Posted by: James Wapotich | September 9, 2014

Trail Quest: The Great Traverse, Part 2

Part of the beauty of Santa Barbara is the Santa Ynez Mountains found along the coast. And we’re fortunate to have so many trails that lead up into the mountain canyons behind Santa Barbara.

In addition to these front country trails are a number of connector trails and Edison Power Company access roads that can be used to hike from one canyon to the next. In fact, by utilizing these connector trails and roads one can craft an 18-mile hike across the front of the Santa Ynez Mountains from Stevens Park to Romero Canyon.

Fortunately, this route crosses Gibraltar Road, which makes it easy to break the hike into two sections. Both of which are best done as a shuttle trip, by either parking a second car at the end point or arranging for a ride.

The second half of the traverse from Gibraltar Road to Romero Canyon is about 7.5 miles, one way, and passes through Cold Spring, Hot Springs, San Ysidro, Buena Vista and Romero Canyons.

West Fork Cold  Spring Canyon hike trail Santa Barbara Montecito Los Padres National Forest

West Fork Cold Spring Canyon

Gibraltar Road starts in the foothills behind Santa Barbara, near Sheffield Reservoir, and makes its way up towards the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains. West Fork Cold Spring Trailhead is unsigned, but is located at a noticeable hairpin turn in the road. Parking is found in the pullout along side the road.

At the hairpin turn is a noticeable outcropping of Cozy Dell Shale. This rock formation, along with the rest of the Santa Ynez Mountains, trends east-west. Because the shale is softer and more easily eroded than the sandstone formations on either side of it, one often finds east-west trending side canyons through the shale formation, such as upper West Fork Cold Spring Canyon, that feed into the main canyons.

map Santa Barbara hike trail Cold Spring Hot Springs San Ysidro Buena Vista Romero Canyon Catway Gibraltar Road West Fork

Map courtesy

From Gibraltar Road, West Fork Cold Spring Trail descends down into West Fork Cold Spring Canyon. In 2007, a section of the trail through the upper canyon was rerouted around slides and other damage caused by heavy winter rains in 2005.

As the trail reaches West Fork Cold Spring Creek it arrives at Cold Spring Tunnel. The tunnel, with its noticeable cement facade, was completed in 1905, and was built to tap the water that naturally seeps in the mountains and add it to the city’s water supply.

The trail continues past the tunnel, down along West Fork Cold Spring Creek crossing the creek several times as it approaches the confluence with Middle Fork Cold Spring Creek. Here, the canyon becomes larger and if you look closely on your left, just past a good size boulder, you can find the beginning of the off-trail route that leads up to Tangerine Falls. The hike to the falls from this intersection is about a mile roundtrip and does involve some rock scrambling.

Cold Spring Tunnel West Fork trail hike Santa Barbara Los Padres National Forest

Cold Spring Tunnel

From this intersection, West Fork Cold Spring Trail continues down the canyon. Here, the plants include California bay laurel, sycamore and maple trees, which help shade the trail.

At about the 1.75-mile mark, the trail arrives at the intersection with East Fork Cold Spring Trail. The intersection is marked, and there is a bench for resting. From here, continue to the left, along East Fork Cold Spring Trail. The trail follows the creek upstream briefly before making its way up a series of switch backs. The trail then rejoins the creek and passes a series of sandstone pools that can be inviting when they’re full.

Past the pools, the trail crosses the creek again, continuing to the right, and begins its climb out of the canyon. At about the 3-mile mark from Gibraltar Road, East Fork Cold Spring Trail arrives at an Edison access road and what’s referred to as Montecito Overlook. Here, the views extend out across Montecito and out towards the ocean and the Channel Islands.

From the overlook, continue east along the unpaved access road a short way, where two options for the traverse presents themselves. To the left, Cold Spring Trail continues uphill and leads to Hot Springs Connector Trail. To the right, the Edison access road descends down into Hot Springs Canyon and leads to Hot Springs Trail. And although both routes lead towards the site of the old Hot Springs Hotel, the route along the access road is longer by about a half mile and less shaded.

