Posted by: James Wapotich | February 11, 2012

Trail Quest: Carpinteria Bluffs

If you’re looking for a quiet place to go for a walk then the Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve may be the answer, and because the preserve is surprising close to a number of interesting sites that one can reach by foot it also makes a good starting point for several nice hikes. From the bluffs along the ocean one can view the Carpinteria Harbor Seal Rookery, as well as visit the area where the Chumash village of Mishopshno was located and where the Chumash made their plank canoes or tomols. And then from the beach one can hike to either Rincon or the Carpinteria Salt Marsh.

Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve Hike Santa Barbara Trail

A view toward the Santa Ynez Mountains from the Carpinteria Bluffs

To get the Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 south, past Carpinteria and exit at Bailard Avenue and turn right towards the ocean, crossing Via Real and into the parking lot for the preserve. Parking is free and the Preserve is open from 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset. From the trailhead follow the main path that traverses the open space diagonally towards the ocean. One of the more striking features through this section is the unobstructed views of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

The Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve is the result of a long and successful campaign to purchase the property and make it a public preserve. Through the combined efforts of activists, local merchants and residents of Santa Barbara country nearly $4 million was raised to preserve this 52 acre property for future generations.

At about the half mile mark the trail crosses the railroad tracks and reaches the coast. From here the trail branches, to the left there is access down to the beach, and to the right along the bluffs the trail continues a short way to an overlook where one can view the harbors seals.

From the beach one can hike along the coast to Rincon. The beach gently curves from the beach access to Rincon Point and it’s through this section that you’ll likely see the fewest people. As one nears Rincon Point you’ll find access up to Rincon Beach Park where there are restrooms, picnic tables and even a soda machine. Continuing along the beach towards Rincon Point you’ll have an opportunity on a good day to see why Rincon is synonymous with surfing as the curvature of the coast makes for a natural cove, which lends itself towards long, peeling waves that break to the right.

Rincon Surfing Surfer

Surfers at Rincon

Past Rincon Point one arrives at the mouth of Rincon Creek, which is near where the Chumash village of Shuku was located. And past that one arrives at the trail that leads to the parking area for Rincon State Beach. Both Rincon Beach Park and Rincon State Beach have free parking and access to the beach, and can be reached from the Bates Road exit along Highway 101. The hike to Rincon from the Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve is about 5 miles roundtrip.

To see the harbor seals, from that first coastal access at the Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve continue west along the bluffs toward Casitas Pier. Just before the pier there is an overlook from which one can see the seals resting and sunning themselves on the beach below. And while there are other haul outs along the coast this is one of the few that the seals use for pupping. In fact the Carpinteria Harbor Seal Rookery is one of only four remaining rookeries or haul outs used for pupping found along the mainland of Southern California.

Carpinteria Bluffs Harbor Seal Rookery Santa Barbara Hike Trail

Harbor Seal and her pup

This small section of beach is closed December 1 through May 31 to protect the seals during the birthing season. And currently there are pups and their mothers that one can see. Please do not disturb the seals or bring dogs to this part of the hike. The hike to the seal rookery from the trailhead is about 1 mile roundtrip.

From the Carpinteria Harbor Seal Rookery one can continue west along the bluffs, following first the bike path that skirts the edge of the Venoco parking lot and then the trail through Tar Pits Park. This 8 acre city park along the coast is neatly tucked away between the pier and Carpinteria State Beach. At the far end of the park is access back down to the beach where one can also find an active tar seep glistening in the sun on a warm day.

Plant and fossil remains from the the Carpinteria Tar Pits excavated in the 1920s are said to rival those of the more famous La Brea Tar Pits further south. The tar from this area was also used by the Chumash for both for their water tight baskets and in the construction of their wood plank canoes or tomols.

Chumash tomols were made from driftwood, preferably redwood, which most often was found washed up on Santa Rosa Island. The wood was cut into planks, and the planks were then bound together with cordage made from natural fibers or sinew and then tar mixed with pine pitch was used as a both a binding agent and a sealant. Tomols were used extensively by the Chumash to travel between the mainland and the Channel Islands and along the coast.

Continuing west past the tar pits one arrives at Carpinteria State Beach and near where the Chumash village of Mishopshno was located. When Gaspar de Portola visited the area in 1769, he saw Chumash Indians splitting wood and making planks along the beach and named the place La Carpinteria, or the carpentry shop.

The village at the time of Portola was said to be near the mouth of what is now called Carpinteria Creek. The creek has since changed its course over the years, but the village was in this general vicinity.

Mishopshno is said to mean “correspondence” and is a reference to the role the village played as a trade center amongst the Chumash. I’d read that the village of Xaxas on Santa Cruz Island, where Prisoner’s Harbor is now, was also a major “port of call”, and it was interesting standing there, where Mishopshno might’ve been, and gaze out at Santa Cruz Island directly across the channel.

Carpinteria State Park Beach City Santa Barbara Hike Trail

Carpinteria Beach

Continuing past Carpinteria State Beach one arrives at Carpinteria City Beach, which is located at the end of Linden Avenue. This is one of the few beach hikes where one can stop for lunch and have a variety of local restaurants to choose from. From Carpinteria City Beach one can continue either along the beach or from Linden Avenue follow Sandyland Road to arrive at the Carpinteria Salt Marsh Nature Park. If hiking along the beach you’ll want to look for a break in the sand berm just before the retaining wall and houses start.

The Carpinteria Salt Marsh is one of the last remaining coastal estuaries in California and represents a rare opportunity to visit this ecosystem up close. Restoration completed in 2008 by the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County has helped return the 230 acre reserve to its natural state. A trail runs along the northeast corner of the estuary and includes a series of interpretative signs. The hike from the Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve to the Carpinteria Salt Marsh is also about 5 miles roundtrip.

Regardless how far you go you will get see a little corner of California tucked between the mountains and the sea and may even be inspired to come back for another visit.

This article originally appeared in Section A of the February 11th, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

Harbor Seals Rookery Carpinteria Bluffs State Park

Harbor Seals Lounging


  1. Must I subscribe to that paper in order to see this piece?

    • I generally post these articles on my blog 30-45 days after they run in the News-Press. The articles are also viewable on the News-Press website, however you are correct it does require a subscription of some kind. Back issues of the News-Press are available from the De La Guerra office for up to two months.

  2. The lounging seal pups are SO CUTE!!

    • More seals and seal lions will be featured in an upcoming article on San Miguel Island in the next few weeks.

  3. […] Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve on […]

  4. […] raised close to $4 million to purchase the property at Carpinteria Bluffs, and create the 52-acre Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve for the public to […]

Leave a Reply to Seraphima Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: