The Gaviota Coast extends west from Goleta towards Point Conception. The largely undeveloped stretch of coastline provides numerous opportunities to explore some of southern California’s more remote and scenic beaches.
Along the Gaviota Coast are three state beaches that provide direct access to the coast, as well as camping and other recreational opportunities. Heading west from Goleta they are El Capitan, Refugio, and Gaviota.
When the tides are low enough it’s possible to hike between the different state beaches. The hike from Refugio to Gaviota is about 9.5 miles one way and is best done as a shuttle hike. The area can also be explored by starting at either end and hiking as far as the tides permit before turning back.
To get to Refugio from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 west. Continue past the exit for El Capitan State Beach to the exit for Refugio State Beach. To reach Gaviota State Park, continue further up the coast. Currently, the turn off for Gaviota is closed and you will need to continue to the exit for State Route 1 and double back. Parking is found at both Refugio and Gaviota and is $10 per day for day use.
From Refugio, head down to the beach, and continue west around the point that defines the cove at Refugio. The point is one of the more narrow sections along the hike and serves as good indicator whether the rest of the route is passable. Ideally, you’ll want to time your hike to be midway at the lowest point of the tide. A minus low tide is best in that it affords one the best opportunity to complete the hike at a reasonable pace.
About a mile from Refugio, the route leads around another point and the views open up dramatically to the west. From here, one can spot in the distance the train trestle at Arroyo Hondo.
At about the 4.5-mile mark, roughly midway through the hike, one arrives at Arroyo Hondo. Here, the beach is also narrow, but improves as you continue towards Gaviota. Behind the trestle is the arch bridge that served as the original route for Highway 101 across the canyon. The bridge can visited from the nearby Vista Point along Highway 101. From the Vista Point, there is also an informal access down to the beach.
The exposed rocks along the coast at Arroyo Hondo offer some of the best tide pooling along the hike. Here, one can find sea anemones, mussels, limpets, chitons, black turban snails, and a fair amount of starfish.
The long beach walk also affords an opportunity to observe our local shorebirds. Overhead, California brown pelicans regularly flyby in formation. At the water’s edge are long-billed curlews and sanderlings foraging, and of course plenty of seagulls. Depending on what’s washed ashore, one can also find turkey vultures scavenging along the beach.
As the hike continues west, its rounds a number of points on the way to Gaviota. While most of the canyons and points seem to alternate, Cañada de Molina, about 1.5 miles west of Arroyo Hondo, is unique in that the sycamore-lined creek flows out almost at the point.
At about the 7-mile mark from Refugio, the coast rounds another point and Gaviota Pier comes into view. As the hike continues, it arrives at Cañada San Onofre, which is recognizable by the freestanding outcropping of Monterey shale that can be seen at the mouth of the creek.
The coast rounds one final point, before arriving at the mouths of Cañada Alcatraz and Cañada del Cementerio. The two creeks meet the ocean next one another, and both have unique and somewhat forgotten histories.
In 1897, Alcatraz Asphalt Company built a plant and pier at the site to process asphalt. The company’s owner, William F. Crocker, part of the San Francisco banking family, had leased the oil rights to Sisquoc Ranch, where the asphalt was located near La Brea Creek. Two pipelines were built between the sites, one that carried liquid asphalt to the coast, and another that carried naphtha to the mine, which was used to liquify asphalt. Four years later operations ceased when cheaper sources of asphalt were developed in Carpinteria and where UCSB is now.
When oil was discovered south of Santa Maria in the early 1900s, the site was converted to an oil refinery. It was owned by various oil companies over the years, and later served as a marine terminal. Tanks at the site can be seen from the freeway near Mariposa Reina.
Just west of Cañada Alcatraz is Cañada del Cementerio. In 1774, the De Anza expedition, following the route established by Portolà five years earlier, passed through the area. Here, they found a deserted Chumash village and its cemetery, and named the site El Cementerio.
In December 1900, the canyon become our own local version of Promontory Summit when the railroad along the coast was finally completed. For years there existed an unserviced section between Santa Margarita and Ellwood known as “The Gap”. Due to terrain and the resistance of some landowners it wasn’t until 1900 the Southern Pacific line was completed, providing direct service between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
About a mile past Cañada Alcatraz, one arrives at Gaviota. On August 24th, 1769, the Portolà expedition camped here while on their way to Monterey. When they arrived, there was a Chumash village of about 300 people called Onomyo, which the Spanish named San Luis Rey de Francia. It’s said that when a soldier looking for firewood shot a seagull the site became known as Gaviota, Spanish for seagull.
Serving as a scout in the expedition, José Francisco Ortega, later help found the Santa Barbara Presidio and served as its first commandant from 1782-1784. In 1795, Ortega retired from military service. The previous year he had been awarded a land grant from the Spanish Crown, which he named Rancho Nuestra Señora del Refugio, Our Lady of Refuge.
The grant covered 26,529 acres from Refugio to Cojo Bay, and inland into the Santa Ynez Mountains. Over the years, the grant was broken up and sold off by his heirs.
During the 1850s, the Hollister and Dibblee families acquired most of land that was part of Ortega’s original land grant, as well as Rancho San Julian to the northwest.
William Welles Hollister, moved to California in the early 1850s, and established a successful sheep ranching operation in Monterey County. After he sold the operation, he moved to Santa Barbara County, where he began purchasing land, including property in Tecolote Canyon, which he named Glen Annie, after his wife, Hannah Annie James Hollister. The road leading to their ranch is now known as Hollister Avenue.
Albert and his brothers Thomas and Henry Dibblee arrived in Santa Barbara County around the same time as Hollister and also began purchasing land.
Seeing mutual advantage, the Hollisters and Dibblees formed a partnership. Together they ran one of the largest sheep ranching operations in the state, controlling close to 140,000 acres of land in Santa Barbra County.
As part of their ranching operation along the coast they built a wharf at Gaviota in 1874, near where the current pier is now. The pier was later destroyed during a storm in 1912.
Over the years, the facilities at Gaviota were expanded to include a stage coach station, inn, and general store that also served as a post office. When the railroad arrived, the site became a railway station.
In the late 1880s, the Hollisters and Dibblees dissolved their partnership and divided up their holdings.
In 1926, the county of Santa Barbara purchased 8.8 acres of land around the beach for a county park, and in 1951, built a new pier. The pier suffered storm damage in 2014, and is currently closed.
In 1952, the county deeded the park to the State of California, but maintained the campground under a lease until 1969. In 1964, the state acquired additional land expanding the park into the Santa Ynez Mountains, and three years later purchased the land around Las Cruces.
Today, Gaviota State Park encompasses 2,787 acres and has over 30 miles of trails. The site features 39 campsites, although currently the park is only open for day use; the campsites are scheduled to reopen in March. For more information about the park go to http://www.parks.ca.gov.
This article originally appeared in Section A of the January 23rd, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.