Hike: Rigorous day hike up the front side to East Camino Cielo Road, and return back down. Suitable for fit children ages 11 and above.
Mileage: 12-mile roundtrip, with a roughly 2,500-foot ascent to the road
Time: 10 minutes driving and about eight hours hiking, with some very steep ascents; also, a half-hour munching a good lunch near the road.
Maps: Ray Ford’s A Hiker’s Guide to the Santa Barbara Front Country map is very readable: Bring it and a compass with you. Craig Carey’s Hiking & Backpacking Santa Barbara and Ventura lists Arroyo Burro Trail as Route 8, pp. 63 – 66.
The steep Arroyo Burro Front-Side Trail offers challenging hiking and yields terrific exhilaration when you finally hit the top at East Camino Cielo Road near the currently closed Arroyo Burro shooting range. While arduous — guru Franko and I needed almost eight hours of steady hiking for the 12-mile round trip — the beginning point is quite close to town at the familiar Jesusita Trailhead. (Park by the reservoir at the top end of San Roque Road where there is parking, a helpful green sign, and a trash can).
Since the early 1970s, hiking into the beautiful wilderness near us has been an enduring facet of my definition of “how I ought to live.” British philosopher Paul Crichton’s new book, Self-Realization and Inner Necessity, contains compelling thoughts about how we can figure out what “the good life” means to each of us in the face of “soft oppression,” omnipresent screens, and strong socio-political forces. Walking into “free” nature becomes, for me, a way to avoid becoming a passive and inert consumer.
If you need any more persuasion to go for a hike in the enchanting natural beauty around us, consider that charging into the rugged Santa Barbara front country is a convenient way to exercise individual “self-determination,” or autonomy, which Crichton, philosopher Charles Taylor, and Immanuel Kant acclaim as a “primary good” necessary for life as a free citizen.
So, free citizens all, Franko and I were hiking at 6:30 a.m., and after pleasant and mostly shaded riparian hiking for two-thirds of a mile, the clearly signed Arroyo Burro Trail headed off to the left, while the more commonly used Jesusita Trail continued to the right. You will need to have the Ford map in hand to navigate some of the complicated ins-and-outs of this footpath. After almost a mile you exit onto paved North Ontare Road and ascend very steeply for over a half-mile (we never saw any cars: this is the gated San Roque Ranch enclave) — there are plenty of “Public Trail” signs — until you break back onto dirt road, then the actual trail.
The tough part starts shortly after you go up and around so-called “Autograph Rock,” with its ugly modern graffiti, and continue ascending sharply. You are entering a very rugged and desolate front-side zone razed by the disastrous 2009 Jesusita Fire. Some of the big oaks have regenerated from the fire, but generally the trail gets very messed up, with small rockslides, and the new-growth hard chaparrals crowd you as the path disintegrates beneath your feet. It was clear that the wonderful trail volunteers have managed to keep this trail open, but it is heavily brushed over and quite cumbersome to shoulder through this section. I strongly recommend heavy clothing: long-sleeved shirt, long pants or gaiters, gloves, heavy wide-brim hat, two hiking poles, and plenty of water.
The 1.4 miles from pink-and-white Autograph Rock to the easternmost fork of San Antonio Creek contained the discouraging and thorny traverse — a burnt branch cut my nose here! — but when you drop into the lovely creek, the trail morphs into something like Rattlesnake Canyon as the Jesusita Fire damage ends. San Antonio Creek is currently dry.
From here it’s another 2.5 very steep miles to the East Camino Cielo — I was exhausted, and very grateful that the day turned out to be cloudy and cool along the front side of our local coastal range. Don’t tackle this monster in hot summer months, for sure.
There were several “Private Property” signs on the alder trees in the shady creek bed, reminding us that further below, it’s all private property. We saw very little animal life, although there were many piles of fresh bear scat. So plenty of life was around us, but our blunderings likely scared it off.
This particular trail involves real toil, a 2,000+ foot ascent, and presents a very challenging workout while offering enormous solitude and true joy. Franko and I met exactly one person during the whole eight-hour experience (and luckily no mountain bikers).
While we adore gazing south toward our wonderful ocean, too often we postpone driving or biking to a nearby trailhead in order to plunge into the front country. I live on Santa Barbara’s Westside, and it took less than 12 minutes to drive to the Jesusita Trailhead!
Dr. Crichton notes that the 18th-century German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder had the idea that each of us has an original way of being human, of finding “the good life” for ourselves. And Crichton stresses that in the current miasma of soft oppression, “There is a lot less scope for self-determination than is generally recognized.” Jump off the couch, shut the computer down, and turn away from our endlessly seductive sea. There’s a natural paradise less than a 15-minute drive away, it’s free, and you could easily make it a part of your active “good life.”