On this hectic and over-populated planet, our industrial development has pushed the earth into a new geological era: the much-debated Anthropocene Age — the age of human dominance.
For Santa Barbarans who like to hike near home, the obvious local favorite is straight up and into the enchanting Rattlesnake Canyon Wilderness Area.
While the trail can be a bit crowded weekends, on any weekday or even after work at 5 p.m., there are only a few hardy souls rambling around up here in the oddly named “wilderness” in Rattlesnake Canyon.
After parking my truck in the ample lot at the city of Santa Barbara’s Skofield Park, I saunter up to Las Canoas Road and walk 150 yards to the rugged stone-built Stanwood Bridge.
The city’s San Rafael Canyon Wilderness Area begins here, and you can drop down onto the trail beneath the bridge on either side.
Sadly, there was no water flowing under the stone vault in mid-June, and as I happily trudged up the steep trail, I observed very dry vegetation and chaparral along with masses of bright red poison oak leaves.
However, from time to time as you ascend the rough road portion, you can see down into the deep canyon and there are still pools of water, and sounds of water flowing in places.
About a mile up you near this amazing pool that harbors a variety of aquatic life.
Summer has come early to the canyon this year, and I see only remnant bunches of yellow monkey flower, although the young bay trees are very healthy and fragrant.
Rattlesnake Canyon Trail climbs about 2.5 miles up to almost 2,500 feet at Gibraltar Road, where the panting hiker turns around, and then slowly walks back down to Skofield Park.
If you want more, go out onto Gibraltar Road, hike up to the climbing rock, past Flores Flat, and finally you end up at La Cumbre Peak several miles ahead.
The 5-mile round-trip to Gibraltar Road and back performed three times a week will keep anyone in reasonable shape. It is a demanding workout amid beauty and semi-solitude; an early departure is best in summer’s heat.
The lesser hike runs 1.7 miles up to the beautiful “Tin Shack Meadow,” a slanting potrero that still has nice pools below it (quite a scramble down to the Creek through poison oak).
This short hike is ideal for children 4 and up. You will see the old iron sign with “Gibralter” [sic] at the top of the meadow where you face a Y — a left takes you up the very steep Tunnel Trail Connector over to Mission Canyon, a right with the sign leads you up to Gibraltar Road.
During four decades hiking the hypnotic Rattlesnake Canyon Trail, and down into the green riparian corridor, I’ve seen a dead horse right in the creekbed, deer, ticks galore, tarantulas (often in November), rattlesnakes, and a few scorpions.
I’ve witnessed crazed illegal mountain bikers, many school groups, and I’ve assisted two crashed para-gliders down to Skofield Park. I’ve also seen hundreds of families and children out enjoying the fabulous canyon with its vivid flora and flowing stream.
A fine resource for Rattlesnake Canyon life is Karen Telleen-Lawton’s 2006 book: “Canyon Voices – the Nature of Rattlesnake Canyon.” Chapter I highlights my good friend, Santa Barbara naturalist Cathy Rose, and displays her detailed list of selected plants and birds found in the Canyon (pp. 14 – 15).
Telleen-Lawton accurately notes that “even the most casual visitor grasps that Rattlesnake Canyon is not wilderness,” and it hardly fits the 1964 federal Wilderness Act’s definition of wilderness as a zone “untrammeled by man.”
It’s just too easy to sneer a bit at Rattlesnake Canyon’s purported wilderness with St. Mary’s Seminary looming above, some early stretches of the trail fairly recently widened and hard-packed by Ray Ford, telephone wires overhead, scattered piles of dog feces (some bagged in plastic but never picked up), and the gnarly mountain bikers roaring down and further eroding the trail.
While the widened lower trail is easier now for the elderly and the disabled and school groups, the work has also made it more attractive for kamikaze mountain bikers. Bikes are illegal on the Rattlesnake Canyon Trail.
Rattlesnake Canyon is a magnificent resource for humans and horses and dogs from Santa Barbara. It’s hardly “wild” in the older, more romantic, “preservationist” version of pristine wilderness — the city should perhaps give it another designation.
Stanford Prof. Irus Braverman’s book, “Wild Life: the Institution of Nature,” (2015), makes the argument against clinging to a purist ideal, and states we should “in fact adopt an open-ended and creative interpretation of conservation laws.”
But while we need to adjust to this messy and polluted Age of the Anthropocene in which we find ourselves, we should still hold onto as much wildness as possible. Saving relatively wild places is critical and more reasonable.
Several preserved and ‘wilderness’ zones in San Francisco have been ruled dog-free due to the sensitive nature of the habitat (14 areas: http://www.ebparks.org/activities/dogs/faq#q2 ).
While a highly unpopular suggestion, the city of Santa Barbara might want to consider limiting dogs from entering Rattlesnake Canyon three days a week due to the significant masses of dog feces deposited there daily — despite many careful owners who always pick up, there are plenty who do not — and because the non-native canines upset the balance in this beautiful canyon.
Some owners apply a pesticide anti-tick powder on their dogs, and then they wallow in the precious Rattlesnake Canyon Creek water killing biota.
Take the “eastside” trail loop turnoff just before the “pine meadow” and avoid most of the horses and bikes and dogs. You know you’re on it when you see the old stone pool.
“After Preservation,” edited by Ben Minteer, directly tackles the question of “saving American nature in the age of humans,” and he states that “The Anthropocene has become an environmental Rorschach” test for us.
In a time with tremendous fossil fuel use, extraordinary human and canine population growth, intense urbanization, ocean acidification, species extinction and so on…we need to look at ways we can ensure the young and then their offspring can continue to enjoy semi-wilderness zones like Rattlesnake Canyon and our other frontside canyon trails.
How about banning bikes from a few more front-country trails? How about enforcing this ban? How about contemplating banning dogs at least a few days a week from the hard-hit Rattlesnake Canyon Wilderness Area and Trail?
(All the above mentioned books are available at Chaucer’s Bookstore, where I found them.)
Rattlesnake Canyon Hike 4-1-1
Hike: Moderate to strenuous day hike from the City of Santa Barbara’s Skofield Park (850 feet) to Tin Shack Meadow and then a steeper section up to Gibraltar Road.
Distance: 5-mile round trip.
Maps: Ray Ford, “A Hiker’s Guide to the Santa Barbara Front Country.”
Driving directions: It’s about 5 miles from Santa Barbara’s Westside to the parking lot at Skofield Park: Go up Mission Street, crossing State and passing the Santa Barbara Mission to Foothill Road and turn right. After 200 yards, turn left at the fire station and go up Mission Canyon past Tunnel Road to Las Canoas Road, then turn right and drive 1.5 miles to Skofield Park.
— 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 email@example.com. Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.