Posted by: James Wapotich | October 27, 2012

Trail Quest: Above Tangerine Falls

There are a number of ways to explore Cold Spring Canyon, but the road less traveled leads above Tangerine Falls, where one can find the remains of an old homestead deep within the canyon. Cold Spring Canyon, like many canyons in the Santa Ynez Mountains, represents a riparian corridor through the chaparral. The creek supports a variety of trees such as bay laurel, sycamore, maple and other plants, which in turn support a range of birds and other wildlife.

The hike to the homestead ruin, often referred to as the Root Cellar, is about 3.5 miles roundtrip. From the ruins one can extend their hike along a nearby, and somewhat steeper trail to East Camino Cielo Road, for a longer hike of about about 6 miles roundtrip.

To get the trailhead find your way to Cold Springs Road and Mountain Drive, near Westmont College, and continue east along Mountain Drive to the trailhead. One can also reach the trailhead by driving west along Mountain Drive from Hot Springs Road. Parking is found along the side of the road.

From the trailhead, the trail follows the creek for roughly the first quarter mile before arriving at a trail juncture. Here the West and East Forks of Cold Spring Creek meet and West and East Fork Cold Spring Trails go their separate ways.

East Fork Cold Spring Trail continues along East Fork Cold Spring Creek before then climbing out of the canyon, continuing past Montecito Peak and eventually arriving at East Camino Cielo.

And West Fork Cold Spring Trail crosses the creek and continues along the westside of West Fork Cold Spring Canyon. This is also the same route one would take to find Tangerine Falls.

At about the 0.75-mile mark along West Fork Cold Spring Trail start looking for a spur trail on your right that drops down into the creek between two large boulders. This is the beginning of the social trail that leads up the Middle Fork of Cold Spring Creek to Tangerine Falls, as well as the route that leads above the falls. This side trail is easy to miss.

Since most of us don’t think in terms of miles hiked, the noticeable feature on the trail, is that up until this point West Fork Cold Spring Trail has been heading in a northerly direction, but just past this intersection West Fork Cold Spring Trail starts to head in a westerly direction as it follows West Fork Cold Spring Creek and about a quarter mile later arrives at Cold Spring Tunnel.

Cold Spring Tunnel was built in 1904 to gather water from the Santa Ynez Mountains and has a noticeable cement facade. The tunnel is a clear indication that one has missed the turnoff to the falls and is now headed towards Gibraltar Road.

From the turnoff for Tangerine Falls, the trail to the falls crosses West Fork Cold Spring Creek and continues along the westside of Middle Fork Cold Spring Creek. The trail is fairly well established, but narrower than the main trail.

Very soon after embarking on the trail to Tangerine Falls look for a trail on your left that turns 90 degrees away from the creek, this is the trail that leads above the falls. To get to Tangerine Falls stay to the right – that trail follows the creek upstream another half mile before arriving at the falls.

From this intersection the trail above the falls starts to climb out of the canyon and offers some nice views of West Fork Cold Spring Canyon. Also evident from this perspective is the burn damage from the 2009 Jesusita fire. The trail then rounds a corner offering views of Tangerine Falls in the distance and the rock wall that the falls tumble over.

This unnamed trail is said to follow the original route that was used to reach the mercury mines along the Santa Ynez River, where the Sunbird Mine is now located. And that there used to be two routes through Cold Spring Canyon, this trail and East Fork Cold Spring Trail, but that the forest service at the turn of the last century chose to simplify their workload and maintain just one route, East Fork Cold Spring Trail. And so it’s likely the trail we see today is the work of unnamed trail enthusiasts, sometimes referred to as trail gnomes, who restored the original route by clearing back the brush.

The trail continues uphill through regrowth from the fire and then crosses the ridge dropping back down into the canyon above the falls. There is no easy route down to the top of the falls, but there are some great views to be had from the ridge looking out across the canyon.

From here the trail feels as though it disappears into a hidden world. The trail continues upstream above the falls through the canyon where one will often find flowing water even when the falls are dry. The trail becomes a little more overgrown, but is still easy to follow.

Here the trail takes on more of a backcountry flavor, as one can find evidence of bear sign on the trees, and feel a sense of being in the wilderness as this upper canyon sees far fewer visitors than the canyon below the falls.

At about the 1.75-mile mark the trail above the falls branches, with trail to the right climbing out of the canyon and following the historic route towards East Camino Cielo, and the trail to the left following the creek for less than a quarter mile to the Root Cellar.

The trail to the Root Cellar crosses the creek several more times and then climbs one last rise, passing a large, impressive oak tree, before opening up to a view of the small valley situated at the top of the canyon and arrives at the Root Cellar.

The small stone structure is the remnant of a homestead said to date back to the mid 1800s.

On the way back down, just past the last creek crossing, look for a feint trail that, looking upstream, leads to the right. This short trail, roughly a 100 feet, leads to the rusted remains of a plow and stove, also from the homestead.

For the hike to the East Camino Cielo, from that first intersection above the falls, take the trail that climbs away from the canyon. The trail is steep, but is in remarkably good shape. As the trail leaves the riparian corridor, it becomes dominated by chamise and ceanothus with some holly-leaf cherry and toyon mixed in, which offers a good contrast on which plants like to live where.

At about the 2.25-mile mark the trail starts to crests a hill along the ridge towards East Camino Cielo, offering some great views out back towards Santa Barbara.

The trail then descends down the ridge to a small saddle separating the two canyons before continuing toward East Camino Cielo. The last half mile of the trial is the steepest and best saved for overcast or foggy days.

At about the 3-mile mark the trail arrives at an unmarked spot along East Camino Cielo Road and with it a well deserved sense of accomplishment. For those wanting to take an alternate route back down to the trailhead, one option is to continue east along East Camino Cielo about a mile and return along East Fork Cold Spring Trail for a larger loop of about 8.5 miles.

Regardless how far you hike you’ll get to see some of the richness of our local mountains.

This article originally appeared in section A of October 27th, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


  1. […] just a couple weeks later while hiking up to the Root Cellar above Tangerine Falls I got to see two more foxes. This time I was pushing up the creek past the Root Cellar, looking for […]

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