Hot Springs Go Public

Tomorrow at 1:30PM the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County will host a “Handing over the Deed,” the final step in the Trust’s conveyance of 422 acres of land in Hot Springs Canyon to the Los Padres Forest. The Land Trust purchased 462 acres from its long-time private owners, the McCaslin Family, last March. The ceremony will be held at the Upper Montecito Village Green, with plenty of dignitaries on hand to honor the occasion.

Though much of the upper canyon and access to the hot springs has been available to the public informally the importance of the transfer of the bulk of the ranch to Forest Service ownership cannot be overstated. Not only does this provide additional public access to trails in the area but it ensures the hot springs themselves will be protected through a combination of Forest Service, Land Trust and local community stewardship. Though undeveloped for the past half century, until tomorrow’s transfer of ownership there was no guarantee that it might not be developed once again.

A Colorful History

When Wilbur Curtiss came to Santa Barbara in the 1850s he was suffering from an incurable disease and doctors had given him only six months to live. Having lost his health in the mines, he was determined to spend his remaining days enjoying the scenery and wonderful climate in the Montecito hills. But he, too, would find an attraction in the mountain wall.

Hot Springs Hotel served rich Montecito clients and guests from around the U.S.

Secret to a Healthy Life

One day while hiking in the foothills he noticed an old Indian, bathing in Hot Springs Creek, who seemed to be in remarkable health. An Indian boy who accompanied Curtiss on his daily excursions explained that the secret behind the old man’s lengthy years, which totaled 110, was his bathing in some hot springs, which flowed from the base of a sandstone cliff further up the canyon. After several hours of climbing, Curtiss reached the springs.

There were four of these thermal pools, each heated to 116 degrees, and containing a foul-smelling sulfur, as well as arsenic, iron, magnesium, and other minerals. He soaked himself in the soothing water, apparently even drinking from one of the pools. Perhaps the hot springs had nothing to do with it, but after repeated visits to them his health began to improve remarkably, enough so that six years later, still alive and doing well, Wilbur Curtiss filed a homestead claim for this part of Hot Springs Canyon.

Hot Springs Developed

Slowly the site evolved as a resort. First, a rustic camp was built and then more permanent tents were added. The springs proved to be so popular a hut was added and eventually a cottage was constructed not far from the miraculous pools. In 1873 the Santa Barbara Morning Press announced that a magnificent hotel costing $100,000 would be built at the mouth of the hot springs to accommodate the tourists flocking to the area.

Access to the front country trails was by carriage or horseback.

One writer boasted, “Many a rheumatic and neuralgic cripple has left his crutches here as a momento to the healing touches of the waters, and gone down from the rocky mountain glen out into the gay world, shouting praises to the boiling fountain which has invested him with new life.”

By 1877 there was a large plunge, a shower, and three bath houses, each containing large tubs-enough in all to handle forty people. In the early 1880s the three-story wooden hotel was finally completed on a bench above the springs. The rate for staying at the hotel was $2 per day or the sum of $10 per week and included bathing in the hot spring water. There was a library, a well-stocked wine cellar and even a billiards room. Hiking, of course, was a popular pastime as well.

Wealthy Newcomers Take Over

By this time Curtiss’s original homestead had become the property of a number of wealthy Montecito newcomers and the private club ritzy enough that anyone with a bank account containing less than seven digits was not considered substantial enough to apply for membership.

In 1920, a forest fire destroyed the hotel and most of the vegetation in the canyon. It was rebuilt in 1923, but this time under the ownership of a corporation that contained but 17 members, all Montecito residents, who also controlled the Montecito Water Company. It is said that the members, when they wanted to partake of the hot baths, would simply call the caretaker and request that a bath be drawn, so that when they and their guests would arrive, the steaming water would be ready for them to slip into.

This structure stood until 1964 when it was destroyed in the Coyote Fire. For many years anyone who wanted to head up for a dip in the pools could do so and I have done this on many an occasion.

