Sometimes the things that are easiest to see are the easiest to miss. Take the Arroyo Hondo Preserve, a 782-acre park sprawling alongside the US 101 North. The preserve protects a beautiful riparian canyon plainly visible from the road but somehow hidden from most eyes. Those who book a reservation to venture down its unassuming driveway will be greeted with beautiful oceanside meadows and mountain scenes steeped in human history.
The Arroyo Hondo Preserve offers a wide number of hikes, from easy streamside strolls to tough uphill climbs. One of the most challenging hikes, the Outlaw Trail, allows one to see it all from relatively unseen vantage points. The easier lower half of the hike brings visitors to a hillside picnic site looking upon the canyon’s jutting sandstone, and the upper half rises steeply to a boulder seat with sweeping views of the coast.
The hike begins at the preserve parking lot and passes through Hollister Meadow, a calming green expanse situated along the creek. The grassy esplanade is a centerpiece of quiet in a canyon that has seen many different human histories play across its paths. The Barbareño Chumash once occupied the lower reaches of Arroyo Hondo canyon, where they lived for thousands of years in the village of Tuxmu until change sailed ashore. More recently, in 1827, the land fell under the possession of the Ortega family, and remains of their adobe home still stand. The padres of the Santa Inez Mission used Arroyo Hondo as a vineyard, and the vines still snake around sycamores to this day.
In time, road and rail ran across the ravine, bringing more people, not all of them well-behaved. The Outlaw Trail takes its name from these colorful characters, among them the murderous highway robber Jack Powers, the “Mexican Robin Hood” Joaquin Murrieta, and the framed Edward McGowan, all of whom took refuge amongst the sheltering sandstone. The real criminal here nowadays is the sun, which can betray you on this mostly shadeless trail. Even the Lower Outlaw Trail, which is otherwise a fairly easy walk, can be unexpectedly hot as it passes the oaken fringes of the meadow — bring a hat.
Hikers can end here with a pleasant picnic, or continue upward for another mile or so. The Upper Outlaw Trail ascends quickly, and for a moment along the sunned-out switchbacks, you may wonder why you left the comforts of the canyon below. It’s a tougher climb than Inspiration Point, challenging you with a steeper incline over a shorter distance, but it rewards with equally beautiful views and far fewer people. From atop a speckled sandstone boulder, you can admire the dramatic rocky ridges ribbing the foothills and witness humpbacks cresting in the mighty blue below. You can also see the neighboring Tajiguas Landfill, a perfect vista to ponder our ever-evolving place on this crowded coast.
Fortunately, crowds are few at Arroyo Hondo, a place requiring reservations to be seen. The preserve is open the first and third weekends of the month for the public, and on Mondays and Wednesdays for school and community groups; visitors must call (805) 567-1115 before embarking. The little bit of advance planning is worth it to see a place you may have seen many times before but never noticed. Once you see it, you’ll seize any chance to see it again.