Posted by: James Wapotich | July 13, 2013

Trail Quest: Canyon Voices

Rattlesnake Canyon is tucked between Mission Canyon to the west and Cold Spring Canyon to east. Rattlesnake Creek flows from its headwaters near the eastern face of White Mountain roughly four miles before it joins Mission Creek on its way to the Pacific Ocean near the Santa Barbara Harbor. The canyon and its trails are a popular front country hiking destination.

Los Padres National Forest Tin Can Meadow Santa Barbara hike Rattlesnake Canyon Trail

Tin Can Meadow is seen from Rattlesnake Canyon Trail

In 2006, local author Karen Telleen-Lawton wrote an engaging book about Rattlesnake Canyon and its lore entitled Canyon Voices, The Nature of Rattlesnake Canyon. The book is a collection of different perspectives on the canyon, ranging from local naturalists to a Benedictine monk from Mount Calvary Monastery.

Those interviewed included historian E. R. “Jim” Blakley, Curator of Anthropology for the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History John Johnson, local bird expert Joan Easton Lentz, as well as Santa Barbara City Fire Battalion Chief John Ahlman, local artist Patti Jacquemain and even the spokesperson for Santa Barbara Soaring Association, hang glider John Greynard, who has flown over the canyon many times.

Surprisingly many of those interviewed also live in or near Rattlesnake Canyon, as does Ms. Telleen-Lawton.

In fact the inspiration for the book arose in part when Ms. Telleen-Lawton and her husband moved to Rattlesnake Canyon. “I knew that I wanted to write a book on the environment, and I was looking for a topic. When we moved to Rattlesnake Canyon and I got to know it as home, it just seemed like it had all these stories and secrets to be revealed.”

Through her research, and the knowledge and experiences of the thirteen people she interviewed, the book provides a variety of insights about the canyon and its environs. The books also highlights a number of features in the canyon that one can explore on their own.

The upper portion of Rattlesnake Canyon is open to the public. A hike to Tin Can Meadow, one of the places described in the book, is about 3.5 miles roundtrip.

To get to the trailhead from the Santa Barbara Mission, take Mission Canyon Road to Foothill Road. Turn right onto Foothill Road and continue a short ways until Mission Canyon resumes on your left, near the Fire Station. Continue on Mission Canyon Road towards the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, and turn right onto Las Canoas Road.

Las Canoas Road crosses Rattlesnake Creek just before Skofield Park. Rattlesnake Canyon Trail starts at the bridge over Rattlesnake Creek. Parking can found along the road as well as at nearby Skofield Park.

Recently I joined Ms. Telleen-Lawton for a hike along the trail and she shared some of the secrets of the canyon.

Rattlesnake Canyon takes its name from the Spanish, Cañada de la Viboras, which roughly translates as Rattlesnake Canyon. The Spanish name was in turn derived from the original Chumash name for the canyon, hushilkaya hulxshap. Xshap is the Chumash word for rattlesnake, however it is not known why the canyon was associated with rattlesnakes as they are not any more prevalent here than anywhere else.

The Chumash village closest to Rattlesnake Canyon was Xana’yan located near the confluence of Mission and Rattlesnake Creeks. Xana’yan means rocky place. The village was said to be located on the rocky ridge between the two canyons and the Chumash hunted and gathered in both canyons.

About a half mile from the trailhead one can find a side trail that leads from Rattlesnake Canyon Trail down to the historic Indian dam. The dam was built in early 1800s by Chumash Indians from nearby Mission Santa Barbara, who also built the dam along Mission Creek, where Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is now located. The dams were built to provide water for the Mission. An aqueduct at one time led from the dam in Rattlesnake Canyon to a reservoir near the Mission. Remnants of the aqueduct can be found beneath the poison oak.

Just past the side trail to the dam, one sees another trail to the right that leads up to Gibraltar Road and Mount Calvary Monastery.

In 1928, Ray Skofield purchased part of Rattlesnake Canyon and set about building a house where Mount Calvary is now located. However he left it unfinished when the Depression hit and instead kept the canyon in its natural state for family outings and civic groups. In 1947 the unfinished house was purchased by the Anglican Order of the Holy Cross, who later completed it for their monastery.

Mr. Skofield’s son, Hobart Skofield, kept the remaining land undeveloped, making only minor additions, such as building a small horse trough and planting redwoods and pines.

Continuing past the turnoff towards Mount Calvary, Rattlesnake Canyon Trail branches. The main trail continues towards the left and crosses the creek, and a side trail to the right continues along the eastern side of the canyon. The two trails meet three-quarters of mile later.

Just past the creek crossing on the western side of the canyon, the trail passes through a grove of Canary Island, Aleppo, and Monterey pines planted Hobart Skofield. On the opposite side of the canyon, one can find the horse trough and redwood trees that were part of the picnic area created by the Skofield family.

Following the 1964 Coyote Fire, members of Sierra Club Juniors replanted the grove of pines which was destroyed during the fire. It was also during the restoration that non-native rock rose was planted, which can be found along the trail, most notably around the turnoff towards Mount Calvary.

As the trail continues past the grove of pines, it climbs away from the creek offering views back down the canyon. The trail then crosses the creek a second time.

About a quarter mile past the second crossing the trail arrives at Tin Can Meadow. The meadow was the site of O’Connor homestead. There William O’Conner in 1900 built a small house out of ceanothus branches and flattened tin cans. The structure later burned down during a forest fire in 1925.

At the meadow Rattlesnake Canyon Trail branches, with Rattlesnake Connector Trail continuing to the west about three-quarters of a mile to Tunnel Trail, and Rattlesnake Canyon Trail continuing to the east about the same distance to Gibraltar Road.

In 1950, Ray Skofield sold the 35-acre lower portion of Rattlesnake Canyon to Rancheros Visitadores, who regularly rode the canyon. The property later became Skofield Park.

In 1970, Hobart Skofield and his sister, realizing that the highest use of the land was a natural area for recreation, sold the remaining 450-acre upper portion of the canyon to the City of Santa Barbara. And in the spirit of the 1964 Wilderness Act it was named Rattlesnake Canyon Wilderness Park. In many ways the park serves as a bridge between the city and the natural world.

In her book, Ms. Telleen-Lawton states, “Natural habitats serve the community by cleaning the air and water, and protecting a tiny shelf of the earth’s library of genetic material – two of the many free services of an intact environment”

Which raises an interesting question. While there are costs associated with protecting the environment, what are the costs of losing these natural environments? It can be hard to assess the impact when we lose one species or one open space at a time, but collectively, what is the cost? How many irreplaceable services do these environments provide when they’re intact?

The answer may be as simple as Ms. Telleen-Lawton shared while on the trail, “We just don’t know what we can afford to lose and what we can’t. We don’t know which plant, for example, may hold the cure to cancer. We need to save as much as we can.”

Canyon Voices is available at a number of local bookstores including Chaucer’s and The Book Den, as well as online at

This article originally appeared in section A of the July 13th, 2013 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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