Posted by: James Wapotich | December 28, 2016

Trail Quest: Big Caliente Hot Springs

Sometimes venturing out into nature and immersing in the elements is the easiest way to step out of our everyday lives and see things from a fresh perspective. And sometimes the circumstances of the world around us align just right to give us the opportunity, or at least the excuse we need.

Big Caliente Hot Springs is a popular destination for obvious reasons, there is just something satisfying about soaking in the springs while surrounded by the great outdoors, particularly at night with the stars out above. The springs are reached by a lengthy drive along a bumpy dirt road, which doesn’t seem to deter that many people.

However, when it rains the forest service closes the road at least several days before and after the rain to protect the road and to prevent people from getting stuck back there. When the road is closed the only way in is by foot, mountain bike, or horseback. The shortest route is 18 miles round trip, which significantly reduces the number of visitors.

North Romero Trail Blue Canyon hike backpacking Santa Barbara los padres national forest

Blue Canyon is seen from North Romero Trail

When the rain arrived on a Thursday, I saw my opportunity. I called the forest service the next day and learned the soonest the road would be open was Monday. It was one of the few times I was actually excited that the road was closed.

I was already looking for a place to go backpacking and with winter’s chill settling in and the hectic energy of the holidays in full swing, the hot springs seemed like an ideal destination.

There is no camping allowed at the hot springs, however, just a quarter-mile down the road from the springs is Rock Campground. The site is normally a car-camping destination, but when the road is closed it effectively becomes a trail camp, complete with fire ring and picnic table.

The shortest route to the hot springs on foot is via Blue Canyon. The trailhead is reached from Santa Barbara by taking Gibraltar Road to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains and turning right onto East Camino Cielo Road. East Camino Cielo continues along the top of the mountains to Romero Saddle, where the paved road ends and unpaved Romero-Camuesa Road begins. A half-mile from Romero Saddle, North Romero Trial crosses the road, which leads down into Blue Canyon. Near the trailhead, the road is just slightly wider to allow for parking.

At the trailhead, I round up my gear, appreciating the clear skies. Not only has the storm closed the road, but it has graciously cleared out of the area.

sierra blanca limestone Blue Canyon Trail hike Santa Ynez River Los Padres National Forest

Outcropping of sierra blanca limestone along Blue Canyon Trail near the Santa Ynez River

From the trailhead, North Romero Trail quickly descends the mile and a half down into Blue Canyon. The trail passes through a mix of toyon, scrub oak, ceanothus, and manzanita; and as it nears the canyon floor, the blue-green outcroppings of serpentine that give the canyon its name come into view.

At the canyon floor the trail meets Blue Canyon Trail. Here, I turn left and continue over to Blue Canyon Camp. The camp is marked with a metal sign nailed to a sycamore tree and above it are the scratch marks from a bear. The camp has a picnic table and fire ring plus three ice can stoves. I make a quick run down to the creek, there are a couple of good size pools filled with fresh rain water, but the creek itself doesn’t appear to be flowing.

Back on the trail, I continue towards Cottam Camp. The trail follows the canyon downstream through a mix of coast live oak, chaparral, and riparian plants. In the creek below I can hear running water.

About a mile and a quarter from Blue Canyon Camp, the trail arrives at a large meadow where Cottam Camp is located. The camp is named for Albert Cottam, who with his brother Russell, built a cabin there in 1915. Both experienced guides and horse packers, they used the site as a pack station when taking guests into the backcountry to hunt and fish.

Agua Caliente Canyon Big Caliente Hot Springs Los Padres National Forest hiking backpacking Santa Barbara Los Padres National Forest

Agua Caliente Canyon

When Albert Cottam was 14, he was invited by the foreman of Pendola Ranch to spend a couple weeks there. The route he took from Montecito, more than a hundred years ago, followed Romero Trail over the mountains and down into Blue Canyon, and then over to the Santa Ynez River and upstream to Pendola Ranch. A route that I was more or less following on my way to the hot springs.

Cottam Camp is at the edge of the meadow under a couple of oaks and a large cottonwood and features a fire ring and picnic table. Currently there is no water at the camp, but usually there is during the spring.

The large meadow is at the juncture of Forbush Canyon and Blue Canyon and it’s here, that Blue Canyon turns north and heads towards the Santa Ynez River. Blue Canyon Trail follows the creek downstream as the canyon widens and then cuts across the broad floodplain of the river.

