The Mountain Wall

geography that defines us

The mountain wall rises steeply behind Santa Barbara, imparting more than anything an enduring quality that defines those of us who live here.

There are five canyons carved in the mountain wall which lie almost directly behind Santa Barbara-Mission, Rattlesnake, Cold Springs, San Ysidro, and Romero-each with its own unique charm. There are also countless others hidden deep in the flank of the Santa Ynez Mountains, the upper reaches of the Santa Ynez Valley, and the San Rafael Mountains whose enchanting nature will lure you back time and again.


From the perspective of the city, however, the abruptness of the mountain wall as it rises nearly 4,000 feet to its crest at La Cumbre Peak, the spiny layerings of sandstone, the insipid coloring of the chaparral, combine to convey a sense of inhospitality and dullness. These Santa Ynez Mountains do not appear inviting.

For fifty miles they run unbroken and because of the peculiar way they have been juxtaposed on the countryside in an east-west direction, the sun pours down on their southerly slope at nearly right angles. This scorches all but the hardiest of chaparral plants, and the vegetation that is visible from Santa Barbara survives mainly by adapting to the lack of summer rain and the searing Santa Ana winds with a uniform, colorless appearance.

In addition, the dense chaparral cover gives sense of impenetrability. The thick, interlocking branches and the needle-sharp points of the tough, leathery leaves seem more to say Keep Out, No Trespassing than to invite closer inspection. “Meshed and tangled like concertina wire, and mined with rattlesnakes,” one writer has said of the chaparral, “it is impossible to penetrate with anything less persuasive than a light tank.”

The chaparral is an elfin forest dominated by shrubs seldom more than fifteen feet in height. What it lacks in stature, though, it makes up for in orneriness. It is primarily evergreen, which protects it from becoming desiccated during the long, rainless summer months, and the leaves are tough and leathery, with prickly edges.

It is also dry and resinous, which makes it extremely fire-prone, but this imparts its characteristic fragrance as well. This curious juxtaposition of opposites, of toughness and delicacy, marks chaparral country and makes it special to me.


Properly speaking, the chaparral has two distinct elements: the coastal sage (also called the mixed chaparral), and the hard chaparral. The coastal sage is the community of low herbaceous shrubs, rarely more than seven feet in height, that borders the canyons of the lower foothills. The small fuzzy leaves of the yerba santa and the purple, black and white sages are predominantly gray in color, but in the springtime the delicate purple buds of the sages and their overwhelming aromas make the soft chaparral community a treat to be sampled again and again.

This softer chaparral is found along the lower elevations of the Santa Ynez Mountains and on the steep shale slopes, which have insufficient soil to support grasses or species of the oak woodland community. Also found in the soft chaparral are California sagebrush, buckwheat, monkey flower, yarrow, and the wonderful bush that exudes a butterscotch aroma: pearly everlasting.

The hard chaparral is composed of the duller green plants, which dominate the higher elevations. These are dense woody shrubs that grow so thickly as to render travel through them nearly impossible, except in the few years after a wildfire. Despite the less-than-appealing aesthetics of this community, its species are well adapted to the poor soil profile, the short rainy season, and the intense summer heat. These plants are like the tough kids on the block-on the surface neither delicate nor beautiful-but well structured for survival here, and in a Darwinian sort of way, there is a grace to these plant types.

This chaparral can be subdivided into two groups. The lower half grows to elevations of about 1,500 feet and is sometimes called “chamise chaparral” or el camisal. Though big pod and greenbark ceanothus, sugar bush, and black sage are also found here, the chamise dominates, often in pure stands such as those around Inspiration Point. The chamise is a member of the rose family and has tiny needle-like leaves that grow in bundles. Its reddish-brown seed pods, which open during the flowering season, remain on the shrubs for much of the following year’s season and give chamise chaparral its characteristic rusty color. Known as “greasewood” because of its high oil content, the chamise is responsible for the intensity of many of the mountain wildfires.

