Posted by: James Wapotich | June 29, 2013

Trail Quest: Sheffield Reservoir Open Space

If you’re looking for a short hike that’s close to town and good for almost all ages then Sheffield Reservoir Open Space may be the answer. Located in the foothills of Santa Barbara, this converted city reservoir site now serves as an open space and is open to the public during daylight hours. A loop hike around the site is about a half mile.

To get to the reservoir from Santa Barbara Mission, continue north on East Los Olivos Street and either turn right onto Mountain Drive (just before Rocky Nook Park) or continue north along Mission Canyon Road and turn right onto Foothill Road, which joins Mountain Drive as it continues east towards Sheffield Reservoir Open Space. 

At times the roads behind the Riviera can be confusing as one road transition into another and street names often continue at right angles to the road you were just on, however a useful landmark in this case is the reservoir’s old filtration plant located on the corner of Mountain Drive and Mission Ridge Road. Parking can be found at the site.

Santa Barbara Riviera Sheffield Reservoir hike trail day

Sheffield Reservoir Open Space is framed by the Santa Ynez Mountains in a view from one of the trails

The original open air reservoir was built in 1917 on what was at the time a remote 20-acre parcel in the foothills of Santa Barbara. The reservoir was named for Eugene S. Sheffield, one of the city’s first water commissioners, who in 1896 proposed the construction of Cold Spring Tunnel. The tunnel which can still be found today along the west fork of Cold Spring Creek was built as a solution to the city’s water needs. The tunnel was dug straight into the Santa Ynez Mountains to gather, as Mr. Sheffield had speculated, the water that naturally seeps in the mountains.

During the earthquake of 1925, which also damaged the Santa Barbara Mission, the original reservoir dam was destroyed sending 30 million gallons of water rushing down Sycamore Canyon and flooding parts of what is now the East Side.  

In 1936 the reservoir was rebuilt under the Public Works Administration with a water capacity of 40 million gallons. In addition to the new 800 foot dam, a filtration plant was also constructed. The plant, which is still standing, was designed by local architect E. Keith Lockard. 

Because the 25-foot deep reservoir was open air it was susceptible to wind-blown contaminates and required the use of chlorine. However the chlorine itself could react with sunlight and water and create for example algae blooms as happened in 1996. 

In 2002 the Environmental Protection Agency reduced the allowable limit for such disinfection byproducts in drinking water. This change prompted the City to seek an alternative design for the reservoir.

In 2004, having secured funding, the City replaced the open air reservoir with two buried 6.5 million gallon concrete reservoirs. The City worked with neighbors and other local stakeholders to create a design that was both functional and would provide an open space environment. 

The new underground reservoirs are named in honor of Myron Hoover and Robert McLaughlin, two city employees who drowned in the reservoir in 1964. 

The conversion was completed in 2006 and provided the City with not only a safer reservoir but created a new open space for the residents of Santa Barbara.

Today Sheffield Reservoir provides a third of the City’s drinking water. Water in the reservoir comes from the Cater Water Treatment Plant which in turn receives water from Cachuma Lake and Gibraltar Reservoir.

As part of the conversion the site incorporates elements from the original reservoir. These historic elements include the cement retaining wall along the south side of the reservoir, the filtration plant, restored to its original color and two rows of sandstone boulders denoting where the dam was once located. 

Bushtit Santa Barbara Riviera Sheffield Reservoir hike trail day

A bushtit hides amongst the native plants at Sheffield Reservoir Open Space

The landscaping includes a selection of native chaparral and riparian plants propagated from nearby parks and open spaces. The plants not only help restore the site to a more natural state but because many of the plants selected are fairly common it can also provide a good opportunity to learn to identify some local plants. The site includes plants such as coyote brush, purple and white sage, coast live oak, toyon, ceanothus, lemonade berry, sugar bush, mugwort, arroyo and silver leaf willow, cottonwood and sycamore. And thankfully the designers did not include poison oak.

It’s also encouraging to see a variety of native birds taking advantage of the plants, as well as the structure, in particular the swallows who make use of the filtration plant’s many nooks and corners. Overhead one can often see hawks drawn to the activity as well.

A paved access road makes its way around the edge of the park forming essentially a large horseshoe closed by the filtration plant. In the center there are a number of paths cross-crossing the park and threading their way through the native plants. Both provide hiking opportunities.

Firescape Demonstration Garden Sheffield Reservoir Open Space Santa Barbara Riviera hike trail

Mexican Sage and other plants can be seen in the Firescape Demonstration Garden

From the paved access road, at the eastern end of Sheffield Reservoir Open Space, one can make a side trip to the nearby Firescape Demonstration Garden that is adjacent to the open space. 

The 1.7-acre demonstration garden was constructed by the City of Santa Barbara Fire Department in 1985 with volunteers from local landscaping and gardening businesses. The purpose of the garden is to show how one can protect their home from the impact of wildfire through fire safe landscaping.

Because the potential for wildfire is part of our local environment a proactive approach is to use non-combustable materials for one’s house, particularly the roof, and create what’s called a defensible space around one’s house through the use of fire safe landscaping that can effectively reduce a wildfire’s heat intensity.  

The garden illustrates how one can design landscaping that is both attractive and fire safe utilizing a four-zone concept that reduces available fuel for a wildfire. Integral to such landscaping is regular maintenance.

For more information about wildfire safety and developing your own wildfire action plan go to The City on its website also lists other fire safe and water wise demonstration gardens and other resource regarding sustainable landscaping at

The garden is located at the corner of Stanwood Drive and Mission Ridge Road, across the street from Santa Barbara City Fire Station Number 7.

From the Firescape Demonstration Garden one can extend their hike further by connecting over to 200-acre Parma Park. From the garden continue along Stanwood Drive to El Cielito Road, about a quarter mile, and turn left onto El Cielito Road and look for an access trail on your right. A second access point can be found along Mountain Drive, just east of where El Cielito Road meets Mountain Drive. 

Regardless of how far you hike you’ll get to visit a little corner of history within the foothills of Santa Barbara.

This article originally appeared in section A of the June 29th, 2013 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


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