Posted by: James Wapotich | February 21, 2014

Trail Quest: Carpinteria Salt Marsh

It’s hard not to notice the Carpinteria Salt Marsh when driving south along Highway 101. The open plain of the marsh easily leads the eye out across its expanse, and for the curious it can inspire one to want to see the marsh up close.

A trail from Carpinteria Salt Marsh Nature Park leads through the eastern portion of the marsh and is open to the public. The hike is about a mile roundtrip, and every Saturday morning at 10:00 a.m. a free two-hour docent led hike is offered, starting from the trailhead.

To get to the park from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 south to the Linden Avenue exit. Continue south on Linden Avenue to Sandyland Road, which is the last street before Linden Avenue ends. Turn right onto Sandyland Road, which dead ends into Ash Street and the main park entrance. Parking is found along the street, and coastal access can be found at the end of both Linden Avenue and Ash Street.

Carpinteria Salt Marsh Nature Park Santa Barbara trail hike Land Trust estuary slough

A view of the restored tidal channel is seen from the trail through Carpinteria Salt Marsh

From the trailhead, the trail traces the eastern and northern edge of the marsh area. Along the trail is a series of interpretive signs describing the natural history of the marsh, as well as several benches for stopping and taking in the scenery. Please stay on the trail; no bikes or dogs are allowed.

Carpinteria Salt Marsh is one of several types of estuaries historically found along our coast. The marsh is what is known as a “structural basin estuary” and was formed when the local mountains were uplifted and folded. To the north, the basin is bordered by the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains and to the south, offshore, by Carpinteria Reef. During the last ice age, when the sea level was lower, the reef was an exposed hill.

Fresh water from the mountains fills the basin by way of Santa Monica and Franklin Creeks where it’s met by salt water carried in by the tides through the mouth of the estuary, creating salt marsh habitat. Meanwhile, sediment deposited by the creek, where it meets the sand, is pushed up to form dune habitat.

Carpinteria Salt Marsh map trail hike Santa Barbara

Map Courtesy

In its natural state the salt marsh represents a complex ecosystem. And because each estuary is influenced by a number of factors such as its location, climate, geology and ratio of saltwater to incoming freshwater, each estuary is unique.

Over the years more than 90% of California’s coastal wetlands have disappeared. Most have been filled in or altered by roads, flood control measures, and urban development. And of those that remain, they are typically fragments of historically larger estuaries.

For example, Carpinteria Salt Marsh at one time stretched from where Santa Claus Lane is to Carpinteria Creek, near Carpinteria State Park, and as far inland to where Carpinteria Avenue is now located. In fact, much of downtown Carpinteria is on former marshland.

Similar basin-type marshes historically covered parts of Goleta and Santa Barbara. And it’s interesting to note that Chumash villages were located near each of these marshes and were situated above the floodplain. In Goleta, there were four villages in and around the original Goleta Slough, which extended north to Hollister Avenue and covered where Santa Barbara airport is now located.

In Santa Barbara, the village of Syuxtun was located on rise above a marsh that likely extended from West Beach to Sycamore Creek, and is said to have extended inland as much as a mile. The estuary was subsequently filled in with the development of Santa Barbara.

And in Carpinteria, the village of Mishopshno was located on a rise just east of Carpinteria Creek.

In 1977, Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve was created when eleven families living in the Sandyland Cove development decided to sell their portion of the marsh to the University of California Natural Reserve System to help preserve the estuary.

The University’s Natural Reserve System was created in 1965 to “…provide undisturbed samples of California’s natural habitats for instruction and research”. Today, the reserve system contains 33 sites throughout California including Sedgwick and Coal Oil Point Reserves in Santa Barbara County. Even before Carpinteria Salt Marsh became part of the UC’s reserve system the site was used by the University for field studies.

The reserve covers 120 acres of the marsh’s remaining 230 acres.

During the early 1990s, the 50 acres of the marsh east the reserve became the subject of various development plans including a marina and condominiums. To preserve the land a partnership of groups including the reserve, Land Trust for Santa Barbara County and the City of Carpinteria purchased the land.

And in 1997, the City of Carpinteria opened Carpinteria Salt Marsh Nature Park to the public. Soon after volunteers began offering docent led hikes through the park. One of the first docents was Andrea Adams-Morden, who was inspired by Wayne Ferren. Ferren was the director of Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve from 1987-2001.

“Wayne would lead trips for school kids and other organized groups.” Ms. Adams-Morden told the News-Press. “I went with my kids, and as a docent for the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. And so, I kept seeing him giving tours over and over again. And always, he was saying we need a Friends of the Salt Marsh group and have a docent program. And, I finally broke down and became a docent.”

Ms. Adams-Morden, who is also the hike and program coordinator for Channel Islands Chapter of California Native Plant Society, is now the volunteer coordinator for the park and coordinates trainings for the docents with the University.

At about the quarter-mile mark from the trailhead, roughly midway along the hike, the trail crosses Franklin Creek and leaves Carpinteria Salt Marsh Nature Park and continues through the part of the marsh that is managed by Land Trust for Santa Barbara County.

In 2008, Land Trust for Santa Barbara County completed a four year restoration project on the property it manages. The work included restoration of tidal circulation channels, which provided increased habitat for various fish and invertebrates. The removal of non-native plants such as ice plant, castor bean and wild mustard, which had dominated the area. Native plants were then planted which improved the quality of the habitat at the marsh.

The project also included the installation of a footbridge across Franklin Creek allowing visitors from the park to continue along the trail through the restored marsh area.

Prior to the restoration, Ms. Adams-Morden shared “…the area was just a big weedy field with a drainage ditch down the middle of it. And now we have all these different animals living there.”

The protected salt marsh serves as a nursery for a variety of fish, and provides viable habitat for a number plants and animals, including endangered species such as salt marsh bird’s beak (Chloropyron maritimum subsp. maritimus), which grows on the roots of other plants. As well as habitat for the endangered light-footed clapper rail (Rallus longirostris subsp. levipes) and Belding’s savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis subsp. beldingi), both birds are found only in coastal wetlands south of Point Conception.

In additional to providing valuable habitat for local plants and animals, coastal wetlands also serves as important stopovers for migrating birds to rest and feed along the Pacific Coast flyway. The next nearest functioning salt marsh to the south is Mugu Lagoon, near Pt. Mugu in Ventura County.

The trail around the salt marsh ends in small spiral near Sandyland Cove Road, just east of Santa Monica Creek. The trail and the tour provide an interesting way to learn more about one of California’s few remaining wetlands.

For more information about tours of Carpinteria Salt Marsh Nature Park, becoming a docent or other volunteer opportunities go to or call (805) 684-8077.

This article originally appeared in section A of today’s edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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