest depending on where you parked.

Lizard's Mouth West Camino Cielo Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Hike

Lizard's Mouth

The hike to Lizard’s Mouth leads through a large plain of weathered sandstone, and each turn and twist of the terrain reveals a mix of wind sculpted caves and boulders. Most of the routes that one can find to Lizard’s Mouth don’t involve any challenging rock climbing and so this would also be a good place to explore with kids as the hike itself isn’t that long.

Sandstone is one of the more ubiquitous elements in our landscape, it is used in many of the buildings, stone walls, and walkways through out Santa Barbara and figures prominently in mountains seen behind Santa Barbra. And yet in many ways it’s easily overlooked, often fading into the background and so part of the fun of these hikes along West Camino Cielo is that they provide a chance to see this part of our local landscape up close.

Lizard’s Mouth is fairly recognizable amongst the rock formations as it does look a lot like a reptile’s head with its mouth gaping open. You’ll likely also see other hikers gravitating towards it and so that too will narrow down the possibilities, and part of the fun is exploring the area and discovering for oneself what there is to see.

West Camino Cielo Santa Barbara Hike Los Padres National Forest Trail

View looking east from West Camino Cielo

From Lizard’s Mouth one can also take in some panoramic views of the area, depending on where you are on the hike the views can include Little Pine Mountain, and the San Rafael and Santa Ynez Mountain ranges extending eastward. As well as great views of Goleta, Lizard’s Mouth is almost directly north of the airport and one can easily spot UCSB, Devereux Slough and More Mesa and of course the Channel Islands.

Standing there gazing out across Goleta, I found myself wondering if the Chumash had also visited this site. I’ve read that there were several Chumash villages located in the area around what now is the airport and Goleta beach. Would those sites have also been visible from this distance. One could almost imagine a Chumash Indian standing here pointing out his village and the places he had visited just as I was now observing the landmarks familiar to me.

If you did not get enough rock scrambling on the hike to Lizard’s Mouth, then you may also want to head over to what’s called the Playground. The trailhead for this hike is back along West Camino Cielo closer to State Route 154. The distinctive landmark you’ll want to look for is the power lines crossing the road, where you’ll likely see other cars parked. The trailhead is about 2.5 miles from State Route 154.

Narrows Playground West Camino Cielo Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Hike Trail

Inside The Narrows at the Playground

With some luck you’ll spot the main trail that’s been established. It is a well worn route heading south through the chaparral and provides an excellent opportunity to see first hand the regrowth from the 2008 Gap Fire.

Roughly a half mile in the trail arrives at a large rock formation, which essentially represents the upper edge of the Playground. From here the number of trails begins to multiply, again offering countless opportunities for exploration. As with Lizard’s Mouth, there is no single maintained trail, just different paths through the rocks and chaparral that one can find and create.

If you are interesting in visiting what is called the Narrows, then your best bet is to stay to the left when you arrive at this first rock formation and continue downhill. The Narrows is a large cleft eroded between two long sandstone outcroppings. This channel between the sandstone includes caves to explore and at the lower end a body-width wide Narrows to climb through.

The Playground Narrows Santa Barbara Hike Trail West Camino Cielo Los Padres National Forest

The Playground

The hike through the Playgrounds is longer and more challenging than that at Lizard’s Mouth, but one can still pick and choose which route serves them best. Both hikes will likely inspire additional visits to see what else there is to find.

The sandstone at the Playground and Lizard’s mouth are part of the Coldwater Sandstone formation, which dates back some 50 million years to the Eocene when at that time it was underwater slowly being formed. I sometimes think that the draw of such places is that it allows us in some way to connect that far back into time. This same sandstone is also found along other front country trails including the pools and cascades at Seven Falls.

Regardless how far you hike you will get to take in some great views and have a chance to explore part of our local backcountry.

This article originally appeared in section A of the January 14th, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


  1. Hi- is there a way to read the articles without buying a news press subscription??

    • Unfortunately not, other than buying individual copies, you can also get older copies up to about two months back from the News-Press De La Guerra office. I usually try to post the older articles 30-45 days after they’ve run in the News-Press, although I am behind on that.


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