Posted by: James Wapotich | January 25, 2014

Trail Quest: Ellwood Mesa Open Space

Along the coast of Goleta is a patchwork of contiguous open spaces and preserves that form more than 650 acres of protected habitat. During the winter months, one of the more popular of these places is Ellwood Mesa Open Space, also known as Sperling Preserve.

From November to February, the 137-acre open space attracts tens of thousands of monarch butterflies who spend their winters there. The open space also provides a network of trails for recreation and coastal access.

The main trail access to Ellwood Mesa Open Space is located along Hollister Avenue across from Ellwood Elementary School. To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 north to the Glen Annie-Storke Road exit. Turn south onto Storke Road, and then right onto Hollister Avenue. Continue on Hollister Avenue for 1.5 miles to the entrance of the parking area, across from Ellwood School. From the parking area it’s about .75 miles to the main monarch butterfly grove. The route travels south and then east along the network of trails through the open space.

Ellwood Mesa Open Space Santa Barbara Goleta hike trail Sperling Preserve shores monarch butterflies butterfly


There are also a number of trailheads and access points that can be found in the nearby residential neighborhoods that border the open space. Perhaps the most interesting of these, is the one at the end of Coronado Drive, which is also reached from Hollister Avenue.

Along Coronado Drive one can find Coronado Butterfly Preserve. The roughly 9-acre preserve was purchased in 1998 by The Land Trust for Santa Barbara County with grants and community donations. The site includes several interpretive signs, and an outdoor gathering area that is surrounded by native chaparral plants that have been planted there. From Coronado Butterfly Preserve, a trail meanders southward less than a quarter mile towards the main monarch grove.

A prime birding spot can also be found nearby, at the end of Coronado Drive. Here, a culvert carries water that flows into Devereux Creek, and it is this small year-round flow that attracts birds. By standing there quietly, particularly during the winter, one can easily experience the power of this bird magnet. From the end of Coronado Drive, one can follow a trail west that intersects the trail leading from Coronado Butterfly Preserve to the main monarch grove.

Ellwood Mesa Open Space map trail hike Santa Barbara Goleta Sperling Preserve

Map courtesy

Ellwood Main Monarch Butterfly Grove is nestled amongst the eucalyptus growing along the small hollow formed by the Devereux Creek drainage. And it is this location that helps create the right micro-climate for the butterflies to gather in.

Other features of the site that appeal to the butterflies, are its location near the coast that keeps the overall temperatures moderate and the availability of water from the nearby creeks and yards. Although the butterflies have already stored up fat reserves from when they were caterpillars, the nectar from the eucalyptus flowers, which bloom in the winter, offer an added enticement to the shelter provided by the trees.

In the morning one is likely to see the most butterflies gathered on the trees, appearing at first to the eye as clumps of leaves. While in the afternoon, when it’s warm the butterflies are typically more active. At times, there can be as many as 50,000 butterflies over-wintering at Ellwood Mesa Open Space.

In 2007, the City of Goleta helped develop a volunteer docent program to monitor the site and serve as an educational resource for visitors. Docents are there on the weekends from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. during the over-wintering months. For more information about visiting the monarch grove go to

Ellwood Mesa Open Space Sperling Preserve monarch butterflies butterfly goleta santa barbara trail hike

Monarch Butterflies gather on eucalyptus trees near Devereux Creek at Ellwood Mesa Open Space

The eucalyptus trees used by the monarchs date back to when Ellwood Cooper settled the area. Cooper first visited here in 1868 and was inspired to return two years later and start ranching. On his 2,000-acre ranch he planted walnut, almond, olive and eucalyptus trees. And at the time ran both the largest walnut and olive ranch in California.

In 1872, Cooper introduced eucalyptus trees from Australia to the area as an alternate source of lumber. And for a time wood from Ellwood Cooper’s eucalyptus trees were used for Stearn’s Wharf.

Ellwood Mesa Open Space is the result of a cooperative effort by the City of Goleta, Santa Barbara County and UC Santa Barbara.

In 2001, the county and UC Santa Barbara developed a proposal to redirect residential development away from sensitive habitat along the coast through an innovative land swap. In 2003, the newly formed City of Goleta joined the effort, and that same year The Trust for Public Land and Friends of Ellwood Mesa began the necessary fundraising.

In 2004, the open space was officially named Sperling Preserve, in honor of the Sperling Family’s generous donation. The preserve represents an integral piece of the 650 acres of protected habitat known as Ellwood-Devereaux Coast Open Space.

Continuing south, past the monarch butterfly grove one can find a trail that leads towards the coast. The trail leaves the eucalyptus trees and transitions into open grassland dotted with coyote brush and wild fennel. Here, one can also find a network of trails that criss-cross the open space. About quarter mile from the monarch site, the trail reaches the edge of the mesa, overlooking the ocean.

From here, it’s about a quarter mile or less in either direction along the bluffs to a trail that leads down to beach. From the beach one can continue east towards Sands Beach and Coal Oil Point, about a mile. And to the west, tides permitting, to Haskell’s Beach, near Bacara, about 1.75 miles.

Another option for exploring the area is to make a circuit around the open space, roughly three miles. From the main monarch grove, follow the trail, west that parallels Devereux Creek. The trail continues through the eucalyptus trees, and about a quarter mile later, passes on the right, the trail that leads to the parking area across from Ellwood School.

From here, the trail continues west to the edge of the open space, which borders Sandpiper Golf Course. Here, the route around the open space turns south towards the ocean. And where the trail arrives at the cliff overlooking the coast one can find a trail that leads down to the beach.

Continuing east around the open space, along the top of the bluffs, one arrives another trail that leads down to the beach. A shorter route to this particular beach access begins at the end of Santa Barbara Shores Drive.

As one continues east along the bluffs, one can find two more coastal access points. The first is near the trail leading from the monarch butterfly grove, and the other is near the end of the north-south line of eucalyptus trees that mark the eastern edge of the open space. This last coastal access point can also be reached from the end of Ellwood Beach Drive.

At this north-south line of eucalyptus trees, turn north to continue the circuit around the open space. The route arrives back at Devereaux Creek, where one turns west to return back to their starting point for a total of about three miles.

From the north-south line of eucalyptus trees, one can extend their hike still further by heading east towards Isla Vista, giving one the option to explore Coal Oil Point Reserve and North Campus Open Space, formerly Ocean Meadow Golf Course. About midway between the coast and the northern edge of the open space one can find a trail that leads east from the line of eucalyptus trees and connects up with a paved Venoco access road that leads over towards Storke Road and additional hiking opportunities.

Regardless of how far you go, you’ll get to some of what makes Ellwood Mesa such a unique resource for our local community.

This article originally appeared in section A of January 25th, 2014 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

yellow-rumped warblers bird watching bird Ellwood Mesa Open Space Coronado Drive Santa Barbara Goleta trail hike

A pair of yellow-rumped warblers gather at the water seep at the end of Coronado Drive

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