Manzanita and scrub oak are the predominant species of the upper half of the hard chaparral. Others that are found near the crest are the holly-leaf cherry, chaparral pea, toyon, yucca, bush poppy, prickly phlox, and mountain mahogany. The holly-leaf cherry was called islay by the Chumash, who harvested it in the fall and ground it into flour for use during winter months. Along with acorns, the holly-leaf cherry formed a substantial part of the Chumash diet.

The name “chaparral” dates to the time when gaunt Spanish cattle roamed the valleys and foothills of the County, their wanderings unimpeded by either barbed wire or concrete. Rousting these half-wild steer from brush-choked canyons was the task of the rugged, hard-riding vaqueros, who protected their legs from the sharp branches and thorns by wearing tough leggings that extended from belt to boots.

The plant that caused the vaqueros the most annoyance was the interior live oak, known scientifically as Quercus wislizenii. A similar oak that grows in Spain was called el chaparro, and this was the name given to the scrub oak that the Spaniards found in California. The “al” suffix, added to the root word chaparro, which means “the place of”, has led to the dense southland brush being called the chaparral, even though today it includes far more than the pockets of scrub oak where the Spanish cattle used to hide out.


Santa Barbara, and the chaparral countryside which lies behind it, is a product of a Mediterranean climatic system, characterized by moderate, moist winters and long, hot, dry summers. Rainfall is generally sparse, about 17 inches per year in Santa Barbara, and often occurs during a few high-intensity winter storms. Summer temperatures often exceed 100o F. and relative humidities are low, often less than 5 per cent.

Plant communities similar to the chaparral grow in several other parts of the world, including the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, central Chile, South Africa, and southwestern Australia. These regions compose about 3 percent of the earth’s land surface. All are located on the western borders of continental land masses in a narrow strip between 30o and 45o latitude.

The weather patterns in these areas are dominated by a pressure zone known as the Pacific High. Locally, in the summer, as the Southwest begins to heat up, this mass of warm stable air moves slightly north and inland, deflecting storms originating in the northern latitudes eastward across Washington and Oregon. Only in the winter does the Pacific High retreat south and seaward and allow storm fronts access to the Southern California coastline.


Although the mountain wall does not have the immediate charm of the city’s Mission-style architecture nor the Mediterranean grace of palm-lined Cabrillo boulevard, it is the Santa Ynez Mountains, as much as the sea, that define the city’s character. Even though most think of Santa Barbara as a beach community, it is the mountain wall that sets it apart from other ocean ports on the California coast.

This is a region that is still dominated by the great forces of nature: the jumble of tectonic plates periodically bursting forth with shivers of destruction, the wildfires that defy control, the floods that occasionally destroy homes and steadily usurp the holding capacity of vital County reservoirs. It is these forces that have molded the land, given shape and texture to the Santa Ynez Mountains, and clothed them with a vegetative cover. And despite man’s insistence otherwise, it is these that will continue to dominate the land and the city.

There are nine ways over the mountain wall. Three are at the passes: Gaviota, Refugio, and San Marcos, at 2,250 feet the lowest point along the crest. The other six are by trail: the Arroyo Burro, Tunnel, Rattlesnake, Cold Springs, San Ysidro, and Romero, reminders that for most of its history, Santa Barbara has been geographically isolated from the rest of Southern California.

To the south is the ocean. Powerful northern swells funnel around Point Conception and between the Channel Islands, making this a treacherous body of water even today. It was no accident that the tomol, the Chumash planked canoe, was the finest seagoing vessel to be found on the California coast. To the north the Santa Ynez Mountains form the first line of defense against penetration. Beyond are the San Rafaels, the knifeblade-edged Hurricane Deck, and the indomitable Sierra Madres. Like huge waves lashing across a chaparral-filled countryside, these mountains have provided an admirable barrier against the intrusions of modern civilization.

When Gaspar de Portola led the first Spanish land expedition north from San Diego in 1769, no wonder he opted to follow the coastline around Point Conception rather than brave the hardship offered by travel through the Santa Barbara mountain ranges.


