Posted by: James Wapotich | January 3, 2014

Trail Quest: A String of Hot Springs, Part 1

The mountains in our local Transverse Ranges are somewhat unique in their east-west orientation. The ranges stretch east from the coast, near Point Conception, towards the Mojave Desert. And within Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, the range is dotted with close to a dozen recorded hot spring sites.

In Santa Barbara County there are four hot springs sites that are publicly accessible, each about a mile or less from their respective trailheads. All four sites also have additional hiking opportunities nearby, and are interesting destinations in and of themselves.

Starting in the west, the first of these sites is Gaviota Hot Springs, also known as Las Cruces Hot Springs, located in Gaviota State Park. The hike to hot springs is about .75 miles and the trail is in good shape. The hot springs are developed and have two small pools, the water however is better described as warm.

Little Caliente Hot Springs Agua Big Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara hike trail

Little Caliente

To get to the site from Santa Barbara take Highway 101 north, past Gaviota Beach, to the Highway 1 exit. From the exit, turn right onto the frontage road; the road dead ends at the parking area for the trailhead. Parking is $2.00 per vehicle.

From the parking area, continue along unpaved Gaviota Peak Fire Road. At about the quarter-mile mark the road branches. To the right, Trespass Trail follows Gaviota Canyon, overlooking the creek and Highway 101. To the left, Gaviota Peak Fire Road continues towards the hot springs and Gaviota Peak.

Continue to the left. About a half mile later, just past a small side creek, the unsigned trail to the hot springs begins. You’ll know if you missed the turnoff as Gaviota Peak Fire Road soon transitions from riparian plants into more open grassy hills.

Agua Caliente Little Gaviota Hot Springs Map Santa Barbara trail hike Los Padres National Forest directions

Map courtesy

The trail to the hot springs is slightly overgrown, but still easy to follow and is lined on one side with wild blackberry. At the site there are two pools. The upper pool is suitable for soaking, but the lower pool is silted up.

Past the hot springs, along Gaviota Peak Fire Road, one can extend their hike. The hike to Gaviota Peak, from the trailhead, is about 6.5 miles roundtrip.

The closest hot springs to Santa Barbara is Montecito Hot Springs. The springs are undeveloped and don’t have any pools, but still make for an interesting destination. The hike to site is a little over a mile and the trail is in good shape.

Agua Caliente Creek Trail Big Hot Springs Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara hike

The two smaller pools at Agua Caliente

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara take Highway 101 south, and exit at Hot Springs Road. Continue along Hot Springs Road to East Mountain Drive and turn left, the trailhead is on the right hand side. Parking is limited at the trailhead, however additional parking can be found along Riven Rock Road.

From the trailhead, the trail follows Hot Springs Creek along an easement between properties, before then following a private drive to a residential gate. The trail continues around the gate, to the right, along the easement. Please respect private property.

The trail then opens up and branches. To the left, a trail continues upstream along Hot Springs Creek to the hot springs. To the right, the trail crosses the creek and then branches again. To the right is McMenemy Trail.

From this second intersection, continue to the left along the unpaved access that traces the east side of Hot Springs Canyon. At about the one-mile mark, the access road meets Edison Catway. Continue up the east side of the canyon along the catway, which soon arrives at a stone foundation, all that remains of the once famous Hot Springs Hotel.

Past the ruin, a trail leads to the hot springs, where one can find warm water issuing from the rocky creek bed, but no pools.

It’s said that in the late 1850s, an ailing Wilbur Curtis was led by a Chumash Indian to the hot springs for its healing power. Following his miraculous recovery Mr. Curtis homesteaded at the site. In the early 1880s, the three-story Hot Springs Hotel was built there. In 1920, the hotel burned down during a forest fire and was rebuilt three years later. In 1964, the hotel burned down again during the Coyote Fire, and the undeveloped property remained in private hands.

In 2012, the land was purchased by Land Trust for Santa Barbara County and was conveyed in 2013 to the National Forest.

In the backcountry behind Santa Barbara are two more hot springs sites: Agua Caliente and Little Caliente. Both sites are developed and relatively close to nearby campgrounds.

To get to the sites from Santa Barbara find your way to Gibraltar Road in the foothills behind Santa Barbara. Follow Gibraltar Road as it makes its way to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains where it meets East Camino Cielo Road. Turn right and follow East Camino Cielo as it continues along the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

At Romero Saddle, East Camino Cielo transitions from paved to unpaved and becomes Romero-Camuesa Road. Continue along Romero-Camuesa Road as it descends down the backside of the mountains towards the Santa Ynez River. Eventually the road arrives at the intersection with Big Caliente Road, near Pendola Guard Station.

Turn right onto Big Caliente Road. The road continues up Agua Caliente Canyon and ends at Agua Caliente Hots Springs, also known as Big Caliente Hot Springs. The drive from Santa Barbara is about 1.5 hours.

The site is the most developed of the hot springs in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, and features a small cement pool. Nearby is an outhouse, and cement cinder block building for changing, both were built during the mid-1960s.

Past the main pool is the Agua Caliente Trailhead. A short way up the trail one can find several side trails down to the creek that lead to two smaller developed pools along the creek.

Past these pools, one can follow Agua Caliente Trail up the canyon for extra hiking. The trail leads past Agua Caliente Debris Dam and at about the 2-mile mark arrives at Upper Caliente Camp.

Car camping can be one of the more enjoyable ways to visit the area as one can combine camping, hiking and the hot springs all into one trip. A quarter mile before Agua Caliente Hot Springs, along Big Caliente Road, is Rock Campground, which has two small sites for car camping.

Additional car camping sites can also be found along Romero-Camuesa Road as one continues towards Little Caliente. An adventure pass is required to park or camp in this part of the national forest.

To reach Little Caliente, from the intersection with Big Caliente Road, continue along Romero-Camuesa Road. The road quickly crosses the creek and passes Middle Santa Ynez Campground, on your left, which has about a dozen campsites. About a mile later the road passes P-Bar Flat Campground, on your right, which has four campsites.

From P-Bar Flat, the road continues another three miles to Mono Campground, which has four campsites. Mono Campground is about .75 miles from the hot springs.

Past the campground, Romero-Camuesa Road continues, and less than a quarter mile later branches. To the left, the road continues a short way to the Indian-Mono Trailhead. To the right, the road continues to Little Caliente Hot Springs.

The half-mile long road was washed out several years ago, and is now closed about halfway, where there is a pull out for parking. From here, it’s another quarter mile to the hot springs.

The site is interesting in that it’s situated in a small grassy canyon and has a nice open feel to it. At the site are three small developed pools.

Regardless which of the hot springs you visit, you’ll get to see some of the rich variety of our local mountains.

This article originally appeared in section A of the December 27th, 2013 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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