Posted by: James Wapotich | March 21, 2016

Trail Quest: Mission Falls

High in Mission Canyon is a rare waterfall that only appears under the right conditions. The falls, which overlook the city, don’t run every year, and can only be seen when there is sufficient runoff to activate them.

This year with our recent rains the land has become saturated such that our last big storm provided enough runoff to get them flowing. However, the falls are short-lived and by now already dry. But this being an El Niño year, with still some hope of more rain, there may be another chance to see them.

Even when the falls aren’t flowing, a hike to the site can make for an interesting destination. The shortest route to the falls is along Tunnel Trail from East Camino Cielo Road. The hike to down to the falls is a little over two miles round trip.


The best time to look for the falls is when there’s been enough rain to produce substantial runoff. However, it’s not recommended to visit the site while it’s raining or immediately afterwards as Gibraltar Road is prone to rockslides and the saturated trail and surrounding hillsides can be unstable.

To get to the trailhead from the Santa Barbara Mission, take East Los Olivos Street to Mountain Drive. Turn right onto Mountain Drive and follow it to Sheffield Reservoir Open Space, where it turns to the left and continues to the beginning of Gibraltar Road.

Gibraltar Road continues to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains where it meets East Camino Cielo Road. Turn left onto East Camino Cielo Road towards La Cumbre Peak. Tunnel Trail crosses the road at a low point along the ridge line. You’ll know if you’ve gone too far if you start to dramatically climb again and eventually arrive at the turnoff for La Cumbre Peak. The beginning of Tunnel Trail is marked with a sign and parking can be found in the pullout along side the road at the trailhead.

From the road, Tunnel Trail crosses a rolling, relatively flat area of Juncal formation shale dotted with chamise and ceanothus. The trail then drops down into a small canyon. Juncal formation shale is comparatively soft to sandstone and more easily eroded, and here a small creek has cut a meandering course through the shale on its way down into Mission Canyon. When runoff from the rain is strong, even this side creek is flowing, adding to the sense of traveling through a hidden place high in the mountains.

The trail then transitions from the enclosed canyon and opens up, offering views out across Mission Canyon towards the backside of Arlington and Cathedral Peaks. Here, the rock type transitions into Matilija sandstone, making for a more rocky descent and requiring more alertness. The route leads through mostly chamise and manzanita.

As the trail descends it’s framed by views of the canyon and can give the impression of being on an ancient route through the mountains. At times the trail can be shrouded in clouds or fog, adding to the feeling of being somewhere remote.

As the trail continues the chaparral becomes more diverse with black sage, holly-leaf cherry, ceanothus, toyon, laurel sumac, and, in places, California bay laurel.

The trail then rounds a corner and offers views to the east towards White Mountain and the sweep of Tunnel Trail down towards Rattlesnake Connector Trail. Here, when the falls are flowing, one can hear the sound of rushing water in the small side canyon that feeds the falls.

The water from this side canyon flows across the trail forming a picturesque twin cascade. These however are not the main falls. From here, continue down along the trail until the view opens up again out across Mission Canyon. The falls are just to the right, however the best views are a little farther down the trail where one can look back up the canyon and see the falls in their fullness.

The falls are an impressive site worth the diligence required to successfully view them. The water originates near White Mountain and is channeled through this small side canyon, where it flows over a large exposed sandstone face before disappearing down into Mission Canyon.

From the site, one is also treated to dramatic views down the canyon and out across the city towards Arroyo Burro Beach and the Channel Islands.

The falls of course can also be reached by hiking up Tunnel Trail from the trailhead at the end of Tunnel Road. This route is longer and steeper, but can add to the sense of reward for one’s efforts when viewing the falls. The hike from Tunnel Road is about 7.5 miles round trip.

To reach Tunnel Road from the Santa Barbara Mission, take East Los Olivos Street to Mission Canyon Road. Continue on Mission Canyon Road as it turns right from Foothill Road and then turns left near the fire station on its way to Tunnel Road. Parking for the trailhead is found along side the road where permitted.

From the trailhead, continue about a mile along the paved access road that leads up to the trail juncture for Tunnel and Jesusita Trails. There is a sign at the juncture for Jesusita Trail, but the one for Tunnel Trail has disappeared. Nevertheless, the trail is recognizable as a single track trail perpendicular to the access road.

From here, Tunnel Trail makes its way up the front of the mountains through a mix chaparral, predominantly ceanothus and laurel sumac, with some black sage, toyon, and holly-leaf cherry. Also noticeable along the trail is wild cucumber or manroot, which is currently in bloom. The plant which grows as a vine has yellowish-white flowers.

As the trail continues, Arlington and La Cumbre Peaks come into view. Here, the mix of chaparral begins to include chamise and manzanita. It’s also here that the sandstone along the trail becomes more evident. This lower portion of the trail passes over coldwater sandstone, which is the same rock type as Arlington and Cathedral Peaks seen across the canyon.

The climb is aided by a series of switchbacks along the trail, however, the trail itself offers little shade during most of the day.

The trail then rounds a corner, and here the views extend north out across the canyon towards the falls, framed by La Cumbre Peak and White Mountain. In this view, the falls are small, but what’s interesting here is that the canyon between you and the falls is made of Cozy Dell shale. That is, the more easily eroded shale lies between the coldwater sandstone found on the hike up and the Matilija sandstone that the falls are flowing over; and it’s easy to see how the canyon grew over time and why it’s framed by the dramatic sandstone mountainside to the north.

From here, the trail the continues in a broad arc, following the curvature of the canyon, and at the about 3.25-mile mark from the trailhead, arrives at Rattlesnake Connector Trail. The connector trail offers an alternate way to reach the falls by hiking up through Rattlesnake Canyon. From here, it’s roughly another half-mile to where the falls are located.

Even when the falls aren’t flowing, Tunnel Trail can make for a great day hike because of the views it has to offer, and visiting the site where the falls are located can make it easier to find them when conditions are right for viewing.

This article originally appeared in section A of the February 22nd, 2016 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

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