Distance: 0.75 mile to pools; 1.5 miles to Montecito Overlook; 3.5 miles to Montecito Peak; 4.5 miles to Camino Cielo
Elevation Gain: 2,675 feet to crest
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous depending on distance
Topo: Santa Barbara
RECREATIONAL MAP SERIES: Map No. 2—Santa Barbara Front Country—Trail #6
This is absolutely my very favorite trail. Within a few yards of your car the pools begin. Deep and shaded by alders, this perennial creek offers scores of places to spend an afternoon. Even the name suggests something special. Cold Springs represents the shortest distance you can travel to get the furthest away from Santa Barbara. Above the trailhead you will find bedrock pools and places to sunbathe, overlooks of the coastline and a route to the mountain crest, the one memorialized by Stewart Edward White in his epic book, The Mountains. Though no trail leads up into it, you’ll find a beautiful waterfall hidden deep in the watershed.
The trail is reached either from Sycamore Canyon Road near the Milpas area, or Hot Springs Road in Montecito. From Highway 101 drive up Milpas to Monetcito Street. Turn right and follow it Sycamore Canyon and continue up this for 2 miles (it becomes Highway 192) to Cold Springs Road. Turn left (north), drive past Westmont College to Mountain Drive and then turn right and go a half mile east to the trailhead. Park near the point where the creek crosses the road. In Montecito take the Hot Springs exit and follow this until you reach the Highway 192 intersection. Turn left and follow this for a mile to Cold Springs. Turn right and continue up to Mountain Drive.
Cold Springs Trail was the first of the foothill trails I hiked many years ago and it is still my favorite. This is a creek that drops sharply through Coldwater and Matilija sandstones, with clear springs originating high above the trailhead, accessible only by an arduous (but thrilling) hike past the trail’s end. Gushing forth from the shaly depths of the Juncal Formation, the creek runs cool and crisp year-round, flowing freely even on the hottest August day.
The canyon beauty begins at road’s edge. Alders thickly covered with green leaves flutter in the breeze and twenty yards upstream are the first pools. Even if you only have an hour, this is a place where you can enjoy a few precious minutes of quiet. With the canyon walls and alder boughs for privacy, sandstone boulders for resting spots, and the creek’s incessant babble for companionship, you’ll fall in love with it, too.
From the parking area the path immediately crosses to the east side of the stream and gradually rises through a forest of live oak before returning back to the creek and a profusion of alder. In a thin opening, easily missed, you’ll find the turnoff to the West Fork trail.
“Yesterday Mr. Shedd and two men, two donkeys, and two mules came over from the Los Prietos mines by a new trail in less than eight hours, two of which were used to clear the trail of brush to the top of the mountain on the other side,” the Santa Barbara newspaper reported on February 21, 1878, one of the earliest recorded accounts of the use of this trail.
Originally, though, the main route was up the West Fork rather than this one. Passing the site of the Cold Springs water tunnel, bored into the mountain on land donated by Eugene Sheffield, the trail led up to a 300-foot waterfall on the West Fork. There it switchbacked around it on the west and then proceeded by a large pointed rock at the top of the falls, named “The Pinnacle” by E.M. Heath in his 1904 book, A Guide to Rides and Drives in Santa Barbara. From there, it continued up the creek bottom through a narrows, then began to wind its way up shale slopes to the crest, where it crossed over and down the head of Gidney Creek (Forbush Flats) to the Santa Ynez River.
When the Santa Ynez Forest Reserve was created in1899 the Cold Springs Trail was improved by the forest rangers. Rather than having to split their efforts on trails up each branch of Cold Springs Creek, they decided to concentrate on the East Fork.
“It is considered advisable,” Forest Inspector Louis A. Barrett wrote to his superiors in Washington in 1905, “to have one well built main trail crossing the Reserve from the Coast to the desert side and one half of the field force will be at work on this trail all the spring.”
Felling that the trail around the falls and up the shale slopes would be too difficult to maintain, the Forest Service began work on the East Fork. With these improvements, the route up this watershed became known as the Cold Springs Trail, and because of them, became the main route over the mountain wall.
The East Fork trail heads away from the creek soon after its intersection with the West Fork, switching back and forth several times to a point where there is a nice view of West Fork canyon. From there the trail is level. It is also is narrow and a bit dangerous unless you are careful, the mountainside falling away rather precipitously. After a half mile the trail rejoins the creek at a lovely grouping of alders, and a small waterfall and pool.
There it crosses the stream and meanders back and forth to a number of pools and waterfalls. These open sandstone ledges and sunning spots are very popular for afternoon lunches. This also marks the end of the canyon section of the East Fork. A hundred yards beyond, the trail turns right and rises up a strike canyon into the chaparral. Continue up the creek if you like. Though it rises rather steeply, the hike up-canyon is worthwhile. Many surprises await you if you have the energy to travel far enough.
If you decide to continue on the main trail, cross the creek and hike up the side canyon, formed by the easily weathered Cozy Dell Shale. The path curves in a clockwise direction around the canyon and then winds up to a dirt road used for access to the power lines which loom overhead. This road leads down into Hot Springs Canyon and eventually over and across to San Ysidro Canyon.
Fifty yards along this road you’ll find the upper section of the Cold Springs Trail on the left. It rises quickly up into the Matilija Sandstone. A mile further up, after a series of switchbacks, the trail crosses the western flank of Montecito Peak (the thin cut across the solitary peak you can be seen from the city is the trail). After this the trail levels out somewhat as it curves through the Juncal Formation for a mile to the crest.
From this point you can continue on down the back side of the Santa Ynez Mountains, either to Forbush Flats or all the way to the river (see Forbush trail description). Or you can turn right on Camino Cielo and walk east several hundred yards to the San Ysidro Trail and drop back down it.