Posted by: James Wapotich | May 2, 2016

Trail Quest: Hot Springs Canyon

One of the more popular front country destinations, Hot Springs Canyon has been visited by hikers for than a 150 years. The canyon is the site of the once famous Hot Springs Hotel and a hike through the canyon provides a chance to explore one of our front country trails.

The hike to the old hotel site is about 2.5 miles roundtrip.

From Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 south to Hot Springs Road exit, turn left and continue up to the roundabout. Follow Hot Springs Road to East Mountain Drive. Turn left onto Mountain Drive and continue towards the trailhead. There is limited parking at the trailhead, but additional parking can by found along nearby Riven Rock Road.

From the trailhead, the trail follows an easement along the creek between residential properties, briefly following a private road, before continuing around a gate. From here, the trail continues alongside the creek and arrives at an unpaved access road, where the trail starts to open up.

Hot Springs Canyon Montecito hike trail hotel Wilbur Curtiss Los Padres National Forest

A view down Hot Springs Canyon towards the site where Hot Springs Hotel was located

A short ways up the road the trail branches. Hot Springs Trail continues across the creek to the right. To the left, an unnamed trail continues along the creek. Both routes are open to the public and lead up to the hotel site.

The route along the creek stays with the creek all the way up to the Edison access road, which it briefly follows, before returning to the creek and arriving at the base of the hotel site. There the trail branches with one route leading up to the site and the other continuing along the creek towards the hot springs.

Hot Springs Trail crosses the creek and follows the east side of the canyon. The trail soon arrives at the beginning of McMenemy Trail. Here, stay to the left and follow the unpaved access road, now open to the public. The road passes through mostly chaparral and offer views out across the canyon.

At about the one-mile mark, Hot Springs Trail arrives at the Edison access road, which connects over to Cold Springs Canyon. Just before this intersection, on the right, is a small field of Douglas iris in bloom above the trail, and little further up is a field of sour grass. The non-native sour grass also lines the road and is recognizable with its bright yellow flowers and clover-like leaves.

Douglas Iris hot springs canyon Montecito hike trail los padres national forest

A field of Douglas Iris

Douglas Iris Hot Springs Canyon Los Padres national forest hiking trail Montecito Santa Barbara

Douglas iris

The trail then arrives at the hotel site. Here, the road turns ninety degrees and continues over towards San Ysidro Canyon. A number of loop hike opportunities can be created using the network of trails found between the two canyons.

At the hotel site what is most noticeable is the southwest corner of the sandstone wall that served as the hotel’s foundation. Here, one can find non-native century plants and a stairway that leads up to a level area where the hotel was located. From the top one is treated to views back down the canyon and out towards Santa Cruz Island.

Continuing past the site the trail returns to the creek and continues briefly upstream to the main set of hot springs which issue from sandstone at the base of the canyon wall.

The bath houses from the hotel are long gone and there are no pools for visitors to soak in. Today, one must content themselves with the great scenery and history of the site.

The first visitors to the hot springs were the Chumash, who were said to have used the water for its curative properties.

The first person to develop the site was Wilbur Curtiss. Curtiss had come to California from New York to seek his fortune during the 1849 Gold Rush. It’s said that working as a miner had ruined his health and that he’d moved to Santa Barbara for the fresh air and favorable climate. One day while out hiking in Hot Springs Canyon with his Chumash guide he met a Chumash man who was said to be over a hundred years old. Intrigued by the man’s longevity Curtiss asked his guide about the man, who explained that the old man regularly soaked in the hot springs further up the canyon. Curtiss had his guide show him the spot and over the next six months Curtiss regularly soaked in the pools and became cured of his ailments.

In 1862, convinced that there was business opportunity at hand, Curtiss built a road up to the site to serve patrons. That same year the Homestead Act passed. The road was washed out in the first winter rains, but undaunted Curtiss filed a homestead claim in the canyon. At the site he built several bath houses with visions of one day building a world class resort.

In 1871, a fire burned through the canyon and Curtiss rebuilt what he had. The accommodations were meager, nevertheless people continued to visit the hot springs, reporting on the miraculous cures they’d experienced from the healing waters.

In spite of his best efforts, he could never raise enough capital to build the resort he envisioned. Unable to pay back the money he had borrowed over the years to build his dream, the land defaulted to Milton S. Latham of the London and San Francisco Bank in 1877. Curtiss stayed on as the manager, but eventually moved on to other pursuits.

The property passed through several hands, during which time a small three-story hotel was built near the hot springs. In 1886, the property was purchased by Edwin H. Sawyer, who also bought the adjoining property owned by Curtiss’ sister, Ruth. Over the next thirty years the hotel saw different managers; was closed and reopened several times; and plans for a bigger resort were proposed but never materialized.

In 1910, Swayer was eventually able to sell the property to W.H. Bartlett and S.P. Calef. Four years later the two organized Hot Springs Club. Members paid $2,000-$5,000 to join and the membership was capped at 20. Each member had their own room in the hotel, which they could use but had to furnish on their own.

The hotel burned to the ground in 1921 during another forest fire and was rebuilt.

As time went on the members passed away one by one. In 1958, Kenneth Hunter Sr., who was the last caretaker at the club, set out find the heirs of the various members and, in 1962, was able to purchase the property with Lowry McCaslin.

Two years later, the Coyote Fire burned through the site destroying all of the buildings. The fire burned 65,339 acres between State 154 to Romero Canyon on the front side of the Santa Ynez Mountains, and between Knapp’s Castle and Jameson Reservoir on the backside of the mountains.

In 1986, Kenneth Hunter, Jr. sold his interest to the McCaslin Family. Over the years the public continued to visit the site, many unaware that it was actually private property.

In 2008, the McCaslin Family approached the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County to sell the site. In 2012, after raising $7.8 million to purchase the property, the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County acquired the land with the intention of conveying it the United States Forest Service so it could become part of Los Padres National Forest.

However, a number of private easements regarding water, electrical, and road usage complicated the matter, as did the presence of creosote-treated power poles found in the brush at the site. Southern California Edison agreed to remove the poles and contaminated soil, but the issue over the water rights brought the transfer to an impasse.

Unable to resolve the matter in a way that met the Forest Service’s land management requirements and also preserved Montecito Water District’s water rights, the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County ended up retaining the 40-acres of land in question, located at the entrance to Hot Springs Canyon.

In 2013, with the details finally worked out, the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County transferred 422 acres of the property in Hot Springs Canyon to the Forest Service. With the sale and transfer of the land complete, the site became part of the national forest, protected from development and open to the public.

This article originally appeared in section A of the May 2th, 2016 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

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