As the trail leaves Blue Canyon it enters a grove of coast live oak. Hiking through the grove, I’m struck by just how many oaks there are along this stretch of the river. Impressed by the grandeur of the scene, my perspective shifts from being on a backcountry trail to standing amongst oaks that have probably been here for thousands of years, growing undisturbed, generation after generation.

Caught in the timelessness of the moment, the words of T. S. Elliot come to mind, “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

The trail then crosses the Santa Ynez River, which is completely dry, and continues on the other side, passing through more oaks before arriving at a large outcropping of sierra blanca limestone. Here, the trail turns to the left and follows a side channel of the river before climbing away from the river and arriving at Romero-Camuesa Road.

The road makes for easy hiking, passing P-Bar Flat Campground, which has five campsites each with a picnic table and metal fire ring. The camp is currently closed due to hazard trees. The road then passes Middle Santa Ynez Campground which has 11 campsites, each with a picnic table and metal fire ring. There is no one at any of the camps, and the only tracks on the road are from a coyote making its rounds.

At about the 6.5-mile from the trailhead, just past Middle Santa Ynez Campground, Romero-Camuesa Road crosses Agua Caliente Creek and arrives at the intersection with Big Caliente Road. I turn up Big Caliente Road and continue past Pendola Station.

Agua Big Caliente Hot Springs Rock Campground hiking backpacking Santa Barbara backcountry Los Padres National Forest pendola

Creekside pools at Big Caliente Hot Springs

The station was built in 1934. Next to it are the remains of the original Pendola Adobe, which was used by the Pendola family as a headquarters for their cattle ranching operation. The adobe fell into disuse after the construction of Gibraltar Dam, when the family’s grazing lease was discontinued over concerns of cattle contaminating the water downstream.

Continuing up Big Caliente Road, I arrive at Rock Campground in the late afternoon. I set up camp and continue up the road to the hot springs.

The first visitors to the hot springs were the Chumash. However, it was George Owen Knapp who built the first cement pool at the springs. Nearby, he built a cabin, which is no longer standing. Knapp was also instrumental in the construction of East Camino Cielo Road, which provided access to one of his other mountain retreats, now known as Knapp’s Castle.

I continue up the canyon, past the cement pool, to two smaller pools located along the creek. I get in the water at twilight just as the stars are coming out and claim my reward for the long hike.

In the morning, inspired by the frost on the ground and temperatures below 30 degrees, I decide to hike back up to the hot springs for another soak. Feeling the expansiveness of the world around me and the freedom of time in this moment, the need to accomplish things slowly falls away.

On the hike out, I can’t help but notice that my pace is less hurried and the urgency I felt around just about everything is all but forgotten; and even with the long miles, I still feel rejuvenated from just one night in the woods.

This article originally appeared in Section A of the December 26th, 2016 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.


  1. Thinking about heading out to this sometime soon. Do you know anything about the river crossings and what they might be like after all these rains?

    • Hard to say. The crossing along Blue Canyon Trail between Cottam towards P-Bar is fairly broad and flat, so even if there’s a lot of water, it might not be that deep.

      Where Cold Spring Trail crosses the river between Forbush and Mono is a little narrower, and probably moving faster, that plus how boggy the Mono Jungle can get makes going to Little Caliente potentially more challenging than going to Big Caliente. The hike to Little Caliente, however, is shorter of the two,

  2. Hello thinking of heading to Big caliente in about 2 weeks, I notice that the gates are closed so I am trying to find the closet/best place to park my car for an overnight camp at rock camp. Can you also tell me how many miles one way.

    • Jack, thanks for your question. There is a rumor that the road might open soon, however that is just a rumor. When I did this hike the road was closed at the Divide Peak gate and I parked where North Romero Trail crosses the road. Winter storms have undermined the crib wall along a section of the road between Romero Saddle and where N. Romero Trail crosses the road. The Forest Service installed a gate at Romero Saddle, which now serves as the new staging area for OHV users. With the gate closed at Romero Saddle, you’d need to park there and hike the extra half-mile along the road to catch North Romero Trail. Total hike one-way from Romero Saddle to Rock Camp is about 9.5 miles. This is on par now with starting from Cold Spring Saddle and hiking down to Forbush and then continuing down to Cottam Camp and hiking the rest of the hike as described. From Cold Spring Saddle to Rock Camp it’s about 9.25 miles one-way. Big Caliente is about a quarter-mile past Rock Camp.

      If you have extra time or are interested in hiking further, you may also want to day hike up to The Oasis, about two miles past Big Caliente. With the creek flowing there should be some nice water at the pool there. Details about that hike can be found here,

  3. Thanks so much for the information! Happy Trails to you:)

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