Not every Santa Barbaran realizes that Gaviota State Park includes almost 2,700 acres inland from the better-known Gaviota State Beach with the high train trestle.
Or remember that Gaviota Hot Springs and pools sit alongside a half-mile trail shortcut to the summit.
There are several compelling “lookout” perches along the Gaviota Peak fire road, and at Gaviota Peak the determined hiker enjoys unimpeded 360 degree vistas of ocean, islands, and the Santa Ynez Mountains.
When trudging up the old fire road, you realize that without the dirt track you would never be able to scramble straight up through the vast masses of overgrown hard chaparral crowding in on both sides: chamise, ceanothus, scrub oak, flat leaf summer holly and more.
This area hasn’t burned fully since the 1955 Refugio Fire, leaving a huge accumulation of flora, and day hikers should be glad the fire road has been maintained, since without this “manipulation,” access to Gaviota Peak would be impenetrable.
Novelist John Fowles, author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Magus, found renewal in observing the wild from his English garden, and called our remaining wildernesses “the refuge of the unconscious.”
Which is why I recommend undertaking this 6-mile round-trip day hike solo, or with a companion who agrees not to chatter, so you can immerse fully in the quiet, soak up the hot springs’ bubbling aura, and appreciate the splendid views from the ridge and from Gaviota Peak itself.
After your 33.5 mile drive north on Highway 101 to the inland state park (see Driving Directions), you park and read the signs; bring two one-dollar bills to place in the small envelope at “Self Registration.”
Please note that dogs are not permitted.
The entire path is steeply uphill, and you achieve a wonderful workout by climbing 2,100 feet to the rounded summit without pausing.
I began walking at 8 a.m. in early August, and the day luckily was temperate with some marine layer.
After a few hundred yards, you see the essential, gray, trail signand bear left (north) to “Gaviota Peak.” Note that the hot springs is just .3 miles ahead, not 3 miles.
At the huge sycamore a few hundred yards up ahead, take the actual footpath going straight ahead to the hot springs; this is unmarked except for the stark initials “B+D” mutilating the trunk.
The path here is twisty and overgrown, with plenty of warm water squirting downhill from Hot Springs Creek, and you can smell the rotten-egg stench of the sulfur.
The Depression-era cement baths constructed at Gaviota Hot Springs have a non-native palm towering above the deep blue waters, which are just warm and not really “hot” at all.
The main, and warmer, pool stands a bit higher up the ravine, and you can readily see the sulfur bubbles emanating from the earth through the water.
I have to make my hike a half-day event, and thus don’t have time to bathe (no one present), and cold winter mornings are really the best time for enjoying these warm springs
Hiking on upward and bearing generally left on the narrow Hot Springs Trail “connector,” about 10 minutes past the pools, you rejoin the Gaviota Peak fire road, and thereby avoid some extra road hiking.
From here it’s a straight trudge right up to the 2,000 foot ridgeline; bring plenty of water, wide-brim hat, sunscreen, and watch out for rattlesakes and mountain lion.
You see a beaten-up “Los Padres National Forest” trail sign indicating you have entered LPNF, but nothing changes along the freshly-scraped road with the high chaparral walls crowding in on both sides.
The views toward Lompoc and Vandenberg along Highway 1 rise up spectacularly to the west, and you can also pick out the Vista De Las Cruces elementary school on San Julian Road with its red tile roofs.
The predecessor of Vista De Las Cruces School was the beautiful “Vista del Mar School,” which was abandoned in 1986 due to oil pollution in the soil and construction of the nearby gas plant.
Built in 1927, these charming buildings now house the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute.
From the summit you gain captivating views of four of the Channel Islands and the entire Gaviota coast down to Goleta and Santa Barbara. To the north, there are the jagged Santa Ynez Mountains, and northeast looms our county’s highest peak, 6,820 foot Big Pine Mountain.
Due to the haze I was not able to capture clear photographs on August 4.
Gaviota Peak and the area on the Highway 1 and Highway 101 north of the tunnel were not burned in the 2004 Gaviota fire, but you can still see some of the damage from the summit, and this reminds us of the ways that humans control and shape our shared natural environment.
Observing the last of the cleanup work from the nasty Refugio State Beach oil spill reminds us that a fine school, used since 1927, had to be abandoned 30 years ago due to the Chevron Oil Corporation’s pollution of the land beneath the historic campus.
Naturalist Barry Lopez notes that “we live at a time in which it is hard to find an unmanipulated landscape.”
While grateful for the Forest Service road that leads the hiker up to Gaviota Peak, and to the Anthropocene for the fuel used driving Highway 101, one notes the oil developments and degradation encroaching along the once-pristine Gaviota coast.
Gaviota Peak Day Hike 4-1-1:
Hike: Moderate-to-strenuous day hike with 2,100-foot elevation gain over first 3 miles.
Distance: 6.1 mile round trip
Driving directions: Head north on Highway 101 past the state beaches; about 2 miles past the Gaviota Tunnel, take the Highway 1 offramp. At the stop sign at the end of this offramp, turn sharply right and then right again and drive “back” on the frontage road about one mile to the parking area for inland Gaviota State Park. Bring two one-dollar bills for the envelope.
— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. 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.