The Gaviota Coast from Goleta out towards Point Conception is one of the more scenic sections of coastline in our area. It is rich with history and offers numerous opportunities for long, quite beach walks. The coastline runs parallel to the Santa Ynez Mountains, and the different canyons and contours create a variety of points and coves to explore.
The are three state beaches along the coast that provide direct access to the beach, as well as camping and other recreational opportunities. Heading west from Goleta, the first is El Capitán, followed by Refugio, and then Gaviota. When the tides are low enough it’s possible to hike between the different sites.
The hike from Refugio to Gaviota is about 9.5 miles. The easiest way to set up the hike is as a shuttle trip and the best time to go is when there’s a minus low tide. One can also start at either end and hike as far as the tide permits and then turn back. It’s best to time your hike so the lowest point of the tide is roughly midway through your hike.
To get to Refugio State Beach from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 north and continue past El Capitán State Beach. Take the exit for Refugio State Beach and continue into the park. Day use at the park is $10.
The first people along the coast were the Chumash, with sites dating as far back as 13,000 years ago. The Chumash had a number of villages along the Gaviota Coast at different points in their history. The village of Qasil was located along Refugio Creek, near where the state park is now.
The village likely served as a trading port between the islands and the interior, with Chumash tomols, or wooden plank canoes, carrying goods back and forth between Santa Cruz Island. From Qasil there was a trail over the mountains to the villages in the Santa Ynez Valley. There was also a trade route along the coast to Mikiw and Kuya’mu in Dos Pueblos Canyon. Another route likely went up the coast to Osomyo, where Gaviota State Park is now.
In 1542, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo was the first European to sail up the coast of California, stopping at the Channel Islands. However, the first overland expedition wasn’t until 1769, when Gaspar de Portolà set out to establish an overland route to Monterey. The expedition had already traveled from Baja California to reach San Diego and continued north through what is now southern California passing through Santa Barbara and along the Gaviota Coast on the way to Monterey.
In the expedition, serving as scout, was José Francisco Ortega, who had been recruited by Portolà. Ortega was a Spaniard living in Baja California. A former soldier, he was serving as the mayor of a mining community when Portolà asked him to re-enlist.
Ortega was one of the first Europeans to see San Francisco Bay, and later founded the Presidio in Santa Barbara in 1782, serving as its first commandant. In 1795, he retired from the military.
The previous year the Spanish Crown had awarded him a land grant, which he named Rancho Nuestra Señora del Refugio, Our Lady of Refuge. The grant extended along the coast from Refugio to Cojo Bay, and inland into the Santa Ynez Mountains, covering 26,529 acres. Ortega built his home near Refugio Creek. When he passed away in 1798, his descendants inherited the grant.
In addition to cattle and farming, it’s said that one of the main activities of the ranch was smuggling. Prior to Mexico’s independence from Spain, only Spanish ships had permission to trade along the coast. Ships from other nations wanting to engage in trade needed to find secluded places and willing participants for their commerce. Refugio Bay proved an ideal location, and with the limited supply of goods available legally, the Ortegas became one of the wealthiest families in California.
In 1818, Hippolyte Bouchard, a privateer in the service of the newly independent Argentine Republic, sailed to Monterey, where he looted and burned the city. Bouchard had heard of Ortega’s wealth and continued down the coast to take it. However, the Ortega’s had been tipped off of his arrival, hid their valuables, and fled over the mountains to Mission Santa Ynez. Finding little to take, Bouchard burned the Ortega’s home and killed their livestock. When the Ortegas rebuilt their adobe it was further inland.
Over the years, the original land grant was broken up and sold. In the early 1900s, the land at Refugio Creek was acquired by Stephen and Jessie Rutherford.
During the 1920s, with automobiles becoming more common and people visiting the coast, the Rutherfords saw a business opportunity. They built cabins for rent and a store at the beach, and also planted the long row of palms trees still seen there today.
In 1950, the Rutherfords sold the land to the State of California, and 13 years later it became a state beach.
Today, Refugio State Beach has 69 reservable campsites, including three group sites, as well as picnic areas and a convenience store. Reservations can be made at http://www.parks.ca.gov.
For the beach hike, head west along the coast, rounding the point that defines the cove at Refugio. The rocky point is one of the narrowest along the hike, and a good indicator of whether the rest of the route is passable. The coast near Arroyo Hondo, roughly halfway, is another narrow point between Refugio and Gaviota. By starting 2-3 hours before the tide is at its lowest and keeping a reasonable pace, it is possible to make it all the way to Gaviota.
The main rock type along the coast is Monterey shale, and through one section, with a little imagination the large pieces of eroded rock can look like fallen Roman columns. Amongst the crevices of these rocks one can find numerous striped shore crabs hiding out.
The low tide also offers an opportunity to see some of the marine life that is often hidden by the water. Along the hike it’s possible to see mussels, limpets, chitons, and sea anemones on the exposed rocks.
After about a mile, the hike rounds a point and the views open up dramatically to the west. The scenery extends along the coast and is framed by the Santa Ynez Mountains. In the distance one can spot the train trestle at Arroyo Hondo.
About a mile later, one arrives at Tajiguas Creek. The creek passes under the freeway and railroad through a cement tunnel, and so the main landmark here is a large, lone eucalyptus tree next to the beach. On August 23, 1769, Portola’s expedition camped along Tajiguas Creek on their way up the coast.
Another mile further is Arroyo Quemada, which is easier to identify. Here, the canyon is more open and one can see houses overlooking the beach. Please respect private property.
Continuing along the coast, the beach begins to narrow as it approaches Arroyo Hondo, however there is a long cement retaining wall that can be used if the tides are against you.
At about the 4.5-mile mark from Refugio, one arrives at Arroyo Hondo. Across the canyon is a large railroad trestle, as well as the bridge that served as the original route for Highway 101. The bridge can also be visited from the Vista Point along Highway 101. There is an informal access from the Vista Point down to the beach.
Arroyo Hondo was the last parcel of land from the original Nuestra Señora del Refugio grant to pass from the Ortega family. The property was sold in 1908 to the Hollister family. In 2001, the Hollisters sold the land to the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, which now manages it.
From here, it’s another five miles to Gaviota State Park. The route becomes even more scenic and a little easier in terms of the tides. There are still some rocky points, but overall they’re not as narrow as the area near Arroyo Hondo and the point at Refugio.
This article originally appeared in Section A of the January 16th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.