Posted by: James Wapotich | March 9, 2014

Trail Quest: Nojoqui Falls

While the recent rains have brought welcome water to our area, as many have pointed out, the drought is far from over. However, on the bright side the rains have improved our waterfalls somewhat.

One of the more enjoyable waterfalls, and perhaps the easiest to get to in terms of hiking, is Nojoqui Falls. The 164-foot waterfall is located on the backside of the Santa Ynez Mountains near Solvang. The hike to the falls is a little over a half-mile roundtrip and is suitable for almost all ages.

The trailhead for the hike is located in Nojoqui Falls County Park. To get to the park from Santa Barbara take Highway 101 north past Gaviota towards Buellton. Here, Highway 101 leads through Las Cruces and Gaviota Canyons, and over what’s referred to as Nojoqui Summit before descending down towards Nojoqui Creek and the turnoff to the park.

Nojoqui Falls County Park Waterfall Santa Barbara trail hike

Nojoqui Falls

As you’re descending down towards Nojoqui Creek look for Old Coast Highway on your right and the signed turn off to the park. Head south on Old Coast Highway less than a mile to Alisal Road. Turn left onto Alisal Road and continue east less than a mile to the park entrance, on your right. The short drive from the freeway to the park entrance passes through ranch country located along the somewhat open valley formed by Nojoqui Creek. The park entrance can also be reached from Solvang by way of Alisal Road.

From the park entrance follow the main road south through the park. Here, the canyon begins to narrow. The park includes more than a dozen picnic sites, as well as group picnic areas, restrooms, and even a field with a backstop for baseball or softball.

The paved road ends at the trailhead, where parking can be found. The park is open from 8:00 a.m. to sunset, and parking is free. The drive from Santa Barbara is about 45 minutes. Dogs are allowed on the trail provided they are on leash.

Nojoqui Falls County Park map trail Santa Barbara hike

Map courtesy

Pronounced Naw-hoo-wee, the falls and creek take their name from the Chumash village of Naxuwi, which was located nearby. The Chumash word is said to mean “meadow” suggesting that the village was located in an open area downstream from the waterfall.

The creek flows more or less year round, but the best time to visit the falls is when they’ve been recharged with rainwater.

From the trailhead, the trail leads up the canyon roughly a quarter mile to falls. The trail crosses the creek several times by way of footbridges, making for an easy hike. Please stay on the trail to minimize impact on the plants and creek bed, and to avoid the poison oak growing alongside the creek, which has also benefitted from the recent rains.

The well worn trail leads through a mix of riparian plants including California bay laurel, coast live oak, sycamore, and maple.

Along the route are several benches that one can stop at and take in the scenery. In fact, the sound of the creek when flowing, combined with the shade from the trees can provide a restful opportunity to tap into the timelessness of the canyon. As with most trails the best time to visit for such experiences is during the week, when there are less people on the trail.

As the canyon narrows and approaches the falls, the geology of the area becomes more apparent. Here, one can notice grey Jalama Formation shale, which the creek has cut through. The shale extends all the way up to the falls, where it meets the more resistant Jalama Formation sandstone, which defines the end of the canyon. The two were formed more than 70 million years ago during a time when much of the land was underwater.

As the land was uplifted and tilted, water flowing over these formations was able to carve through the more easily eroded shale, creating the falls we see today.

Near the base of the falls is a large stone platform and bench that has been provided for visitors to comfortably view the falls.

While many waterfalls tend to erode their way upstream, Nojoqui Falls is also gradually growing outward. That is, minerals from the rocks, such as calcium and magnesium carbonate, are dissolved by the water and carried downstream. At the falls, water evaporating through mist and spray deposits these minerals slowly building up the surface of the falls with what’s referred to as travertine. This process is similar to how stalactites are formed in caves.

Venus maidenhair fern, which prefers acidic, calcium-rich soils, can be seen covering parts of the exposed surface of the falls.

Nojoqui Creek originates above the falls in the Santa Ynez Mountains, and flows more or less north towards the Santa Ynez River, which it joins just south of Buellton.

In 1896, the land surrounding the falls was purchased by Natale Giorgi, a swiss immigrant who established a dairy farm on the 1,700-acre property. Ranching operations continue there today and are run by his descendants.

In the 1920s, the Giorgi Family leased the falls and 40 acres of land to county for use as a public park. The county now owns the park land and continues to lease the access to the waterfall from the ranch.

Because the hike to falls doesn’t require all day, a visit to Nojoqui Falls can also include sight seeing in the surrounding area, to such places as Gaviota State Park, Solvang, and the Santa Ynez Valley.

This article originally appeared in section A of March 9th, 2014 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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