Posted by: James Wapotich | August 8, 2013

Trail Quest: Hiking with the Sierra Club

Sometimes the biggest challenge in going for a hike is finding someone to go with. And while solo hiking has its merits, it’s not for everyone. Fortunately there are a number of local groups that lead hikes. One of the more active groups is the Sierra Club.

Founded in 1892 by John Muir, the Sierra Club, in addition to its work to protect the environment, regularly leads hikes into the wilderness. The first Sierra Club outing was offered in 1901 to Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows, beginning a tradition of outings that has lasted to this day.

The local Los Padres Chapter of the Sierra Club has been leading hikes for more than 70 years. One of 13 chapters in California, Los Padres Chapter serves Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties and is organized into four regional subgroups representing the southern and northern portions of the two counties. The groups are Conejo, Ventura, Santa Barbara and Arguello.

The hikes are open to the public and are a great way to get to know the local trails. The Los Padres Chapter has over a hundred different hikes that they can select from when putting together their outings calendar.

“We often get a people who move to Santa Barbara, who join the Sierra Club to learn where the trails are. And once they learn them, then go off and hike on their own or with friends.” Los Padres Chapter Outings Coordinator, Tony Biegen, told the News-Press. Other new hikers continue as regular participants with some even becoming hike leaders.

One of the impressive things about the Sierra Club is that there is no hidden agenda around the hikes. There is no pressure to become a member or specific message that’s being conveyed during the hike. The hikes are simply offered in the spirit that John Muir intended, to help people connect with the land and get to know its beauty. And his faith that if people “…got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish.”

The hikes are also a lot of fun and a great way to meet new people. The average size group for a hike is 10-12 people. The groups are generally a mix of people ranging from those who have just started hiking with the Sierra Club to regular participants, as well as visitors from out of the area.

“We get quite a few exchange students who’ve done hiking in their native countries, and look up and see our mountains and want to get out there.” Mr. Biegen shared.

Los Padres Chapter has had travelers and students from Japan, China, Romania, Poland, Russia, Chile, India, and England join the hikes. Some are visitors looking for an outdoor activity, others are students wanting to get to know the local area. Participants can also include hikers from Ventura, San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties, often from another Sierra Club group, who have heard about the hike.

Each of the different hikes are rated based on the number of miles and amount of elevation gain, and are listed as either easy, moderate or strenuous. At one time the ratings were calibrated towards regularly active hikers, but have since been adjusted to help newcomers assess the level of difficulty associated with each hike.

For example, at one time the hike to Inspiration Point was listed as easy because it’s a shorter hike that follows the Mission Tunnel access road for part of the hike, but is now listed as moderate because of the elevation gain.

The group offers weekly day hikes on Saturdays and Sundays, and evening hikes on Wednesdays and Fridays.

The hikes on the weekend are typically moderate to strenuous and can include front country and backcountry destinations. The chapter generally tries to offer a hike that is moderate and another that is strenuous each weekend to accommodate a variety of hikers.

Friday night hikes are rated easy to moderate. The hikes are relatively short, 2-4 miles roundtrip and can be a good introduction to the group. Wednesday night hikes are longer and rated as strenuous.

Each of the hikes is led by a hike leader, usually a regular Sierra Club hiker who has gone through the extra steps to become recognized by the chapter to lead hikes. Hike leaders are generally knowledgable about the local area, happy to share what they know and at the same time humble enough to let hikers experience the trail in their own way.

Some annual hikes that are offered, include a visit to the Pauper’s Graveyard in October. The site, near the Santa Barbara County Administrative Building, is no longer a cemetery, but the headstones are still there.

In December the group leads a hike to gather mistletoe. The group has a permit from the Forest Service to gather the plant.

One of the more popular hikes that is occasionally offered is to the Tea Gardens. The site is closed to the public and a number recent arrests attest to the strict no trespassing policy in effect since the 2008 Tea Fire, which started there. The group however has permission from the property owner to lead hikes there, providing an opportunity for hikers to visit the site.

The group also organizes and leads about a half dozen backpacking trips each year.

Sierra Club hikes are listed on the chapter’s website, as well as in the chapter’s newsletter, Condor Call, which is also available on the website. The listings include the hike’s rating, mileage, start time and what to bring.

The evening hikes typically start from the Santa Barbara Mission, that is hikers meet at the Mission and then drive or carpool to the trailhead. The weekends hikes typically start at Bank of America on State Street at Hope Avenue.

For those planning on joining a hike for the first time Mr. Biegen recommends that one know their own fitness level and take time to understand how the hikes are rated and select a hike accordingly. Make a point of asking the hike leader about the trail to get clear about its level of difficulty, elevation gain, and other concerns you might have. Typically the hike leader’s number is included in the listing. During the summer it’s also important to make sure that you bring plenty of water.

Mr. Biegen’s own involvement with the local chapter began in the late-1980s. Previously he had worked for a company that provided free gym memberships, which gave him the opportunity to regularly exercise at the gym. When he changed jobs, he opted to get a treadmill and continue working out at home.

“One morning I got up and said, ‘If I have to go out and stare at that garage wall one more time, I think I’m going to scream.’” Mr. Biegen related. “And so I went back in the house, looked through News-Press, and found a listing for a Sierra Club hike. It was beach hike and I thought this is just so much better.” Within his first year Mr. Biegen started leading hikes and has been hiking with the Sierra Club ever since.

For more information about the Los Padres chapter or to get involved go to

To join the Sierra Club go to Annual membership starts at $60 and includes a subscription to Sierra Magazine.

This article originally appeared in section A of the August 3rd, 2013 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


  1. I love your blog, but you have to change whatever your arrangement is with the Santa Barbara News Press. Every time I want to read one of the articles, I can’t. I click on the link and it just takes me to the News Press main page and I can’t read the story.

    • Content on the News-Press website is only available to News-Press subscribers. However, I do eventually post the articles here on my blog. I’ve fallen a little behind on posting them during the spring, as I was literally out on the trails every other weekend.

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