An occasional hike up Tunnel Trail will serve to remind you of the steepness and ruggedness of the mountain wall. On a hot day the hike up out of Mission Canyon can be long and tiring. The sharp upthrust of a massive layer of sandstone, known locally as the Mission Crags, dominates the view and tends to eat away at one’s confidence. “By trail and by brush-bucking, “the late Ed Spaulding, Santa Barbara author and educator, used to say, “it is a very weary, weary way and one that tests not only the leg muscles and the lung capacity but the enthusiasm for the out-of-doors as well.”

Easily crossed by automobile, these mountains cannot be taken so lightly when your legs must provide the locomotion. But at the crest the rewards are evident-a panoramic view of the coastline and islands as well as an appreciation of the timelessness of this place.

Below, the canyon winds its way toward you like a slender thread of green. Beyond are the foothills, golden yellows that seem to undulate their way to the valley floor. The wind gusts occasionally, but mostly it whispers across the chaparral like a soft moan. The minty scent of purple sage and the aroma of yerba santa cannot help but invade one’s consciousness. Overhead the red-tail hawks soar on an updraft in search of prey, their screeches letting you know they own this particular piece of sky country. Though this isn’t an easy country to love, there are still those moments when a love for it comes without hesitation.

In the distance is the muffled sound of Mission Creek. Here life decelerates from the twentieth-century pace that has been forced on it, with time to absorb the small details and to sift through the bits and pieces of this part of the mountain wall. Though Mission Creek is bone dry in the summer, it is filled with the potential, in the winter months, to channel large volumes of water, and with it tons of cobblestones, sands and silt downstream. Precariously, the chaparral vegetation that covers the mountainside holds this material in place.


The rock which provides Tunnel Trail with its steep, rugged character is known as Coldwater Sandstone. It is Eocene rock, a remnant of a geologic era of some fifty million years ago-ancient when measured against the span of human lives but relatively young on a geologic scale. Shells of prehistoric oyster, which once thrived in the brackish water of the tidal flat, are imbedded in the sandstone. This rock was once part of a seashore environment, perhaps something like that which exists today at Morro Bay.

Sitting on the top of a large knoll near the crest you can absorb the feeling of the Santa Ynez Mountains which provide a sense of perspective. From here the land appears basically unaltered, despite man’s intensive efforts to the contrary over the past two centuries. The valley floor is filled with people now, and the mountains are managed for water, for wildfire, and for wildlife by the Forest Service. But taken as a whole, the dominant feature of the land is still its mountainous, roadless, and essentially primitive character.

The bedrock accentuates this primeval quality. Places like Lizard’s Mouth or The Playground, nestled high in the Santa Ynez Mountains west of San Marcos Pass, or Seven Falls in the upper end of Mission Creek are but a few of the places made possible by these giant slabs of rock. There are numerous places like them, filled with sandstone boulders, underground caves, and water-worn channels separating the bedrock like pieces of a gigantic puzzle.

This is land that has yielded only stubbornly to the forces of nature, a place where one can appreciate and begin to understand the slow pulse of the earth’s evolution. It is a land that has undergone radical changes over the past several hundred million years, including some very dramatic ones in the last three or four million years. The bedrock has shifted, the climate changed many times, and every earthquake is a reminder that the entire process, even today, is in constant flux. The land may remain rigid for the balance of this day perhaps, for the month, the year, or, for that matter, the rest of my life. Nonetheless, it is part of a fluid, ongoing process.

When most people think of the mountain wall, they think chaparral because it dominates the eye. But pockets of prehistoric beauty still remain, albeit hidden-a surprising beauty that is all the more special because it is rare.

In such a land-neither monumental nor imposing-a subtle challenge appears: to go beyond the surface, to experience this country in all its moods, and over time to discover a depth and complexity, a beauty, and a love that wasn’t apparent upon first glimpse.


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