Posted by: James Wapotich | March 16, 2012

Trail Quest: Cathedral Peak

The hike to Cathedral Peak is one of the more challenging hikes in Santa Barbara. There are essentially two routes to the peak and both of them are strenuous.

Looking towards the Santa Ynez Mountains from downtown Santa Barbara, one of the more noticeable features are the sandstone peaks and ridges, particularly those seen more or less behind the Santa Barbara Mission. Of these, Arlington Peak, which comes in at 3,219 feet, is the most striking with its rocky triangular shape. Behind Arlington Peak, is the slightly taller and less dramatic looking Cathedral Peak, coming in at 3,333 feet. And to the right and above both them at the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains is La Cumbre Peak, weighing in at 3,985 feet.

Arlington Peak and the Dragon’s Back is seen from Tunnel Trail

Both of the routes to Cathedral Peak follow what are called social trails, that is neither one is an established trail, but rather one that has been created by repeated usage. Both trails see only occasional maintenance by self-selected individuals often referred to as trail gnomes.

The first route takes off from the Jesusita Trail and follows a rocky ridgeline up to Arlington Peak and then over to Cathedral Peak, and the second route drops down from La Cumbre Peak. Both routes are steep and require a fair amount of clambering over rocks.

This hike has also seen a disproportionate number of Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue efforts, because people have either underestimated the difficulty of the hike or have become disoriented or lost. One of the pitfalls of social trails is that they are often indistinct, divergent and at times confusing. In other words don’t make this your first hike, allow plenty of time, be prepared with water and an extra layer of clothing and take the time to study your route and the topography so you have a clear sense of where you’re going.

To take the route from the Jesusita Trail, find your way to the end of Tunnel Road, past the Santa Barbara Mission in the Foothills behind Santa Barbara. This is also the same trail head for the popular Inspiration Point and Seven Falls hike and so parking can be a challenge. Parking is found along the side of the road, please be mindful that this is a residential neighborhood.

Red Tail Hawk Arlington Peak Santa Ynez Mountains Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Day Hik Cathedral Peak

Red Tail Hawk near Arlington Peak

From the trailhead follow the access road past the locked gate, as the road rounds the last corner before crossing Mission Creek by bridge, you’ll see Arlington Peak looming in the distance with a sweeping ridgeline stretching eastward, the trail literally follows the ridge from right to left. Past the bridge the road becomes a dirt road, stay to the left and follow the Jesusita Trail.

At about the 1.25 mile mark the Jesusita Trail crosses Mission Creek, here you’ll want to turn up Mission Creek and take the first social trail on your left which climbs up to the ridgeline separating Mission Creek and the next canyon over. The trail follows this ridge uphill the entire way and connects up with the more prominent ridgeline that then connects to Arlington Peak. About halfway up this first ridge there is a side trail on the right the leads back down to Mission Creek and arrives above the first set of pools at Seven Falls.

The entire route leads through area that was burned in the 2009 Jesusita Fire, and while the reduced brush makes for easier hiking, the trail is also exposed and offers little shade so plan accordingly.

Once the trail arrives at that first ridge transition, it turns westward towards Arlington Peak and travels along what some people affectionately call the Dragon’s Back. At this transition take note that there is an alternate social trail that drops back down to Mission Creek as it’s easy to mistakenly take this route on the way back as it looks like the more prominent route from that angle. In fact one trick to not getting lost is to stop occasionally and look at the trail behind you as it will look completely different from that perspective. Another is to track your relationship to landmarks and features that are off to the sides rather than directly in front of you.

Upper Pools Seven Falls Los Padres National Forest Cathedral Peak Santa Barbara Day Hike Tunnel Trail Mission Creek

The Upper Pools past Seven Falls can be seen from the trail to Cathedral Peak

From here the trail does level out briefly and offers some really nice views of the upper pools along Mission Creek. The trail then steepens as makes its final push to the top of Arlington Peak, where one is rewarded with panoramic views of the coast from Goleta to Carpinteria, and the Santa Ynez Mountains, and Cathedral and La Cumbre Peaks.

Cathedral Peak is more of a tall cap of sandstone, a quarter mile further along the ridgeline continuing past Arlington Peak towards La Cumbre Peak. And while this entire hike is roughly 4.5 miles roundtrip figure on it taking twice as long as a regular hike.

The second route to Cathedral Peak is to drop down from La Cumbre Peak. And while this route is shorter, roughly 2 miles roundtrip, it is also steeper. To get to La Cumbre Peak, find your way to Gibraltar Road in the foothills behind Santa Barbara and follow it to East Camino Cielo, turn left onto East Camino Cielo and look for the gated turnoff for La Cumbre Peak on the left; parking is found along the road.

Arlington and Cathedral Peaks are seen from La Cumbre Peak

If you’re just looking for the great views without the hike then La Cumbre Peak is also the place to go. To find the social trail down to Cathedral Peak, from the gate follow the road and stay to the right, you’ll soon arrive at a lone bench overlooking Mission Canyon and Santa Barbara. Look for the trail that follows the small ridge to the right of this bench.

As with many social trails there are numerous little side trails, but what you’re looking for is an outcropping of rocks at the end of this first ridge, here the trail transitions and starts to drop down the front of the mountains. This route has more recently been worked and a trail of sorts has been hacked out through the brush and over the rocks, appearing at times as though a narrow rockslide has plowed through the brush.

Santa Ynez Mountains La Cumbre Peak Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Day Hike

View looking west from La Cumbre Peak

Here also another good opportunity to study the route as it essentially climbs down the front of the mountain and then traverses the small saddle before climbing through the brush up to Cathedral Peak all more or less in a straight line heading south. In other words if you start making a dramatic or lengthy turn east or west you’re going the wrong way.

Halfway down the mountain the trail transitions from being more open to going through the brush before arriving at the saddle. It’s here on this small connector ridge that the trail looks almost normal, appearing well established and even somewhat level. But that soon ends as the trail then starts its climb towards Cathedral Peak. Through this last section much of the trail is a 4 and half foot high tunnel through the chaparral proving that it was gnomes who made this trail.

Regardless of how far you hike you will have a chance to explore some of our local mountains.

This article originally appeared in the March 16th, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


  1. James — I recently took a hike from the southeast corner of Fremont Campground, at site #12. I went east to the Fremont Tract and then southwest up the north slope of Fremont Ridge almost to the ridgeline itself. On the way I passed a water tank in the hard chaparral, went into a small canyon filled with live oaks and mosses and ferns, crossed a grassy meadow, and then went into the live oak forest below the ridge. About five years ago I had taken a shuttle trip from Fremont Ridge down to Paradise Road, but none of this hike reminded me of where I’d gone back then. I looked on the southwest corner of Fremont Campground, but didn’t see a different trail. Do you know anything about the trail I took? Is it the main shuttle trail from Fremont Ridge to Paradise Road, or is there another? I checked with the USFS, but they thought the trail I took might be on private land. However, I didn’t see a single “Nor Trespassing” sign the entire hike, nor did I encounter a fence. I e-mailed about three weeks ago but have gotten no reply. This might be a good hike for a writeup. Could you let me know if you have any information? I can sent you text of my report of the hike if you’d like. Thanks.

    Matthew F. Delaney.

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