Some of my first and best memories include my little sister and I scrambling over rocks and streams on one of our many trips to different forests and deserts. My father – a marine biologist and botanist – would drag our entire family on camping trips every summer, torture only compounded by the eight-plus hours spent in the car on the way there.

My parents love to tell the story of my sister and I racing our bikes down a trail in Yosemite, shouting at each other as we went. Thinking we were fighting, my parents sped up; they were pleasantly surprised to find, when they caught us, that we were calling out the names of the different flowers which dotted the trail.

Since that time, we’ve both grown up and probably only remember one or two of those flowers. Neither my sister nor I hike regularly anymore. But after four years of living in Santa Barbara, with the prospect of graduation approaching, I often find myself stealing glances at the mountains that dot our horizon and wondering what’s hidden up there.

I know my sister and I were lucky to have a father whose love and appreciation of the outdoors was infectious, but the lessons we were taught are by no means limited to any particular age group or personality type. Even the most “indoor” type of person will be rejuvenated by a little walk, some fresh air and sunshine. There are hundreds of different walks and hikes in Santa Barbara County and beyond, for all different age groups, fitness levels and interests.

Finding Your Ground

There are three ways to find different trails and hikes. First, you can just go and discover them. This takes a lot of time, energy and patience, and a basic knowledge of the area surrounding you. It can also be dangerous and possibly illegal.

Second, you can have someone show you. This is my favorite way – it’s easiest, and you will inevitably end up learning something from whoever is helping you out, from a great shortcut to their favorite place to sit. (Beware, however, of those people who want to explain how to get there – usually you’ll get difficult, vague directions).

Third, you can buy a book. Due to a general lack of connections in this town, I opted for Santa Barbara Day Hikes, by Raymond Ford Jr., It is a great resource for people of all interests and abilities. Ford also created and maintains a website,, which, along with featured spots and a great photo library, also offers updated weather reports and news about different trails.

If you’re hiking in Los Padres National Forest (which covers virtually all of the wilderness area, barring beaches, in Santa Barbara County) you’ll need an adventure pass to park. They cost $5 for a day or $30 for a year. (There are a few hikes, like Seven Falls, where you don’t technically park on National Forest land, in which case, just make sure to park legally). There are vendors all over Santa Barbara, or you can send for one from the USDA Forest Service ( The closest place to Isla Vista to buy one is Dodge City, at 4020 Calle Real.

One of the most important things to remember is to stay confident, no matter what your fitness level. Start out on short, easy hikes – don’t be scared, push yourself, but make sure to be safe. Always bring plenty of water, and research the area you’re going to before you get there. Also, make sure you check all weather reports and trail updates.

Beach Walks

When you live in a place where the ocean is your front yard, it’s pretty easy to take it for granted. Beach walks are a great, manageable and easy way to break into hiking, and offer some unexpected rewards – on a short walk to Campus Point the other day, my companions and I were pleasantly surprised to spot some dolphins swimming parallel to the surfline.

If you live in Isla Vista or Goleta, a gorgeous beach walk is right there – just take an hour at sunset to walk around Coal Oil Point to Sands, or head the other direction to Goleta Pier. If you feel like a bit more of a workout, don’t stop at Sands – the Ellwood Bluffs, and further up, Haskell’s Beach, are beautiful and less crowded than I.V. In the spring, don’t miss the gorgeous monarch butterfly grove on the Ellwood Bluffs (don’t drive; you’d only cheat yourself.)

A little further north, around the Refugio turnoff of the 101, there are miles of beautiful beaches to explore. Pack a picnic and make a day of it – there are about 12 miles of open area from Gaviota State Park to Refugio State Park.

Heading south, explore everywhere from the Stearns Wharf to Santa Claus Lane to Rincon – don’t forget to look for tidepools and other surprises on all of these walks.

Easy Hikes

There are a some things all Santa Barbara locals know about – Knapp’s Castle, and Lizard’s Mouth, to name a few. What most people new to the area don’t know is how easy it is to get to these places, even if you haven’t worked out in months.

Knapp’s Castle is one of those South Coast legends you have to see to believe. I was lucky enough to “find” it late one night freshman year, when a local friend ordered a few people into a car. After a windy and foggy drive up San Marcos Pass to East Camino Cielo, we arrived at a locked Forest Service gate that warned against trespassing (the sign is still there, and although the area is private property, the trail is supposed to be legal). After hopping through the fence, we walked about three-quarters of a mile and arrived at the strikingly beautiful ruins. Overlooking the San Ynez Valley, Knapp’s Castle offers a gorgeous view at any time of day or night.

Lizard’s Mouth is another must-see, especially considering how easy it is to get to – turn left off Highway 154 at West Camino Cielo and drive approximately three and a half miles – if you get to the Winchester Gun Club, you already passed it. You’ll see the trail on the left, and it’s only a 10-minute walk to the rock croppings that make this vista famous. This is an especially great place to watch a sunset, and is easy to take dogs and kids to.

And More…

There are tons of other, more hikes to check out in Santa Barbara County – Seven Falls, which is only about a mile and a half each way, is well known and beautiful, as is Red Rock, although both can be a bit unrewarding if there’s no water in the creeks. (Both are relatively easy.) Inspiration Point, near Tunnel Trail, is a little bit further, about four miles each way, but worth the walk for the view. The Rock Garden, named and coined as “hardcore” by Ford, is another one (of many) to check out if you’re down for a climb. (For directions, check out the Santa Barbara Outdoors website.)

No matter what you’re looking for, you’re bound to find it – Los Padres National Forest and Santa Barbara County are both large enough to offer something for everyone.