Posted by: James Wapotich | February 7, 2017

Trail Quest: Hiking above Seven Falls

One of the things I enjoy about hiking is never knowing exactly what I will find out there. Even a well-planned hike can have serendipitous turns. With all the recent rain, I was inspired to visit the three pools above Seven Falls in Mission Canyon.

While most people stop at the more famous Seven Falls, there are three additional waterfalls further up the canyon. The hike to Seven Falls is about three miles round trip, and the hike to the upper pools is about four miles round trip, and both require some rock scrambling.

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara Mission, continue on East Los Olivos Street as it become Mission Canyon Road. Follow Mission Canyon Road as it joins Foothill Road continuing to the right, before turning north at the fire station. The road then branches with Tunnel Road starting on the left and Mission Canyon Road continuing on the right towards Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Follow Tunnel Road to the end. Parking is found along the road. Please be mindful that this a residential neighborhood.

Arriving at the trailhead around noon, I quickly realize the first challenge in reaching the falls is going to be finding a parking place. I optimistically drive to the end of the road hoping for an open spot, but come up empty handed. Eventually I find a place a half-mile back down the road.

I quickly hike up the paved access road that serves as the first part of the trail. It seems unusually warm for still being winter. The road then rounds a corner in the canyon and crosses Mission Creek by way of a bridge. It feels good to finally see some water flowing in the creek. The road then curves away from Mission Creek and meets an unpaved Edison access road.

I continue to the left on the road, as it passes the beginning of Tunnel Trail, which leads to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains. A short way further, Jesusita Trail leaves the access road and returns back into the canyon, arriving at Mission Creek.

From here, Jesusita Trail continues on towards Inspiration Point, while the hike to Seven Falls and the upper pools continues off trail along the creek. Almost immediately on the left is an informal trail that leads up to the western edge of the canyon. This route leads above Seven Falls and is also used to reach Arlington and Cathedral Peaks.

There is no official trail to Seven Falls, but enough people hike here that an informal use route can be found. The trail is at times overgrown and generally favors the left side of the canyon, until the canyon narrows and the route returns to the creek. Depending how you count them, there are seven cascades and pools where the creek has carved its way through the sandstone.

While it is possible to rock climb past Seven Falls to reach the upper pools, it’s easier to backtrack and take the trail along the ridge and rejoin the creek above Seven Falls.

Originally, I had planned to visit Seven Falls first, but given the number of people, I decide to save it for later and make my way up the ridge trail.

I soon arrive at the first trail juncture. Nearby is a large rock outcropping that provides a view of Seven Falls in the canyon below. I climb out on the rock and confirm what I already know; there are a lot of people in the canyon today.

As I step back on the trail I notice a woman about my age standing at the intersection looking at the two trail options. She asks if I know where the different trails lead, and I offer that the trail to the left leads up to Arlington Peak and follows the rocky ridge we can see from where we’re standing. I add that the route is mostly exposed and requires a fair amount of scrambling over boulders. The trail to the right leads above Seven Falls and follows the creek up to three additional waterfalls. I suggest that the hike along the creek is more interesting and mention it’s where I’m headed as well, as if to substantiate my claim.

Intent on my destination, I press on at my original pace, but start to sense that she’s opted for the same trail I’m on. Having been to the upper pools a number of times, both alone and with friends, I realize I could shift gears and let her catch up since she’s never actually been to the falls before.

She introduces herself as Megan and says that she’s visiting from Los Angeles. An avid hiker, her friends had suggested Seven Falls, but none of them wanted to hike. I nod empathetically. I regularly hear people share the reason they don’t hike more is they don’t have anyone to go with, and appreciate that she didn’t let that stop her.

We continue along the trail as it makes its way above Seven Falls. The trail then drops back to the creek and arrives at the first obstacle along the route. Before us is a huge boulder, on one side is a rock face and on the other is a picturesque waterfall graced by a single sycamore tree.

As we approach this first challenge, which requires a little rock climbing, I imagine she’s may be having second thoughts about hiking with someone she’d just met and is probably wondering just what sort of hike she’d signed up for. I quickly mention I have a girlfriend to dispel any concerns that I might be some lonely hiker looking for a date. I add that my girlfriend has been to the upper falls with me before, reassuring her there is only one other place requiring modest climbing, and aside from that the hike doesn’t require any special abilities other than hiking and rock scrambling.

This seems to help. We climb past the first obstacle and continue upstream. There is no real trail, but there are several places where the different use routes converge and take on the appearance of a trail.

Eventually we arrive at the first of the three pools above Seven Falls. The pool is actually part of a double cascade, with a lower and upper pool. This is the second place along the hike that requires some modest rock climbing.

We follow the route along the left side of the creek that most people take, which places us overlooking the first pool. Here, the best route is one that follows a long horizontal seam, or crack, in the sandstone. It is a simple matter except for the height. I quickly scamper along the route, having been there a number of times. Megan hesitates and for a moment I debate whether I’m making her more nervous by trying to help. She then comes to the realization that she’s over thinking the matter and effortlessly traverses the seam, and we continue past the second waterfall.

A short while later we arrive at the uppermost pool. The pool is unique in that the waterfall has carved out a deep basin in the sandstone. There is already a group of people at the pool and it’s evident that the normally deep basin is silted up from the recent rains. The silt has effectively rendered the natural water slide formed by the waterfall unusable.

After resting and taking in the scenery, we retrace our route back down to Jesusita Trail. We thank each another for a fun hike and go our separate ways. I notice I am feeling the satisfaction that comes from having witnessed someone move past their hesitation to have a new experience in nature, and hope that my presence somehow helped to encourage that.

Two days later, I go back during the week to experience the canyon without so many people. I make a quick hike up to Seven Falls, savoring the sight of the pools filled with flowing water, before continuing to the three upper pools.

This time around I’m struck by how the water has subtly gone down in just two days and wonder just how long the creek will continue to flow. While sitting at the uppermost pool I hear a Steller’s jay cry out, a bird I often find near reliable water, and recall that at least this particular pool usually has water year round.

This article orginally appeared in Section A of the February 6th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

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