Recreational Opportunities Develop

Local college students pose at Lover's Knoll on the Saddle Rock Trail.
Ray Ford

Aside from maintaining the existing water rights, after the 1960s the McCaslin Family did little to develop their 462 acre holdings, other than gating the road leading up to the hot springs and posting “No Trespassing” signs, more out of fears that the land might become public through the process of “adverse possession” than a desire to keep the public from traveling through the ranch.

Over the years a number of trails developed thanks to the generous donation of easements and the availability of the power line jeep roads for additional access. Today the nearby routes include the McMenemy Trail which traverses east to San Ysidro Canyon, the Saddle Rock Trail which follows the east Hot Springs ridgeline around the main canyon and up to the powerlines and the Girard Trail, constructed in the 1990s thanks to the efforts of Bud Girard and the Montecito Trails Foundation.


View down on the McMenemy Trail from the ridge.
Ray Ford

Starting Point: The parking area is .2 miles west on Mountain Drive from Hot Springs Road. Length: Varies from a mile to 4+ miles depending on which of the intersecting trails you take. Numerous loop possibilities. Gain: 200’ to start of the Saddle Rock Trail; 750’ to the powerlines. Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous. Saddle Rock Trail is steep! Path: Combinations of native soil tread, some pavement and jeep road and rocky tread. Season: All year; jeep roads may be muddy after any measurable amount of rain. Use: Multiuse. Saddle Rock Trail not passable for equestrians.

Please Note: Parking area is small, 10 vehicles max. Very limited parking on Mountain Drive. Overflow parking is available on Riven Rock Lane. No equestrian parking available.

Hot Springs Trail. The main trail leads up a small creek and the edges of a number of private mansions, among them one owned by well-known actor Jeff Bridges, into the upper canyon. The adventures begin once you pass these and head up the narrow jeep road into the upper canyon. At the point where it appears the road ends the main trail turns right, crosses Hot Spring Creek and heads up towards the McMenemy and Saddle Rock Trails. Thanks to the transfer of ownership, now one can also head directly up the creek and follow it all the way up to the hot springs.

Trail runner enjoying the newly-opened Creekside Trail
Ray Ford

Creekside Trail. Just before crossing the creek on the way to the McMenemy Trail look for a new trail sign and route heading straight up the west side of Hot Springs Creek. You’ll find a well-shaded trail leading under an umbrella of oak and sycamore trees, fairly mellow at the bottom end and a number of steeper sections towards the top. There are a number of spots the water is flowing even now, which is great if you bring your dog and the shade is definitely welcome. Plus it is a great way to reach the springs without following the jeep road up and you can continue east on the powerline road to the top of Saddle Rock for the short loop back down or continue east to the Girard Trail to make a much longer loop.

McMenemy Trail. Cross the creek and wander a bit up the canyon to the start of the trail. This will lead you up to the Saddle Rock Trail or a mile+ to the Girard Trail and the potential of looping back and over to the hot springs area.

Enlarged Google Earth map of Hot Springs Canyon shows the trails network including the new Creekside Trail.

Saddle Rock Trail. For those who are into steep power walks or love the sandstone outcroppings you’ll find along the way, the Saddle Rock Trail is hard core all the way. Near the top you’ll find Lover’s Knoll and a beautiful heart shaped arrangement made from nearby sandstone rocks and the perfect place to enjoy the sunset. At the top you can loop back via the hot springs or head east over to the Girard Trail for one of our area’s great loop hikes.

Hot Springs Trail. The straight forward route up the canyon is via the jeep road. Rather than turning onto the McMenemy Trail, cut around the gate and continue up the road. After a half mile or so of climbing the road levels out. Take the right fork where the road splits by the Land Trust sign to reach the hot springs. The left split leads to Cold Springs Canyon. You might also note that just across from the hot springs a relatively poorly maintained trail leads west up to the upper Cold Spring Trail. With a car shuttle you might even consider taking that once it is improved over into Cold Springs for a really extended experience.


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