Santa Barbara's diverse habitats make for some interesting hikes. With the Santa Ynez Mountains virtually descending into the ocean and the Channel Islands National Park an hour's boat ride away, you can disappear into a wealth of ecosystems teeming with freshwater springs, riparian corridors, and majestic sand dunes. Here are three hikes you'll never forget. (Be sure to bring plenty of water, sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, lunch, and a camera.)
Cold Springs West Fork
Just less than two miles in length, this short but gradually steep hike leads to the best front-country waterfall in the county. The 200-foot high cascade spills over smooth sandstone into a shallow pool with terrific views of the canyon, ocean, and Santa Cruz Island.
Getting There: Once in Montecito, take Coast Village Road to Sycamore Canyon Road to Cold Springs Road. Turn left and drive past Westmont College to Mountain Drive. Turn right and drive until you cross the Cold Springs Creek and then park.
The Approach: Take the trail on your left until you reach the park bench. Cross the creek and head up the left side of the tunnel following old pipes along the way. The nice part about this hike is most of it is in the shade, a canopy of sycamore, alders, and California bay trees hovering above the trail. Continue along the trail until you see a small Santa Barbara Land Trust sign on your left. Shortly thereafter, take the right fork descending into a typically dry creek bed. Use the bay tree root system to hoist yourself up the trail, and use more old pipes to guide you along the trail. There's a series of pools and small waterfalls before eventually reaching the towering falls that open up to the sun. It is possible to scramble up both sides of the falls if you don't mind a little exposure, and the views are worth it.
Santa Maria River Mouth to Mussel Rock
It's 2.5 miles from the river mouth south to Mussel Rock along the most intact dune ecosystem along the West Coast of the United States. Steep, 500-foot high sand dunes can't be missed at the end of this hike.
Getting There: Take Highway 101 north and exit at Los Alamos. Drive through town and the road turns into Highway 135. Follow it through rural countryside until you reach the cemetery in Guadalupe. Turn left and follow the road to the ocean on the left side of the Santa Maria River Mouth. This is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuge.
The Approach: Although flat, this hike is in soft sand. You can choose to stay on the beach to Mussel Rock, but I suggest traversing the mystical dunes to climb above Mussel Rock, with views of the Central Coast and Point Sal, north and south. The traverse is steep but it's worth it. The dunes are beautiful, always evolving, and a natural wonder. Fish hook dunes, sweeping crests, and windswept ridges make this region of Santa Barbara's North County a work of art. Time your hike for dawn or late in the afternoon.
Lobo Canyon, Santa Rosa Island
This is arguably the best hike at the Channel Islands National Park. From the pier at Bechers Bay, it's nine miles roundtrip to Lobo Canyon. Grab a detailed map provided by the National Park Service at the end of the pier.
Getting There: Catch an Island Packers boat out of the Ventura Harbor. It's a two-hour boat ride to Bechers Bay. You'll be met by a park ranger going over the dos and don'ts on the islet. You'll have to camp for three days on the island in order to go on this hike, but it's well worth it. Call Island Packers at 642-1393 or visit islandpackers.com; National Park Service reservations can be made at (800) 365-2267.
The Approach: Begin your hike in the morning, passing by the historic Vail & Vickers Ranch. Take the Smith Highway across rolling hills along an old cattle road. You'll go through an iron gate and then descend into picturesque Lobo Canyon. This is a great example of a riparian canyon on the islands. It starts out in beautiful endemic island oak trees along a year-round spring. Eventually the canyon broadens into water- and wind-sculpted sandstone cliffs before spilling onto a secluded, sandy cove. Island flora abounds in the canyon and Pacific Tree Frogs can be found in the stands of cattails in the shallow pools.