Posted by: James Wapotich | December 18, 2017

Trail Quest: Arlington Peak

From downtown Santa Barbara, one can view the triangular, almost pyramid-shaped features of Arlington Peak, which takes its name from the once famous Arlington Hotel. Above the peak, at the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains, is La Cumbre Peak.

The hike to the summit of Arlington Peak is one of the more challenging front country hikes in Santa Barbara and should not be taken lightly. The off-trail route is not maintained by the forest service and requires route-finding, rock scrambling, and being able to pace oneself.

The hike is about four miles roundtrip, but don’t expect to hike at your usual pace. Plan instead on using the better part of the day. There is little shade and no water along the route. Continuing over to Cathedral Peak adds another mile roundtrip.

The trail starts from the end of Tunnel Road in the foothills behind Santa Barbara. Parking is found along Tunnel Road where permitted. This is a popular trail and you may end up parking a quarter to a half-mile from the trailhead. Please be considerate of the people who live here while parking and accessing the trail.

From the trailhead, continue along the paved access road that leads up Mission Canyon. As the road rounds the last corner before arriving at Mission Creek, Arlington Peak comes into view, along with what’s affectionately known as the Dragon’s Back, which is the ridge the off-trail route follows on its way to the peak.

The access road crosses Mission Creek by way of a bridge and arrives at Mission Tunnel, which gives Tunnel Road its name. The four-mile long tunnel through the mountain was built in 1911, and carries water from Gibraltar Reservoir to Santa Barbara.

From here, the road continues unpaved, rounding a corner and branching. Stay to the left as the road soon arrives at the beginning of Tunnel Trail, which leads to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains and East Camino Cielo Road. Stay on the access road and look for where Jesusita Trail leaves the road and continues towards the creek.

Where Jesusita Trail crosses the creek is the beginning of the off-trail route that leads to Seven Falls, as well as Arlington Peak.

Continue up the creek and immediately look for a use-trail on your left, which also immediately branches, stay to the left as this route will quickly, if not somewhat steeply get you up on the ridge that separates Mission Creek from one its tributaries. In fact, the off-trail route to the peak, essentially follows the ridgeline between these two drainages the entire hike, threading its way through chaparral and sandstone boulders.

At about the 1.25-mile mark, the trail arrives at the next juncture. Here, a nearby boulder offers views down towards Seven Falls, where heavy rains during the ice ages have helped carve out deep pools in the sandstone. The use-trail to the right leads to the three pools above Seven Falls, while the use-trail to the left continues towards Arlington Peak.

From this juncture, the trail becomes more sincere about climbing uphill to get to the peak. After this initial push, the trail crosses an outcropping of rock where the trail appears to branch. It’s here that many people get lost on the return hike. To the left, the use-trail to Arlington Peak continues, while to the right, an informal route follows a gully down to Mission Creek, where it arrives upstream from Seven Falls.

An important route-finding skill while hiking is to occasionally pause and look back at the way you’ve come, as the route can often appear significantly different from this perspective.

From the rock outcropping, the trail veers westward and levels out some before joining the Dragon’s Back. The feature is aptly named as the route weaves its way through large outcroppings of sandstone boulders that loom overhead and give the feeling of walking between the fins on a stegosaurus’ back or more poetically, a dragon’s back.

Views to the north here, include La Cumbre Peak and to the east what’s sometimes referred to as White Mountain. Looking down into Mission Canyon, one can spot the three pools above Seven Falls.

Coulter pines began to appear along the route as the trail becomes more challenging in terms of route-finding and rock scrambling as it makes the final, long push to the top of what starts to feel like a very large rock pile.

From the top of Arlington Peak the views extend down along the coast to Point Mugu, out across the city towards the Channel Islands, and up the coast past Goleta.

Arlington Peak takes its name from the famous Arlington Hotel, Santa Barbara’s first luxury hotel. It’s said the staff referred to the rocky area as Arlington Crags and the name carried over to the peak.

The hotel was built in 1875, under the direction of Colonel William Wells Hollister, who named it after Robert E. Lee’s Arlington Mansion, a compromise with other investors who wanted to call it the Robert E. Lee Hotel.

