Posted by: James Wapotich | November 21, 2016

Trail Quest: Upper Cold Spring Canyon

Nature has many secrets that if we’re patient are often revealed over time. More often than not, these insights come through the gradual accumulation of experiences rather than epic breakthroughs. In this regard, learning about nature is more like hunting and gathering, with the day to day work of paying attention to ones surroundings interspersed with discoveries that are sometimes catalyzed by specific events.

The old trail that leads above Tangerine Falls is a good example. Who knows how long the original trail lay forgotten before it was revealed after a forest fire. Today, the trail provides access to the upper reaches of Cold Spring Canyon and its natural wonders.

After hiking many of the trails in our backcountry, I was feeling called to revisit the hidden world above Tangerine Falls and the homestead site known as the Root Cellar.

Tangerine Falls Cold Spring Canyon Trail Santa Barbara Montecito Hike Los Padres National Forest Santa Ynez Mountains

A dry Tangerine Falls is seen from the trail leading above the falls

The hike to the Root Cellar is about three miles round trip with a dose of uphill hiking, and can be extended by continuing up to East Camino Cielo Road, which adds another three miles round trip.

The trail is reached from Santa Barbara by taking Highway 101 south to the Hot Springs Road exit and continuing north along the road to East Mountain Drive. Turn left onto East Mountain Drive and follow it to the Cold Spring trailhead. Parking is found in the pullouts along the road on either side of the creek crossing.

From the trailhead, Cold Spring Trail follows the eastern side of the canyon up to the juncture with West Fork Cold Spring Trial. The route leads under a canopy of coast live oaks mixed with riparian plants along the creek.

At the juncture, I cross the dry creek bed and continue along West Fork Cold Spring Trail, which follows the west side of the canyon and is also shaded.

Cold Spring Canyon Trail hike Santa Barbara Montecito Los Padres national forest Santa Ynez Mountains

Upper Cold Spring Canyon

The trail follows the original route through Cold Spring Canyon, which was built in the 1870s to provide access to the quicksilver mines along the Santa Ynez River, near where Gibraltar Reservoir is now. The route led around the west side of the falls to the top of the mountains, continued east over to what is now North Cold Spring Trial, and down to the river. The trail was shorter than going over San Marcos Pass or taking Arroyo Burro Trail.

In the early 1900s, a new trail was built through Cold Spring Canyon that follows what is now East Fork Cold Spring Trail, which supplanted the original trail. And while the lower portion of West Fork Cold Spring Trail was later extended up to Gibraltar Road, the original trail to the mines eventually fell into disuse and was forgotten.

According to local historian, E. R. “Jim” Blakley, it wasn’t until 1964, when the Coyote Fire burned through the canyon and cleared the brush that the original trail along with the homestead was rediscovered.

After just three-quarters of a mile, I arrive at the turnoff to Tangerine Falls, which is now marked with a sign, thanks to a recent boy scout project. The trail crosses West Fork Cold Spring Creek and continues up the main canyon, sometimes referred to as Middle Fork Cold Spring Canyon. Almost immediately, the trail branches. On the left is the trail that leads above the falls, while the trail to the base of the falls continues up the creek.

Here, the original Cold Spring Trail leaves the creek and winds its way up through exposed chaparral, offering views of West Fork Cold Spring Canyon, as well as the main canyon. As I continue up the trail, I can see Tangerine Falls in the canyon below, its dry surface a stark reminder of the lack of water we’ve received over the past several years.

Eventually the trail crests the wall of Matilija sandstone that Tangerine Falls tumbles over.

Past this ridge, the trail descends back down to the creek and the shaded canyon above Tangerine Falls. The first time I ventured above the falls, I felt as though I’d discovered a hidden world. The creek was flowing and the rock “wall” provided a sense of separation from the more popular canyon below. That sense was heightened when I saw bear sign on the trees further up the canyon.

cottonwood tangerine falls hike trail santa barbara montecito Santa Ynez Mountains los padres nation forest

A stand of cottonwoods along the trail above Tangerine Falls

As the trail follows the creek upstream, it threads its way through California bay laurel, maple, and even cottonwood, with an understory of coffee berry and other riparian plants. The trail has something of a backcountry feel and the presence of bear sign only seems to add to that.

