Posted by: James Wapotich | August 25, 2014

Trail Quest: Coal Oil Point Reserve

Sometimes the best way to experience a place is through a docent led hike. Such hikes often include great information, history and anecdotes about a particular area. The downside of course is that you have to plan ahead in order to join the hike.

One place that offers the best of both worlds is Coal Oil Point Reserve. In 2011, the reserve installed 19 interpretive signs and created a series of podcasts, available on their website, to accompany the signs allowing, one to create their own interpretive hike. The reserve also offers two-hour docent led hikes on the first Saturday of the month at 10:00 a.m. Both items, plus a map of the reserve can be found under the tab for tours.

The three-mile loop hike starts from Coal Oil Point, and leads across Sands Beach and around Devereux Slough. The easiest place to start, in terms of parking, is from the west end of Isla Vista, which adds another mile roundtrip to the hike in order to reach Coal Oil Point.

Devereux Slough Coal Oil Point Reserve Santa Barbara Goleta Isla Vista Hiking Trail

Devereux Slough

To get the trailhead from Highway 101, take the Glen Annie – Storke Road exit, and continue south along Storke Road to El Colegio Road. From El Colegio Road, turn right onto Camino Corto and follow it south to Del Playa Drive. Turn right onto Del Playa Drive, which ends at the trailhead and Camino Majorca, where parking can be found.

From the trailhead, continue west on the well-established trail along the bluffs toward Coal Oil Point. The trail leads through West Campus Open Space and about a half mile later, arrives at Coal Oil Point and the beginning of the interpretive hike.

The first sign describes the offshore kelp forest that one can see from the bluffs. The next three signs cover the history of the land’s usage from the Chumash to the present.

The Chumash, who lived along the coast from Morro Bay to Malibu and as far inland as the Carrizo Plain and Cuyama Valley, were the first to arrive 13,000 years ago. When the Spanish started settling the area in the 1700s, there were four Chumash villages located around Goleta Slough.

It’s likely the Chumash hunted and utilized the resources found around Devereux Slough, which at one time is said to have connected with Goleta Slough forming a single, large wetland.

map Coil Oil Point Reserve Isla Vista Goleta hiking trail Sands Beach Devereux Slough North Campus Open Space

Map courtesy

In the early 1840s, the land surrounding Devereux Slough was deeded to Nicholas Den by the Governor of Alta California. The property changed hands several times, and in 1919, was purchased by Colonel Colin Campbell and his wife Nancy Lieter.

Campbell was drawn to the property because of the lagoon, and had visions of stocking it with fish and swans, and opening up the mouth of the slough to allow boats to sail in.

At Coal Oil Point, one can still see the granite cross that marks where Campbell was once buried after his death in 1923, as well as the brick pillars marking the entrance to what was then the family cemetery. The graves have since been moved elsewhere.

Colonel Colin Campbell Cross Coal Oil Point Sands Beach Isla Vista Goleta hike

Cross marking where Colonel Colin Campbell’s grave was once located

Other features from the Campbell Ranch that can be seen nearby are the dovecote, which was used to raise pigeons and doves, and the beach house located east of the point at the foot of the bluffs along the beach. Originally covered in abalone shells, what’s left of the stone structure is now covered with graffiti. The building was used by the Campbells to entertain guests and is said to have also been used to store bootleg liquor during prohibition.

In 1945, the 500-acre Campbell Ranch was purchased by Helena Devereux to create Devereux Ranch School. In 1967, much of the property was sold to the University of California; over the years the remaining parcels have been purchased by the University, with Devereux School now leasing space for its programs.

In 1970, 158 acres that were once part of the Campbell Ranch, including Devereux Slough, became Coal Oil Point Reserve. The University of California’s Natural Reserve System includes 37 sites throughout the state, representing over 130,000 acres of protected land. However, Coal Oil Point Reserve is unique in that it is open to the public for individual recreation and does not require one to fill out a visitor application.

Coal Oil Point takes its name from the coal oil seeps that occur offshore. These naturally occurring seeps bubble up from folds in the underlying ocean floor and form slicks on the surface of the water that congeal into tar balls that are then washed up onto the shore. Of the more the 1,200 documented seep locations in the Santa Barbara Channel, roughly half are located within 2-3 miles of Coal Oil Point.

West Campus Open Space UCSB Coal Oil Point Reserve hike trail Santa Barbara Goleta

Coal Oil Point is seen from the trail through West Campus Open Space

Continuing west, the trail passes the dovecote and descends down to Sands Beach. Here, the next three interpretive signs describe the coastal dunes and beach ecosystems, as well as the threatened western snowy plover and the work being done to protect its habitat.

In 1993, the Pacific Coast population of the western snowy plover was listed as threatened because of its declining numbers. And in 1999, the stretch of beach from Isla Vista to Ellwood was listed as critical habitat.

In 2001, Coal Oil Point Reserve created a management plan to protect the plover’s habitat and began Snowy Plover Volunteer Docent Program to help educate beach users about plovers and how to share the beach with them. Portions of the upper beach and dunes are now roped off from mid-March through mid-September.

The success of the program is encouraging and demonstrates that recreation and conservation can coexist. When the program started there were no nesting pairs left at Sands Beach. Since then, the number of hatchings reaching maturity has grown from zero to 40. Another benefit of the program is that the dunes themselves have also returned.

The hike continues west along the beach to the beginning of Pond Trail. Here, the hike turns north and leads through a section of dunes passing a freshwater pond. The pond, which is often full, is now completely dry, a reminder of the lack of rain this year.

Pond Coal Oil Point Reserve hike trail Goleta Isla Vista Sands

The Pond, now dry, at Coal Oil Point Reserve

In June, the 20-acre Tank Fire burned through part of the reserve including the the area around the pond. And it’s surprising to see how many of the plants have started to grow back with just the little rain we’ve received since the fire.

As the trail clears the burn area, it continues around the western edge of the slough offering views out across the slough and several more interpretive signs describing the restoration work and habitats found along the trail.

At about the 1.5-mile mark from Coal Oil Point, the trail arrives at Venoco Road. The hike continues east along the road, which also separates Coal Oil Point Reserve and North Campus Open Space.

In 1965, the northern portion of Devereux Slough was filled in to create Ocean Meadows Golf Course. Almost 50 years later the 63-acre parcel was purchased by the Trust for Public Land and gifted to the University. The University plans to restore the land, effectively extending the natural habitat of Devereux Slough. Now called North Campus Open Space, the property is open to the public from dawn to dusk.

Devereux Creek Slough Coal Oil Point Reserve Sands Beach hike Santa Barbara Goleta Trail

Devereux Creek

From Venoco Road, the hike continues around the eastern side of the slough, joining Slough Road, and eventually arriving at a point where the slough begins to narrow and form a channel to the sea. Even during this dry time of year there is still a small ribbon of water through the slough, and birding opportunities to be found. A nearby sign lists the different species of birds that inhabit or visit the slough.

From here, the hike continues along the eastern side of slough and returns to Coal Oil Point.

To learn more about Coal Oil Point Reserve, volunteer opportunities and docent led hikes, or to access podcasts for the interpretive hike, go to

This article originally appeared in section A of the August 18th, 2014 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Older articles can be seen by scrolling down or using the search feature in the upper right corner. Articles from the News-Press appear here a couple months after they appear in the News-Press.

Western Snowy Plover Coal Oil Point Reserve Sands Beach

Western Snowy Plover


  1. Beautiful photos!

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Thank you for this! I lived in IV in the early 70s and this was one of my all-time favorite places in the world. I had to climb a fence and hike across private land to get to the point. It was wild and beautiful and I look forward to returning someday

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