Built about a mile from the sea, to be away from the fog and damp air, the three-story, 90-room hotel and its grounds covered an entire city block bordered by State, Victoria, Chapala, and Sola Streets. It’s location also prompted the building of Santa Barbara’s first paved road, State Street, which stretched from Stearn’s Wharf to the hotel.

Initially, the hotel struggled financially, but flourished under the management of Dixie Thompson. Thompson helped promote Santa Barbara’s recreational opportunities by arranging stagecoach rides to Montecito’s Hot Springs and over the pass to Mattei’s Tavern. He also built a stable and offered horseback rides into the mountains, including Mission Canyon.

Presidents Harrison, McKinley, and Roosevelt each stayed at the hotel when they visited Santa Barbara.

In 1909, a fire destroyed most of the hotel. The only portion that was saved was the Annex, which had been added in 1887, to provide additional accommodations.

The hotel was rebuilt in the popular Mission Revival style and reopened In 1911. The new, larger hotel was touted as fire-proof, but unfortunately was not earthquake proof. During the 1925 Earthquake, the 60,000 gallon water tank in one of the hotel’s two towers, intended to support fire suppression, began to sway. The tower collapsed, killing two of the guests.

Although not completely destroyed, the hotel was underperforming financially and instead of being rebuilt was razed. In 1931, Arlington Theatre was built on the site, retaining the name of the hotel.

At the corner of Sola and Chapala Streets one can still find the stuccoed arch from the second Arlington Hotel, which served as the entrance to the hotel’s garden. City Market, which replaced Vons, is where the Annex was located.

From Arlington Peak, the use-trail continues over to Cathedral Peak. The route follows the ridge connecting the two peaks and is comparatively easy to traverse leading almost top of the peak. A quick scramble up a side trail is required to reach the summit.

The views from Cathedral Peak are comparable to Arlington Peak and include Barger Peak to the west. Looking north one can see the continuation of the use-trail towards La Cumbre Peak as it climbs more or less in straight line to the top of the mountains.

This larger hike adds another two miles roundtrip and is just as challenging as the hike to Arlington Peak. To continue from Cathedral Peak, follow the use-trial west along the ridge, until you reach the end of the rocky outcroppings. Here, the trail turns sharply right and continues downhill through a small forest of ceanothus and holly-leaf cherry, before continuing over a low hill and arriving at the base of the mountain.

From here, the trail continues steeply uphill, requiring more rock scrambling, until it crests the spur ridge that connects over towards La Cumbre Peak Day Use area. From here, an access road leads to the top of La Cumbre and the old lookout tower.

An alternate route for the return hike is to continue east along East Camino Cielo Road to the top of Tunnel Trail for a loop hike. This route adds another 2.5 miles to the hike overall, but can be less strenuous and offers great views out across the canyon towards Arlington and Cathedral Peaks, which can round out the sense of accomplishment from visiting all three peaks.


Hiked to Arlington Peak a couple weeks ago and continued on to Cathedral and La Cumbre Peaks. The peak was named after the once famous Arlington Hotel, Santa Barbara’s first luxury hotel.

This article originally appeared in section A of the December 4th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Arlington Peak Dragon's Back Mission Canyon Cathedral La Cumbre hike trail Santa Barbara Los Padres National Forest

Arlington Peak and the Dragon’s Back are seen from the access road in Mission Canyon

White Mountain Santa Ynez Mountains Arlington Peak Cathedral La Cumbre Mission Canyon hike trail Santa Barbara Los Padres National Forest

White Mountain and the Santa Ynez Mountains are seen from the route to Arlington Peak

Arlington Peak Dragon's Back Cathedral La Cumbre hike trail Santa Barbara Los Padres National Forest

View towards Arlington Peak from the off-trail route

Cathedral Peak Arlington La Cumbre trail hike Santa Barbara Los Padres National Forest

The summit of Cathedral Peak is seen from the off-trail route

layout rebuilt arlington hotel santa barbara

Grounds and layout of the second, rebuilt Arlington Hotel, bordered by State, Victoria, Chapala, and Sola Streets.

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