Posted by: James Wapotich | July 21, 2012

Trail Quest: Cachuma Lake

While many of us may be more familiar with Cachuma Lake for its fishing and camping opportunities there is also a wealth of natural history available at the lake as well, including interpretive hikes, nature cruises and a nature center.

Cachuma Lake was created in 1953 with the construction of Bradbury Dam and is one of the main water resources for Santa Barbara. The lake however also represents a natural wildlife preserve with over 5000 acres of wilderness surrounding the lake in addition to the 3250 acres that the lake itself covers. The lake has 42 miles of shoreline and offers both hiking and equestrian trails.

The lake also offers programs accessible to all ages including their Junior Ranger Program. In fact one of the best days to go is Saturday, as you can literally fill your day with all the different activities available.

To get to Cachuma Lake from Santa Barbara take State Route 154 over San Marcos Pass and continue to the park entrance, about 25 minutes from Santa Barbara. The day use fee, including parking, is $10.

This past Saturday I participated in all three of their nature programs starting with the Nature Walk, which is offered Saturdays from 10:00-11:30 a.m. The walk is free and is led by either a park naturalist or knowledgable volunteer and is an easy half mile hike along the Don Wimpress trail.

The trail leads through a mix of plant communities including oak savannah, chaparral and oak woodland and is a good opportunity to learn more about the the local plants and animals living around the lake. The walk begins and ends at the Neal Taylor Nature Center.

The Junior Ranger Program is also offered only on Saturdays and meets at the Nature Center from 12:30-1:30 p.m. and is open kids of all ages. Kids learn about the natural history of the park as well as the importance of recycling, and protecting animals from the impact of litter. One of the stories that the naturalists share is how an oriole’s nest was found at the lake that was made from discarded fishing line and in it was the skeleton of the oriole which had gotten tangled up in the nest and died.

The program makes use of the Nature Center where kids learn more about specific animals for their badge. The Junior Ranger Program is $2 per child and is typically led by Liz Gaspar the park naturalist or her assistant Rosie Godlis. Participants also receive a Junior Ranger patch upon completion of the program.

One may ask how did it all of these great programs get started at the lake and the answer invariably leads back to Neal Taylor who was the park’s first naturalist from 1983 to 2001. “Neal could really impart a joy and love of nature that was totally infectious, and he was also a visionary.” Ms. Gaspar told the News-Press. It was Mr. Taylor who initiated the nature walks, developed the Junior Ranger Program and helped create the Nature Center.

Prior to the Nature Center, Ms. Gaspar shared, Mr. Taylor used to ride a bike through the campgrounds with a small trailer that contained various hands on exhibits to connect visitors with the natural history of the area.

In 1988 when the main ranch house used by the park superintendents became available, Mr. Taylor was going to ask if he could use one of the rooms for the Nature Center, but was encouraged by a friend to ask for the whole building, which dates back to the Red Gate Ranch days. The Nature Center now fills most of the ranch house and is probably best described as a mini natural history museum as it includes exhibits and hands on displays of the plants, animals, geology, and natural history of the area including the local Chumash history and that of the Stage Coach days.

The Nature Center is open everyday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. except Mondays and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is free. The Neal Taylor Nature Center is named in honor of Mr. Taylor, who passed away in 2011.

When I asked Ms. Gaspar why the emphasis on natural history, she explained, “When visitors are back at home and they walk up to their kitchen sink or are brushing their teeth, even if they’re not from Santa Barbara, their water comes from a resource like Cachuma, that’s wild and undeveloped. We want to show them what’s at the other end of the pipeline because it’s important to remember that connection”

The park is also exploring ways of offering guided hikes and boat-in camping along the north shore of the lake.

The natures cruises, which Mr. Taylor also helped expand at the park, are one of the highlights of visiting the lake. In fact if you only have a portion of the day to spend at Cachuma Lake the nature cruises are excellent way to see the lake and learn about its natural history. The 2 hour cruises are led by the park naturalist and provide a chance to view the northern shore of the lake and experience the wildness and beauty of our backcountry from a unique perspective.

In the winter months Bald Eagles can often be seen visiting the lake from November to February and so the nature cruises are also known as Eagle Cruises during that time, while during the rest of the year they are referred to as Wildlife Cruises. Each outing is unique, but can often includes deer sightings as well as various native birds.

The cruises are $15 per person, $7 for kids ages 4-12, and are offered on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Reservations are recommended. For a complete schedule of the cruises and other activities and events available at the lake or to make a reservation click here.

There are also several hiking trails available at the lake for additional exploring, the most notable of which is the Sweetwater Trail which follows the southern shore from Harvey’s Cove, near the Nature Center, to Bradbury Dam at the western end of the lake, about 6.5 miles roundtrip. A map of the trails is available at the park entrance.

Cachuma Lake also manages equestrian trials on the north shore of the lake across from Live Oak campground, for more information contact the park directly.

And of course the lake is known for its camping and fishing, in addition to campsites the lake offers cabins and yurts for rent; and in addition to boat rentals the lake has also recently introduced kayak rentals.

Regardless of how long you stay, a visit to Cachuma Lake provides a great opportunity to learn more about our local backcountry and where our water comes from.

This article originally appeared in section A of the July 21st, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press


  1. […] Had the opportunity recently to hike the Sweetwater Trail at Cachuma Lake with Park Naturalist Liz Gaspar. The trail follows the southern shore of the lake from Harvey’s Cove to Vista Point and moves through several different habitats. Ms. Gaspar regularly leads interpretative hikes along the Don Wimpress Nature Trail and also serves as guide on the Nature Cruises at Cachuma Lake. […]

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