With all the great rain we’ve been getting, our waterfalls are finally flowing once again. And not just mere trickles like the past five or six years, but actual rushing, roaring water tumbling over rock walls and filling the canyons with energy.
The largest, and perhaps best, of the front country waterfalls is Tangerine Falls in Cold Spring Canyon. The waterfall has been largely non-existent since the drought but is now in full force and promises to continue flowing for some time.
The hike up to the falls is about three miles round trip and involves a fair amount of rock scrambling once off the main trail.
To get the trailhead from Highway 101, take Hot Springs Road exit, and continue north along Hot Springs Road to East Mountain Drive. Turn left onto East Mountain Drive and continue to where the road crosses Cold Spring Creek. Parking is found along the side of the road on both sides of the crossing.
Cold Spring Trail starts along the right side of the canyon, passing through mostly oaks with California bay laurel mixed in and chaparral plants coming down from the side of the canyon.
At about the quarter-mile mark, the trail branches, just below the confluence of Cold Spring and East Fork Cold Spring Creeks. To the right, Cold Spring Trail follows East Fork Cold Spring Creek upstream, before eventually climbing out of the canyon and continuing towards Montecito Peak and the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains. To the left, West Fork Cold Spring Trail crosses the creek and continues along the left side of the canyon, following Cold Spring Creek upstream towards the turnoff to Tangerine Falls.
Standing at this first crossing, I’m given pause. The water level requires more of a leap than I’m willing to make. I push upstream, following East Fork Cold Spring Creek, until I find a collection of boulders in the creek that I can hop across. I continue over the wedge of land separating the two creeks, squeezing past the poison oak with its glistening leaves. After finding a place to cross Cold Spring Creek, I tie back into West Fork Cold Spring Trail and continue up the canyon.
With so much water in the creek, I can already feel my excitement at seeing the falls.
The trail is well-shaded. passing through a mix of coast live oak and California bay laurel. From the trail, I can see sycamore and maple in the canyon below. The trail is in good shape, particularly given the recent rains. There are no major slides and no downed trees.
Already, there are some wildflowers in bloom. Milk maids with their white flowers line parts of the trail, as does non-native sour grass, or oxalis, with its yellow flowers.
Having become accustomed to the drought, it is only slowly sinking in that there is water continuously flowing along the length of the canyon. As I slow down to take in this new awareness, I can smell the moist earth beneath my feet and see the newly washed leaves on the trees and bushes. And I can imagine the rainwater making its way down to their roots, providing an infusion of relief from the drought.
As the trail rounds another corner in the canyon, Tangerine Falls comes into view. In the distance, I can see water tumbling over the rocks, forming an electric white line of energy coursing down the canyon.
The trail soon arrives at the turnoff for Tangerine Falls, which is now marked with a sign thanks to a recent project by the Boy Scouts, who installed signs along many of the front country trails east of Gibraltar Road.
The trail juncture is just above where West Fork Cold Spring Creek joins the main creek. To the left, West Fork Cold Spring Trail follows West Fork Cold Spring Creek and continues towards Gibraltar Road. To the right, the off-trail route to Tangerine Falls, crosses West Fork Cold Spring Creek and then continues up Cold Spring Creek, sometimes referred to as Middle Fork Cold Spring Creek.
The off-trail route to the falls is unmaintained and requires rock scrambling. As it continues along Cold Spring Creek, it quickly arrives at a second trail juncture, this one without a sign. The trail on the left, which is at a right angle to the creek, leads above the waterfall.
As I continue along the trail that follows the creek upstream to the falls, I notice a half-dozen Humboldt lilies. Having already seen a dozen so far, I start to count them. In all, there are close to 50 lilies sprouting up along the trail, recognizable with their green leaves growing in a ring around a fairly straight stalk.
Humboldt lilies are considered rare to endangered because of their limited distribution. However, where they do grow, there are sometimes several more plants nearby. They prefer partially shaded canyons and the north slopes of mountains. Humboldt lilies bloom in June, showing orange flowers with maroon spots; and when flowering, the plant can reach as much as eight feet in height.
The trail then crosses the creek. Here, a large outcropping of Coldwater sandstone on one side of the canyon provides a narrow channel for the water to race through, effectively providing the experience of following a cascading mountain stream.
Past the second crossing, the trail leads through a section lined with mostly California bay laurel, before arriving at another rock outcropping. Here, the informal route to the falls scrambles over the outcropping and arrives at a medium-sized cascade.
The canyon then narrows still further, as the use-route transitions into mostly rock scrambling. The route continues up the west side of the creek and is normally dry, even when the creek is flowing. However, because of the volume of water currently in the creek, a side channel is now flowing directly down the use-route, adding to the sense of literally climbing up the creek to the falls.
The use-route then moves past where the water is flowing in and soon arrives at an overlook that provides some impressive views up towards the falls in all their glory.
To get to the base of the falls, I scramble down into the creek and aim for the one place narrow enough to hop across, and then slowly make my way up the sloped rock face. I’ve scrambled up this surface before, but not when it’s completely wet. I make a point of taking my time, not wanting a free ride back down to the creek. At the base of the falls, the spray coming off the cascading water is so strong that it’s like standing in a light rain, so I retreat back behind a nearby rock to take in the views without getting soaked before working my way back down to the creek.
Tangerine Falls takes its name from the orange and rust-colored minerals that have built up on the face of the falls and in the creek, which gives the waterfall a slight orange cast. The effect is more evident when the water level is lower.
On the way out, because there’s still some daylight, I decide to hike up the trail that leads above the falls. The trail climbs away from the creek and follows the contours of the canyon up to the outcropping of Coldwater sandstone that defines Tangerine Falls. The trail does not provide access to the top of the falls, but does offer views down into the canyon, including out towards Tangerine Falls.
Just past the outcropping of sandstone, the trail rejoins the creek and continues through the upper canyon towards an old homestead site. This section of trail sees fewer visitors than the canyon below and feels more like backcountry trail. There are even scratch marks made by black bears on several of the trees.
Returning to the trailhead, I can’t help but think this is going to be a good year for backcountry adventuring and enjoying the natural splendor of our local mountains.
The article originally appeared in Section A of the March 6th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.