Continuing up Cold Spring Trail, look for Hot Springs Connector Trail on your right. The trail descends down into Hot Springs Canyon and then traces the northern side of the canyon. Here, the trail crosses a small side creek containing warm to hot water, and then rounds a bend, and crosses a second creek with luke warm water. To left, upstream from this second crossing, one can find the seeps for the hot springs. To the right, the trail leads past the foundation of the old Hot Springs Hotel.

Hot Springs Hotel Trail Santa Barbara hike Los Padres National Forest

The foundation and stairs from the old Hot Springs Hotel

The first 3-story hotel was built there in the early 1880s and stood until it burned down during a forest fire in 1920. The popular resort was rebuilt in 1923, and stood until it was burned down again in the 1964 Coyote Fire. Today, there are no pools to be found at the hot springs, and all that remains of the hotel are the sandstone stairs and foundation.

Just past the hotel site the trail arrives at an unpaved access road. It’s here, at this bend in the road, that the road changes names. To the south, down the canyon, the road is Hot Springs Trail and leads to Mountain Drive. To the east, it is the Edison access road and leads over towards San Ysidro Canyon.

At this intersection one has several options for the traverse. About a half mile south of the access road is McMenemy Trail. The trail essentially parallels the access road east to west and also connects Hot Springs and San Ysidro Trails. The access road is more direct, but sometimes a trail can feel more rustic than a road.

Continuing east along the Edison access road from the old hotel site, the road arrives at Saddle Rock Trail about a half mile later, which leads down to McMenemy Trail. About a quarter mile later the road arrives at Girard Trail, which also leads down to McMenemy Trail. These two trails offer additional alternate routes. Past Girard Trail, the access road descends down into San Ysidro Canyon.

Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara day hike trail hiking East Fork Cold Spring Creek Canyon

Trees line seasonally dry East Fork Cold Spring Creek

At about the 4.5-mile mark from Gibraltar Road, the Edison access road arrives at San Ysidro Trail. From here, it’s about two miles roundtrip up to San Ysidro Falls. For the traverse, continue just a short way down San Ysidro Trail, which at this point is also an unpaved road. On your left you’ll spot another access road climbing east. This is the Edison access road that leads over towards Buena Vista Canyon.

The road climbs out of Santa Ysidro Canyon and ends overlooking Buena Vista Canyon, where it meets Buena Vista Connector Trail. It’s here that one can start to appreciate the roller coaster nature of the traverse.

The connector trail descends down towards Buena Vista Creek, where it meets Buena Vista Trail, which continues downstream towards Bella Vista Drive. For the traverse, continue to the left along the connector trail as it begins its climb out of Buena Vista Canyon.

About halfway out of the canyon, the connector trail arrives at another Edison access road. From here, continue east along the road. As the road clears Buena Vista Canyon, look for a side trail on your right. This short trail leads to an overlook with a bench, which offers views out across Summerland and Carpinteria.

Past the side trail, the access road continues east and eventually arrives overlooking Romero Canyon. From here, the road follows a side canyon down towards Romero Creek where it meets Romero Trail.

At Romero Trail, which is also an unpaved road at this point, turn right and continue a quarter mile down to the trailhead on Bella Vista Drive and the eastern end of the traverse hike.

The article appears in section A of the September 6th, 2014 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.


  1. I have hiked all of this in parts. Did you spend the night? Can a person spend the night on any of these trails?

    • Hey Lori, there are no campsites along any of the front country trails behind SB. And although most of them are in the National Forest, my sense is that camping along these trails would be frowned on. Too many people, too much fire danger and besides there are better places to camp on the backside the mountains, e.g. Forbush and Blue Canyon.

      Also, there’s not really a need to spend the night. The two sections of the hike: Stevens to Gibraltar and Gibraltar to Romero are about 9.5 and 7.5 miles one-way respectively, which is pretty doable for your avid hiker. And the whole route is about 18-miles which is definitely in reach of your hard core hikers, albeit a long day with lots of ups and downs best done in the cooler times of the year. That said, it is amazing that people actually run the route out and back! 35 miles. This year’s best time was an impressive 6:40:08 in August.

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