Captivating Cold Spring Trail in Montecito has been widely heralded as the premier Santa Barbara front country day hiking trail.
Your 1-percent-er LA high roller and partner overnight at the San Ysidro Ranch and local sources tell the healthy young financial managers that Rincon has the best surfing, Lucky’s the best food, and Cold Spring Trail offers the most spectacular hiking.
Hence, I’ve refrained from a column about Cold Spring Canyon and Trail because of the urban LA hordes and the sheer density of hikers there.
However, if you take the West Fork you will miss some of the crowd. Because this beautiful riparian corridor-canyon is not an official “wilderness area” (although in Los Padres National Forest), mountain bikes are also allowed as well as horses.
It’s less than 10 miles from my tiny Westside home to Mountain Drive at the Cold Spring Trail roadhead, above and east of Westmont College (see 4-1-1 Driving Directions below ), and I carefully park near the signs on the eastern side of the dry creek bed where it crosses Mountain Drive itself.
As you begin the steep trail on the east side of the creek, avoid taking the high “Ridge Trails”: stay with the main trail paralleling the channel.
We’re near the long-abandoned Mar Y Cel open space preserve, with the infamous Tea Gardens and Tea House, which is where the nasty 2008 Tea Fire began.
That conflagration burnt almost 2,000 acres, destroyed over 200 homes and injured 13 people. The Cold Spring West Fork Trail hiker will see some of the still-awful damage from the Tea House Fire along the uppermost reaches of this hike.
Striding into the well-signed Cold Spring Trail along the east side, you stay “down in” with the riparian green corridor of the watercourse, no matter that it’s dry now due to the four-year drought. The nature experience is awe-inspiring right at the outset when you amble beneath the over-arching limbs of majestic and graceful valley oaks.
On very hot days this hike offers deep shade and some protection from the harsh yang rays of solar energy. The profuse and densely packed oak boughs allow considerable undergrowth of soft chaparral plants and masses of poison oak, some leaves of which have already turned bright red.
Due to the September heat wave, it was crucial to start very early and carry plenty of water on Sept. 10. Thus, I found myself hiking along in deep shade beneath glorious boughs at 6:30 a.m., just about sunrise and none too early at all. Within 10 minutes sweat poured off the brow as I wielded my twin hiking poles.
Despite the overwhelming amounts of poison oak, shorts was the choice against the heat, as well as a long-sleeved shirt against the sun later in the day. I toted three liters of water, along with a small fanny pack containing medical kit, LED headlamp, Clif bar, and a few other sundries.
Wander along in the riparian corridor surrounded by oaks and bays and a few sycamores, and after a quarter-mile you see a single bench and the obvious trail sign with “WEST FORK COLD SPRINGS TRAIL,” each letter punched into the old iron.
It was early, so I had to use the camera’s flash for the picture you see of this posted sign. Follow this sign and cross the wide dry creek bed and now you’re on the West Fork Trail of Cold Spring Creek.
For about a half-mile you stroll along this very gently ascending path, marred only by the heavy pipes full of water being sent into Montecito (the sound is quite audible). You dismiss these bits of the Anthropocene Age, and absorb the intense natural beauty rampant on all sides, however arid.
You inevitably relax, and the hyper-intense urban hive mind-self shuts down, or at least slows somewhat. When trudging up the West Fork one usually can let go and simply allow the eyes and optic nerve to feast on the amazing vistas all about.
Consider turning the cell off when you leave your car, and do remember that the reception on the trail is spotty and not reliable. While I know many hikers enjoy hearing their fave music via headphones, I also eschew this electronic crutch in favor of hearing bird cries and squirrel screeches.
After an exciting half-mile walk you will notice an obvious trail turning off down into the creek bed itself; although there is no trail sign; this path to fabled Tangerine Falls is marked by two very large boulders.
Tangerine Falls is currently dry and it’s challenging to clamber around right down IN the stony watercourse itself. As I noted in my last column, a Ventura man died on the Tangerine Falls path while attempting to save his friend in March of 2014. I would have different gear and a competent trail buddy with me for a Tangerine hike.
Around 1.2 miles in, one encounters the only “monument” on the hike: the sturdy concrete Cold Spring Tunnel, constructed in 1897 (the façade states “1905”).
The city of Santa Barbara commissioned Charles E. Harding of Carpinteria to bore this tunnel into the porous mountain, and at 5,000 feet the water was running true and supplying our burgeoning city with some 300,000 gallons of water per day.
The only water that feeds back into the creek today is any overflow from this water source. As I stood there on Sept. 10, a cascade of beautiful water was rushing along behind the grate, so the “straw” in the mountain here still furnishes some residents with water today, over 118 years later.
The breathtaking part of the West Fork hike is over once you pass the Cold Spring Tunnel building: it’s a steep ascent up to the wide hair-pin turn on Gibraltar Road. It’s in this upper drainage that the awful Tea Fire damage stands out.
Seven years later, the fire damage remains striking and most of the shade has been completely eradicated along with almost all the trees. Bay trees survived in some places. Thus, on a very warm September day I thanked the mindfulness gods for prodding me to step out before sunrise.
That last rugged .8 mile also demonstrates what reckless mountain bikers can do to an already fire-damaged trail. The deep, three-and-one-half inch groove shown in the photograph came from an exuberant mountain biker speeding down this fragile, unprotected trail.
Winter rains will wreak havoc on this upper West Fork section due to extreme bike damage. At least 25 percent of the trail above the last creek crossing has been rutted like this. Mountain biking is a legal activity here, so hikers need to be aware of them and of horsemen.
Hiking Cold Spring Trail’s West Fork gets you off the main trail (which leads to Montecito Peak and finally East Camino Cielo Road). I encountered just one other hiker, and enjoyed true solitude whilst yet so close to town.
West Fork Cold Spring Trail 4-1-1
Hike: Moderate day hike with 1,100-foot elevation gain to Gibraltar Road, suitable for children over 6. Avoid on weekends if you can due to overcrowding.
Distance: 4.4 mile round trip
Driving directions: Drive as if going to Westmont College, continue past on Cold Spring Road to T-junction at Mountain Drive (and the old Mar Y Cel Tea Gardens), turn sharp right on Mountain Drive and when you’ve descended to where Cold Spring Creek crosses the road, park here on either side of the dry creek crossing.
— 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.