This 7-mile round-trip trek up Gaviota Peak’s ocean-facing Trespass Trail and back down on the old fire road required five hours of hard walking on Dec. 16.
Clear and bright, the cool temperatures made the steep, uphill hiking easier, and a light breeze cooled the sweat off my brow.
Enchanting vistas loom all around, with the long seascapes and lines of white foam conjoined with green-clad knolls and patches of coastal forest inland.
Mr. C and I, however, turned immediately inland and began the steep road from the state park’s parking area toward the renowned Gaviota Hot Springs (barely warm, actually).
In this one-third mile, we observed truly massive sycamore giants, huge live oaks and occasional valley oaks, all skirted by dense poison oak. Higher up, we noticed sturdy toyon bushes with their brilliant red and red-orange “berries.”
A legible trail sign points almost all day hikers left to Gaviota Peak via the hot springs, but we deliberately chose the longer way right because you also reach the peak from this direction, and can avoid some of the road. (I would avoid the Tunnel View or Underpass Trail side spurs unless you want more exercise.)
The road to the right ambles along and climbs, eventually passing through two open gates and finally turning into a narrow trail. As my hiking mate and I trudge along in the early morning cool, we separate by some hundreds of yards and each meander carelessly up the road, albeit breathing hard.
In the ancient times, when beliefs in animism undergirded pre-religion, even rocks and lakes and specific promontories were alive. Some of the topographic features I’ve been exploring for 40 years are indeed alive, or at least they lived as sentient beings in the minds of Stone Age people.
For some Australian aborigines, the living holy mountain is Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), which I’ve compared to our local Hurricane Deck, as Hindus view 21,000-foot Mount Kailash in Tibet as Shiva’s abode, and there’s a very long list of such global sites.
I’ve deliberately spent time at Mount Tabor (Israel), Mount Baldy (Zen Center) and Iwihinmu (Mount Pinos), and all around the Hurricane Deck formation not far from Santa Barbara.
The point is that people, whether calling themselves pilgrims or tourists or backpackers, feel attracted to these high places and journey there for several good reasons. In the old days, they went on foot or mounted, but the pilgrimage might have taken years.
This is my eighth or ninth journey around 2,450-foot Gaviota Peak, and we needed only about five hours for the round-trip, ending up back at the parking lot next to Highway 101 (see 4.1.1. directions).
On the way up, we saw a boulder field that reminded me of the Chumash cosmogony, whereby the original divine inhabitants of Hutash became sentient boulders.
As we climbed much higher, with some stretches of trail badly eroded and thus making my twin poles very handy, we came to the caves on the left side. (These are not the Gaviota wind caves visible from Highway 101 north just before the tunnel heading inland.)
The path here is particularly jagged, but runs right by the two main rock shelters. Three or even four people could easily rest there, as I did once decades ago in order to wait out a sudden rainstorm. It was cold, yet I could sit and it was still better than out in the brief deluge.
At the top, we met a young couple from Los Angeles who had eluded the COVID-19 nightmare there for a day of hiking above the South Coast.
They certainly felt like they’d escaped to a holy peak far from the sadly diseased Southland, and they just sat there in exhausted awe. We all kept our social distances, and then Mr. C and I checked out the booklets with years of sign-ins kept inside a sturdy and shiny metal can (placed there in 2003).
Later, the Latinx couple commented on the loss of commonly shared rituals in our postmodern society, including family hikes together and seeking out symbolic mountain high places.
South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes sympathetically about “The Disappearance of Rituals” in our postmodern world: “One of the gravest problems of our day is the lack of commitment to common symbols,” and he is not simply bemoaning the loss of old-time religion (p. 6, see 4.1.1. Books).
Han remarks that when the 19th century discovered “work” as the main thing in capitalism (Marx on “labor”), thus “play” became increasingly distrusted (except in children).
Han states, “Today, the world is not a theatre … but a market,” so now we have a culture of interiority — yet with little accompanying spiritual faith, even in the sanctity of “high places” such as Mount Baldy, Fuji-san or even Gaviota Peak.
Certainly, we lack cultural unity these days in America, where political elections are contested in ways last seen in 1876. The old motto on our coins, E Pluribus Unum, was once celebrated as “Unity in Diversity,” but today it’s often a complaint that there’s too much diversity in our unity!
When a land or nation truly unites for a historical “moment,” then those humans in that era often accomplish miraculous achievements. Think of the creation of the Salk polio vaccine in the early 1950s (no one had qualms about getting the shot then), the Manhattan Project during World War II, or today’s scientists finding COVID-19 vaccines.
In Craig Carey’s magisterial “Hiking Santa Barbara & Ventura,” which I termed a backcountry bible in the last column, he assumes hikers will take the dirt fire road all the way to the top (i.e., left at the first sign), thus a clockwise circumnavigation — and easier (6.1 miles).
He makes no mention of the Trespass Trail at all.
But the customary way also returns on the same fire road, and this gets tedious and life doesn’t work this way. Therefore, Mr. C and I deliberately chose the Trespass Trail route in order to make a spiritually more significant counter-clockwise circuit, and added about an extra mile.
Counter-clockwise runs against the grain and opts for a more convoluted trail and also gets one off the road for almost half the trek. On this path less traveled, one can circumambulate around petty urban/work thoughts; manage to ponder big ideas while focusing on each specific step taken; and you may even achieve a bird’s-eye vision of another reality as you discern San Miguel Island’s faint twin humps out to sea.
How about some prayers for the peaceful transference of political power in January (no specifics!)? Or rapid and fair distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine?
On your return down the fire road, you can stop in for a look at Gaviota Warm Springs, and obtain spectacular views of Vista del Mar School as well as Highway 1 running toward Lompoc.
Ralph Waldo Emerson also feared our species’ loss of “play” and the ability to roam free, stating, “Respect the child. Be not too much his parent. Trespass not on his solitude.”
In our hectic social world even during a pandemic, we shouldn’t “trespass” on our childlike spirit or suppress our juvenescent energies. We can find mountaintops and spiritual points to visit and oblige ourselves to head there.
This hike took five hours, and with the 35-minute drive from Santa Barbara to the trailhead for the Trespass Trail (and 35 minutes back), the whole experience is about six hours — all this for $2!
» Driving: Take Highway 101 north to the Highway 1 (Lompoc) turnoff. At the stop sign, turn sharply right to the signed Gaviota State Park (inland) parking. Fill out the envelope and pay $2 to the State of California (bring $1 bills). There were about 15 cars there on Dec. 16 at 2 p.m. Books: Byung-Chul Han, “The Disappearance of Rituals” (2020; orig. Vom Verschwinden der Rituale [2019, Ullstein]); C. Carey, “Hiking and Backpacking Santa Barbara & Ventura” (2012).
— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity and has written extensively about the local backcountry. His latest book, Autobiography in the Anthropocene, is available at Lulu.com. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.