The Magical World of Arroyo Hondo

A Little-Known Santa Barbara Nature Preserve with an Amazing Abundance of Wildlife

Lorquin's Admiral | Credit: Sally Isaacson Photos

For the last 10 years, I have spent many hours at this lovely nature preserve, and, every time I visit, I see something new and interesting.

Water is always running in the Arroyo Hondo Creek. In summer, the stream is reduced to pools that provide refuges for many special aquatic species and supply life-giving water for land animals that travel from all around. Since the big February rain, water is again rushing all the way down from the mountains to the Pacific.

Lining the stream are huge western sycamore trees that change with the seasons — with bright green leaves in spring providing shade in summer, glowing gold in the autumn light, and, when leafless in winter, showing off their exquisite branching patterns and jigsaw-puzzle bark.

When it rains, it is possible to see rare newts start to move around, and, later in spring, the pools are filled with them. Masses of males compete for each single female. Egg masses are attached to submerged sticks, and, later, tiny gill-breathing newt larvae emerge.

In a big pool, far up the stream, you may watch for a while, and then suddenly, a full-grown newt, now breathing with lungs, paddles to the surface, gulps air, and swims back down to the bottom. Newts have few predators as they have toxic skin, and their orange-brown color warns that they are not good to eat.

In the same pool, there are small trout that may be rainbows or steelhead. With enough water, they swim to the ocean, where they feed for a few years. Later they return to fresh water and are much larger and more silvery in color. These big fish lay eggs in the gravel of the streambed. Some of the next generation will live their whole life in the stream while others will travel to the ocean.

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Pacific pond turtles, like California newts and southern steelhead, are quite rare, and they also are found along Arroyo Hondo Creek. Pond turtles nest on land, and, in April, the young turtles make their first visits to the creek.

The canyon is home to many shy mammals, including bears, bobcats, foxes, and mountain lions. We see their scat and paw prints on the trails, but these creatures are rarely seen in daylight. Mule deer are often seen, however, and last spring, three does each had twins. It was a joy to watch them as they silently followed their mothers … and to see a big buck with huge, branching antlers, who might have been the father.

One early morning, I saw a skunk busily rooting in the meadow. I thought this animal quite beautiful as it moved among the grasses with its bold black and white stripes and its feathery tail held high. 

Another time, I had a close encounter with a young bear. Chocolate brown, with perfect fur, not sun-bleached like an older bear might be. It was frightened; it stood up on its hind legs and dived quickly into the bushes. I did not have time for fear, just time to wish I had my camera.

This canyon is home to many snakes. Ring-necked snakes are little gray snakes with faint orange neck bands … uninteresting until they coil up and display their bright orange undersides in fright. They have some venom, but only enough to affect small prey.

Kingsnakes have bold stripes, but they easily get lost in patches of sun and shade. The first time I saw a mountain kingsnake with red, black, and cream stripes, I was in awe. The next time I saw one, I picked it up to show to some kids. It bit me and would not let go … the children were in awe, not of the snake, but of my blood!

Rattlesnakes are exquisite too: distinctly patterned young ones and big black old ones. It is said that for every rattler you see, there may be nine more in animal burrows underground!

Arroyo Hondo is a great birdwatching place. Last spring, a pair of kestrels hatched chicks in a nest near the barn, and wrens built their nest in a sycamore cavity nearby. Noisy clown-faced acorn woodpeckers, as well as Nuttall’s woodpeckers with distinctive striped backs, are common. We see flickers, gorgeous birds, especially when they fly and expose their flame-colored feathers. Sapsuckers come here too, as we know from the rows of wells they have drilled in certain trees. Red-tailed hawks build big stick nests up in the rocks, and peregrine falcons are thought to nest much higher, farther back in the canyon. 

Hundreds of interesting plants grow here. There are huge old bay, sycamore, and coast live oak trees with scars that prove they have withstood wildfires, as well as alders, willows, cottonwoods, and big-leaf maples along the stream. In the chaparral and coastal sage scrub, a wide variety of tough, drought-adapted shrubs grow.

Instead of showy carpets of wildflowers, you can see different species blooming in all the months. A variety of red, tubular-shaped flowers that attract hummingbirds supply nectar for the tiny birds for much of the year. Different plants in the sunflower family provide good landing places for delicate winged visitors, especially butterflies.

Butterflies are plentiful, too. Monarchs have warning colors of orange and black … birds avoid them as they contain toxins from the milkweed plants they ate as caterpillars. Buckeye butterflies with lovely eye spots accented with bright colors land in the meadow. Beautiful Lorquin’s admirals are often seen near the creek, and yellow and black swallowtails float gracefully through the air, sometimes settling to “puddle” near water as they collect nutrients from the mud.

Come to Arroyo Hondo Preserve — it is a wonderful place to wander and wonder in nature. 

411 | Owned and managed by the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, Arroyo Hondo Preserve is open for hiking, by reservation only, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and two weekends each month. Visitor numbers are limited to allow social distancing. Families may want to follow the self-guided educational nature trail. For more information, to make reservations, and to download the nature trail guide, visit

Sally Isaacson, a lifelong educator and naturalist, is the education coordinator at Arroyo Hondo Preserve.

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