Polly Sumner is a trail runner and has been running through the foothills of Montecito for the past three years. She says she likes the “technical terrain” — the rocks, the uneven ground and the elevation changes that allow her to break free in the open air and roam the mountains.
Sometimes, like on Saturday, she parks along Riven Rock Road and then runs, this time for eight miles.
She’s a Santa Barbara resident, and before trail running, she hiked the Hot Springs Trail for about 20 years. For her, it’s a routine, it’s a way of life and it’s part of the local hiking experience.
But the days of parking along Riven Rock Road to access the nearby trails and the hot springs, about 1½ miles up the mountain, have hit a dead end.
Fueled by complaints from homeowners in the area, the California Highway Patrol soon will be ticketing and towing cars parked along the narrow road, which lacks shoulder space. A couple of weeks ago, the Santa Barbara County Public Works Department painted white lines on both sides of the street to make it clearer that parking is prohibited.
Santa Barbara and Montecito are known for their plentiful hiking trails, but access to them often spotlights the challenges of densely populated urban and residential areas that share boundaries with recreational trails and outdoor experiences.
Parking availability at local trailheads is usually sparse, and resourceful hikers typically snag any spot they can get, even if it means partially or entirely on the roadway.
On Saturday, the CHP smacked dozens of yellow warning tickets on the windows of vehicles. Come June, however, officers will start issuing citations.
“If this is going to be part of the recreational offering to the community, it would be nice if there was access to it,” Sumner said.
“It’s kind of pointless if you are going to have this trailhead that you’re going to put on all the trail apps and as a benefit to the community, and there’s no access.”
Homeowners and locals say the proliferation of hikers who park along Riven Rock Road has exploded during the COVID-19 crisis. While there have always been people who park along the street, they say, the number has grown, and they have become louder, more unruly and less concerned about the impact on the neighborhood.
Just a week ago, after Britain’s Prince Philip died, paparazzi parked along lower Riven Rock Road hoping to snap photos of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who own an estate in the area.
Sumner agrees that the situation is complex.
“A lot more people, especially since the pandemic started, are coming to the trails, and many of the people who do come to the trails don’t use the best etiquette,” she said, adding that she has seen beer cans, bottles and other trash all over the trail.
“I am not necessarily surprised that the neighbors have been recently unhappy. It’s great that more people are out, exercising and accessing the trails, but it’s brought some people who aren’t really as sensitive to the environment.”
A row of about 25 vehicles lined Riven Rock Road on Saturday. Homeowners say it effectively turns the street into one lane, and makes it difficult for them to get in and out of their driveways. The situation could also complicate matters for emergency vehicles and evacuations, authorities say.
Partying and overnight parking also have increased, neighbors say. The hot springs have always been a destination for people, but they have turned into places for people to drink and be loud, particularly late at night.
“They need to put a sign up that says, ‘You can’t park here,’” said Gwat Bhattacharjie, who lives near the top of Riven Rock Road and says she feels the impact far too closely.
“I can’t get out of my house at any time — except for midnight, and I don’t want to get out of my house at that time.”
Bhattacharjie described a horror story of behavior. At one point, she put a post and a chain in her driveway to stop people from making constant U-turns, but they cut the chain and broke the post.
People use her trash bins, and there has been an increase in recreational vehicles and campers. She says many of the vehicles have out-of-state license plates.
“People don’t respect private property,” she said.
Still, she said she understands that the white lines on the street may not be enough. For people who have parked there for years, it feels like normal behavior. If the situation doesn’t get better, she plans to ask the county to put up no-parking signs.
“I have been here 45 years, and I have never seen it like this before,” she said.
Riven Rock Road homeowner Steve Buster said the street is another victim of COVID-19. He says he understands that people are looking for something to do outdoors and that the hot springs are popular on social media as a destination for hikers.
But in the past year, he said, the situation has ballooned into something untenable.
“It’s gotten pretty dangerous to live on Riven Rock Road,” he said, adding that the newly painted white lines aren’t enough of a deterrent. “It’s apparent that no one really understands what the white line means.”
The lack of parking has practical impacts. Buster said gardeners, housekeepers and anyone doing work at nearby homes can’t find places to park.
Even before the pandemic, Buster had cut out two parking spaces on his own property to provide visiting family members and service workers with a place to park.
The space stands out. Although it looks like a turnout, it’s actually his property that is marked as such with a sign.
“It helped solve our immediate problem,” he said.
Dozens of people returned to their vehicles Saturday to find warning stickers on their windows. For Ventura resident Beni’Eare Riley, the situation didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
“Most of the time you come out here, you really don’t hear anybody making any noise, at least the times I have been out here,” he said. “I understand that they may be a little aggravated by the parking, but I don’t see how they are obstructing the road.
“I understand they want to maintain access to their property, but at the same time this is a public road, paid for by the county funds, paid for by everyone, so fair use of the road should not be a problem.”
Riley said he usually parks in the free designated trailhead area, which has room for 10 vehicles. He said if the county is going to crack down on parking along Riven Rock Road, it should designate more spaces specifically for the trailheads.
“I don’t think they should have the option of not allowing anyone to park here,” he said. “They own the property, they don’t own the road.
“Unless they want to pay for the road to make it private, then they shouldn’t have that much say. They should have some say, but not enough where they could have people ticketed or possibly towed.”
CHP Capt. Michael Logie told Noozhawk that officers must enforce the vehicle code, which says “it is illegal to park on a roadway.”
“You can’t block the lane of travel for vehicles,” he said. “There’s no shoulder there. People shouldn’t be parking there.”
The CHP is allowing a 30-day acclimation period before it starts ticketing. Since the lines were recently painted, he said the CHP is giving people time to get used to the situation.
“It is fair to allow travelers some kind of warning,” Logie said. “People who are used to going there have not seen those white lines before. There’s an education piece that needs to occur.”
Among the families who avoided a warning Saturday were Brad and Krista Vickers, who had parked along Riven Rock Road and then noticed the CHP issuing the warnings. Brad Vickers reparked the car somewhere else while his wife and their two daughters headed for the trailhead.
“There should be access to the trail, but at the same time, I can see that if the fire department was trying to get down through here, or if someone is trying to get into their property, it would be a pain with all the cars here,” Brad said.
Krista said she understands both sides. The pandemic, she said, has brought major problems.
“I want it to be accessible to everybody, but I just wish it weren’t so heavily trafficked,” she said. “And I don’t know what the solution is.”
— Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.