Posted by: James Wapotich | January 10, 2014

Trail Quest: Douglas Family Preserve

Imagine a place where one can take a leisurely walk along the coast overlooking the ocean, or just enjoy being outdoors in a natural setting, all within a few minutes of Santa Barbara. In many ways, Douglas Family Preserve exists because of that vision.

The 70-acre preserve is located near Arroyo Burro Beach County Park on a large mesa overlooking the ocean, between Cliff Drive and the coast; and was once the site of a plant nursery. When the nursery closed in 1972, community members rallied to keep the land undeveloped, and in 1997 that vision was realized with the creation of Douglas Family Preserve.

Now almost twenty years later, we are still able to enjoy the benefits of that vision and the work it took to fulfill it. The preserve is managed by the City of Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation Department and is open to the public from 6:00 a.m. to a half-hour after sunset.

Douglas Family Preserve Santa Barbara hike trail Wilcox Property Nursery


Within the preserve is a network of trails, open to hiking and bikes. A loop hike around the preserve is roughly one mile.

To get to the trailhead find your way to Cliff Drive, on the Mesa, and turn onto Mesa Lane, heading towards the ocean. From Mesa Lane, turn right onto Medcliff Road, which ends at the entrance to the preserve.

There are two other entrances to the preserve that can also be accessed from Mesa Lane, one at the end of Borton Drive, and another at the intersection of Mesa School Lane and Linda Road. Parking is found along the street at all three entrances.

Douglas Family Preserve hike trail map Santa Barbara Wilcox Property Hendry's Beach Arroyo Burro

Map courtesy

Douglas Family Preserve is one of the few parks in Santa Barbara that allows dogs off-leash. However, dogs must be under control at all times, and on leash until inside the preserve’s designated off-leash area. Signs posted within the park indicate where the off-leash area begins and ends. Please pick up after your dog, and dispose of your dog’s waste.

At each of the three access points is a large interpretative sign summarizing the preserve’s history and habitats, as well as the park regulations. The sign also includes a helpful map of the trails, which are a mix of social trails that have been established over the years and some of the old roads used when the site was an active nursery.

In 1949, Roy Wilcox moved his successful nursery operation from the Los Angeles area to Santa Barbara, where he continued to raise kentia palms and other ornamental plants. Throughout the preserve one can find remnants of the nursery, including cement foundations from some of the buildings, fire hydrants and a variety of non-native plants.

In 1972, when the nursery closed, community members set about preserving the land as an open space. And in 1996, the community rallied to raise funds to the purchase what had become known as the Wilcox Property.

A generous donation from Michael Douglas helped the community reach the $3.6 million necessary to purchase the land. With the funds raised, the Trust for Public Lands was able acquire the property, and a year later transferred it to the City of Santa Barbara. The park was named Douglas Family Preserve in recognition of the Douglas Family’s support.

A popular route through the preserve is to start from the Medcliff entrance and continue west, along the coast to the overlook above Arroyo Burro Beach Park, and either return from there or make a circuit around the preserve.

The trail overlooking the coast starts off through mostly chaparral and wild grasses, and then transitions into a mix of non-native Monterey cypress and eucalyptus trees. It’s through this section one can find a number of places to take in the views, particularly at sunset.

From the Arroyo Burro Beach Park overlook the trail around the preserve turns north; here, one is offered views of the Santa Ynez Mountains as well as Elings Park South. The trail then turns east and traces the northern edge of the mesa, here, the plants transition into a mix of oak woodland and non-native plants.

At about the .75-mile mark, the loop route around the preserve arrives at the turnoff for Oak Grove Trail, which leads down to the intersection of Cliff Drive and Las Positas Road. From this turnoff, the loop route continues clockwise around the preserve roughly another quarter mile and returns to the trailhead at Medcliff Road.

However, by following Oak Grove Trail down towards the intersection of Las Positas and Cliff, one can extend their hike by continuing over to Arroyo Burro Beach Park. And then from there, hike along the beach to the coastal access at Mesa Lane Steps, and return along the residential streets to the Medcliff Road trailhead. This larger loop is about 2.5 miles long and offers a number of unique perspectives on the area.

For this hike continue along Oak Grove Trail as it descends towards Mesa Creek. The trail follows an old access road that used to lead to the nursery and is shaded by coastal live oaks.

In 2007, Mesa Creek was restored to improve water quality in the creek and at the beach. The restoration work included the removal of the cement and metal culvert through which a section of the creek had flowed, and the removal of non-native plants.

A footbridge was placed across the creek, and three interpretive signs, describing the habitat restoration, were also installed along the route.

The trail then arrives at the intersection of Las Positas and Cliff. Across the intersection one can access the trails in Elings Park for additional hiking opportunities.

For the 2.5-mile loop hike continue west along Cliff Drive, crossing Arroyo Burro Creek, here one can see the confluence of Mesa and Arroyo Burro Creeks and the beginning of Arroyo Burro Estuary. The route leads through a small section of planted native plants including purple and black sage, and arrives at the overflow parking area for Arroyo Burro Beach.

Continue west through the overflow parking lot, and into the main parking area. The route traces Arroyo Burro Estuary and features four interpretive signs about the history, restoration, and flora and fauna of the estuary.

The original tidal estuary was roughly 500 feet wide, and was filled in to create space for agriculture and later Arroyo Burro Beach County Park. One of the interpretative signs includes an image from the late 1800s of the original estuary; and it’s interesting to imagine what it might’ve been like to follow Arroyo Burro Creek to the ocean before the area was developed.

Arroyo Burro Beach Park is probably better known as Hendry’s Beach, a reference to William and Ana Hendry who owned a ranch near the beach.

From the beach continue east, tides permitting, to the coastal access at the end of Mesa Lane. The three-quarters of a mile walk along the beach offers views up towards Douglas Family Preserve.

At Mesa Lane Steps, follow the stairs up to Mesa Lane and continue north about a block to Medcliff Road. Turn left onto Medcliff and continue another four blocks back to the trailhead at the end of MedCliff Road to complete the loop back to the preserve.

Regardless of how far you go you’ll have a chance to see some of what makes Santa Barbara a unique place to live.

This article originally appeared in section A of the January 10th, 2014 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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