When it comes to great hiking in California, Santa Barbara may not be the first name that comes to mind. However, the Santa Ynez mountains offer real vertical (over 3,000 feet) and amazing views of the ocean far below.
The trail starts at off Tunnel Road in the foothills. After a short, moderate section you will come to a signed intersection, turn right onto the Tunnel Trail. The trail is so named because it roughly follows the path of a tunnel that carries fresh water to the Gibraltar Reservoir. From there the trail features many steep switchbacks interspersed with a few sections of relatively flat walking. It’s only a bit over three miles to the peak but they are steep and dry miles so take your time and enjoy the unfolding view of the coast. The mountains also offer much more relief than it would appear from below. The peak often looks like it is just a bit further before you realize a large canyon lies between you and your goal.
Except for where recent fires have blackened the landscape, you will be walking through chaparral which is the shrubby vegetation that covers most open space in this region. From the coast, it looks like small bushes but up close it can often be well over 8 feet tall and very dense. It is also tinder box dry so don’t even think about lighting a fire, or anything else up there and keep an eye out for smoke. I have seen small brush fires expand to a raging inferno covering the entire mountainside in a very short period of time. Needless to say, you don’t want to be up there if a fire is nearby!
Another less dangerous but very real concern is poison oak. If you don’t have a clear idea of what it looks like, don’t touch any plants or even sticks. I once got a terrible case of poison oak from simply touching the wrong stick and then stupidly touching a good bit of my exposed skin. It was miserable.
But enough with the warnings. As you approach La Cumbre Peak, the landscape begins to change to a cool pine forest. This covers only a small patch near the summit but the change is wonderful. The air feels cooler and the fragrance on a warm day is very pleasing. The views from the peak are outstanding. On a clear day you can see many miles up and down the coast as well as the Channel Islands to the south. Yes, I said south – the Santa Ynez mountains are one of the few major ranges in the country to run east west so if you expect to see sunset over the ocean you will be disappointed! Look away from the ocean to the north and the Santa Barbara backcountry awaits.
If you ever find yourself in Santa Barbara with some time on your hands, the Tunnel Trail to La Cumbre Peak is a great way to spend a half a day on the trail.