La Cumbre Peak is an enticing Santa Barbara front-country destination, but the hike is difficult and demands proper preparation. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Late last month, two day-hikers were rescued on the front-side slopes of our local coastal range somewhere below La Cumbre Peak and around Cathedral Peak.

I’ve been keeping up with reports about close calls and unfortunate accidents on Santa Barbara’s enchanting front-country mountains since the 1970s: We can avoid mistakes by examining how other hikers managed this or that hike and easy scrambling.

Adequate preparation, appropriate equipment, physical fitness and time of year all figure into making exciting front-country hikes safe.

As Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Kelly Hoover reported in Noozhawk, two Lompoc residents chose to begin this day hike and rigorous “scramble” around 4 p.m. on Aug. 26.

Hoover said the hikers called 9-1-1 around 9:30 p.m., and by 11 p.m. the county’s volunteer Search & Rescue Team (SBCSAR), with 10 members searching in the upper Mission Canyon area, had pinpointed the lost hikers’ position.

With rescuers rappelling down nearly vertical rock faces, and certainly taking some risks since it was dark, the two hikers were safely escorted down to their car.

Thoughtful commenter “awakealready” wrote on the thread below Hoover’s report, “This (La Cumbre Peak scramble) is the trickiest hike around here,” and I heartily confirm this assessment.

I’ve made this demanding day hike four or five times, and each ascent was somewhat of a nightmare. There are moments of nagging indecision about the trail ahead … and yet, all the while, turning your gaze away from the steep rock face you always win stunning views of sea and white surf and the riveting Channel Islands’ silhouettes in the distance.

A quick look at Raymond Ford’s Santa Barbara Front Country Map shows only two paths up to La Cumbre via 3,250-foot Arlington Peak, and both have his most negative color: the dreaded “Off-Trail Route.”

There may be 10 or 50 ways “up the mountain,” just as there are many paths to nirvana, but every one requires bushwhacking and “scrambling” around.

Each time I’ve tackled it, an experienced climber-friend joined me, and with a twosome, spotting makes clambering easier and safer. We’ve been stumped as long as an hour up on these deceptive “near-trails,” but we realize the guessing and trial-and-error parts are the best portions.

The La Cumbre Peak day hike is not a technical climb, and aside from wearing gloves and long trousers, the aspirant needs no special climbing gear.

The views of the ocean and Channel Islands are spectacular along Santa Barbara front-country trails, but proper preparation and caution are needed to ensure a safe trek.

The views of the ocean and Channel Islands are spectacular along Santa Barbara front-country trails, but proper preparation and caution are needed to ensure a safe trek. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

However, there are significant sections, after you clamber up the long “Dragon’s Back” above Seven Falls to Arlington Peak, where you crawl on all-fours, quite literally scrambling up or down or sideways, often avoiding spikey hard chaparral.

It’s very difficult to imagine clambering around up there hours past sunset as the pair of lost hikers must have had to on their return down from La Cumbre Peak.

In his magnificent Trees in Paradise: A California History, Jared Farmer stresses a unique quality of several California wilderness areas: Many of them stand right next to densely populated urban areas.

This odd feature allows local Santa Barbarans and county hikers to exit their parked vehicles and almost immediately break into a genuine wilderness area.

With the false sense of security about your car’s proximity, and an over-reliance on a cell phone, some unsuspecting hikers “feel” much safer than they are. It’s part of a disaster recipe I’ve watched since the 1970s.

On March 17, 2014, a Ventura man died while trying to save his seriously injured friend while hiking on the lower stretches of our local Cold Spring Trail in Montecito. The woman eventually was found, but suffered two broken ankles and a broken wrist.

My point is that they were not more than two miles from their car on Mountain Drive; on the slippery path to Tangerine Falls their cell phones either were not functioning or they ran out of battery power.

It’s my contention that the nearness of “civilization” unconsciously added to this couple’s poor choice of time of day to begin their hike (departed 4 p.m.).

It was not easy for the 10 SBCSAR rescuers to be hiking and scrambling around in the dark around Cathedral and Arlington peaks. We’re very fortunate to have such a professional and excellent sheriff’s team available to help wayward hikers.

The two Lompoc day-hikers, however, also chose to set out on their off-trail day scramble late in the day (4 p.m. again).

I know that from Tunnel Road to La Cumbre Peak’s white fire lookout structure requires at least three hours just one way. My hiking friends and I budget a minimum six hours for the round trip.

With my battered knees, I have begun to “cheat” by pre-planting a car at the top, bike back around to Tunnel Road, and thus avoid the punishing and very difficult 2½-mile descent.

How can we learn from these misadventures — I’ve had plenty of my own but never required an actual SBCSAR rescue — and also have compassion for the sufferings of misguided hikers?

Our front-country mountains and backcountry creeks beckon us to wild hiking and scrambling adventures. Always take the kids if the planned trek isn’t too demanding.

I would not bring anyone under 13 on this hike.

But also check yourself and ask: “Is this one too demanding today for me?”

While I did not interview the two La Cumbre Peak hikers, from the report it’s obvious that a 4 p.m. start is foolish, no matter how fit or experienced you may be; sunset is about 7:25 p.m.

Late August, during one of our periodic heat waves, is also a poor time of year to undertake the deceptive and off-trail La Cumbre Peak scramble. Bringing the cell phone is smart, but reception in upper Mission Canyon is really spotty so the phone might be useless.

On long day trips like this one, with no water source on the way, carrying at least four liters of water is necessary. Some essential gear includes wide-brim hat and sunscreen, aforementioned gloves and long pants, long-sleeve shirt, medical bag, topo map, compass, GPS device as you choose, and cell phone (I don’t own one).

This is a tricky bushwhack, you’re deceptively close to town, yet the wilderness danger is real despite living in the Anthropocene.

Like any demanding outdoor hike, La Cumbre Peak should be tackled the first time with a sturdy companion who has already found “his” trail. Expect to feel lost part of the time, and enjoy the respite from your other urban civilized media-saturated existence.

Click here for additional hiking tips from the sheriff’s Search & Rescue Team.


» A Hiker’s Guide to the Santa Barbara Frontcountry by Raymond Ford (2011).

» Trees in Paradise: A California History by Jared Farmer (W.W. Norton, 2013)

— 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 Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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 He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at The opinions expressed are his own.