Bears will mark trees along their route by scratching and biting them, and here, the bay laurel provides the softest bark of the available trees. Perhaps it’s the lack of visitors and year round water that makes the upper canyon enticing to the bears.

Eventually, I arrive at the next trail juncture. Here, the trail on the right leaves the canyon, following what may have been the original route up to the top of the mountains. The trail climbs another mile and a half through mostly chaparral before reaching East Camino Cielo Road.

Continuing to the left along the trail that follows the creek, I begin to hear the sound of running water.

Just below the next crossing, clear water is flowing through pools lined with copper-colored leaves from the maple and bay laurel trees. Since the drought, this is the only place along the upper trail with year round water.

From here, the trail continues upstream, passing a couple more bay laurels that bears have decorated with their mark. At the last crossing before arriving at the Root Cellar there is a faint side on the left that leads to a small collection of artifacts from the homestead, including part of a stove and plow.

homestead upper cold spring canyon tangerine falls ortega trail hike Santa Ynez Mountains Los Padres national forest montecito

Remnants of the homestead in upper Cold Spring Canyon

Continuing off trail, I look around for more evidence of the homestead, making a wide cross-country foray through the tangle of bay laurel and brush, eventually making a loop back to the creek.

Standing there in the dry creek bed, I remember my last visit to this same spot. That time, I had heard something large crashing through the brush towards me. It sounded like a bear chasing a mountain lion, and then as it got closer, maybe a mountain lion chasing a bobcat. Either way, it was headed straight towards me, and because of all the brush I couldn’t see anything.

I debated what to do, where to flee, but the creek was so congested with brush there was little I could do, so I just waited to see what would happen. A split second later, to my surprise, two grey foxes burst out the brush and raced right past me. They were in a mad chase with one hot on the heels of the other, crashing their way downstream. A brief glimpse into the goings-on of nature.

Not finding any foxes or additional remnants of the homestead this time around, I make my way back to the trail, and follow it as it climbs through chaparral, passing under several large coast live oaks, before arriving at the Root Cellar.

Here, the canyon opens up and I can see the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains. There is a feeling of returning to the sunlight and a sense that this might’ve been a nice place to have a home. Nearby, under two coast live oaks, is the low pile of stones referred to as the Root Cellar.

The Root Cellar Upper Cold Spring Canyon Los Padres national forest hike homestead trail Santa Barbara montecito

The Root Cellar

Taking in the scenery, I hear the cry of a hawk and follow the use trail that leads past the Root Cellar and down to the creek to look around. Just as I arrive at the creek, a medium-sized raptor flies down the narrow course way and lands on a branch in front of me. It looks at me for a moment and then, before I can even move, continues down the canyon.

Based on its coloring and size, it could’ve been either a sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk. Both hawks like to hunt small to medium sized birds, and, from the birds I could hear in the canyon, would have at least Northern flicker, Steller’s jays, canyon wren, and woodpeckers to choose from.

Appreciative of another chance encounter with our local wildlife, I make the return hike and wonder what else awaits to be discovered in our backcountry.

Article appears in Section A of today’s edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Banana Slug Cold Spring Canyon Santa Ynez Mountains Los Padres National Forest

A pair of banana slugs are seen along the creek


  1. Thanks for sharing your wonderful* experience James. I feel so much more of life when I read your stories. It’s a recharge prior to – and after – the dull gray environment of work.


    * Full of wonder is what I mean.

    • Hey Paul, glad you’re enjoying the posts. I hope you’re also getting out there some. We’re fortunate to have so many great places nearby to visit, even just after work. I often marvel at how most of the places I write about are within 2 hours of Santa Barbara.

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