San Antonio Creek

Distance: 1.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 148 feet to intersection with Highway 154
Difficulty: Easy
Topo: Santa Barbara

Though this is a relatively short hike and isn’t terribly primitive, it is a wonderful place to take children. Tucker’s Grove is perfect for a picnic, and it has the best playground equipment for kids anywhere in Santa Barbara. The hike is level so you can take even the littlest tots on the trail. The riparian community found along it is an excellent place to teach kids about the local environment. Because it was almost completely burned out by the Painted Cave Fire in 1990, it is a good place to view how nature recovers from wildfire.

Turn north on Turnpike Road and follow it towards the mountains for a mile to Foothill Road. The entrance to Tucker’s Grove is directly on the other side of Foothill. Drive through the park, across San Antonio Creek, and into the paved parking area. You can pick up the trail there near a small sign that says “Bridle Path” or walk through Kiwanis Meadows.

The San Antonio Creek Trail begins at Tucker’s Grove. In the late 1800s this sheltered oak grove served as a favorite picnic area for Santa Barbara’s Scottish-American population. It was privately owned by Charlie Tucker, a popular valley resident who maintained the sylvan retreat for public use free of charge until he died in 1912. Shortly thereafter it was purchased by rancher George S. Edwards who deeded it to the county, thus allowing it to become one of the valley’s first public parks.

This is one of the most pleasant of the short hikes, especially for those of you who want to take younger children along with you. In the spring, with the cascading waters of the creek flowing cool and clear, the oak woodland and canyon vegetation provide just the touch of color, richness, and variety for an hour or two of relaxed hiking.

Today it looks far different than it did just two years ago. The Painted Cave Fire began about 6pm on June 27, 1990 near the intersection of Painted Cave with Highway 154. Though high in the mountains, thundering Santa Ana winds caused it to road down the mountainside and across San Antonio Creek in less than 45 minutes. More than 600 homes and apartments were destroyed by the fire, and with the exception of the largest trees—oaks and sycamores—the canyon was reduced to a barren condition.

Now the canyon has a much more open feeling. No longer is it covered by a canopy of huge oaks and sycamore trees. These look much more like skeletons though you can see the process of recovery at work. Numerous shoots reach upwards from the base of each of the sycamores, each 10-to-15 feet in height, creating a small forest at the base of each of the trees. The gnarled trunks and twisted limbs of the oaks are silhouetted against the skyline, with round clusters of new leaves just re-emerging. A year ago you wouldn’t have thought the canyon could have recovered. Now you can see it will.

In just a few more years it will be difficult to find evidence of the disastrous Painted Cave Fire. The canyon will look like it did in earlier years—and that is how I have left the description of this trail.

The trail head is near the rear of the Grove. Although you can begin immediately by taking the Bridle Path across the creek (it recrosses in a hundred yards), most hikers continue through Kiwanis Meadows because this eliminates a stream crossing. Hop over the wooden fence on the creek side of the meadows and you’re on the trail.

Though the trail is unmarked, the well-used path is relatively easy to follow. It meanders first for a half mile on the east side of the creek through a large oak meadow. Just past Kiwanis Meadow the canyon begins, and the hillside, covered with ferns and sorrel, is shaded by numerous oaks. There is poison oak along here as well, so take care, especially with children.

The oak meadow has numerous trails radiating through it, perfect for children to play on, and the air has the sweet smell of bay and California sage. In the early morning, light filtering through the trees gives this grove a cathedral-like atmosphere.

From here the trail opens for a while, then closes back in. In places the path is not much more than a shoulder-width wide and is rutted a foot deep in the sandy soil. The tunnel-like enclosure hems one in with the aroma of the soft chaparral. Nearby are the sounds of the hidden creek and numerous birds. The trail reaches an opening once more, this one filled primarily with sycamore, and the trail makes several lazy “S” curves and crosses the creek. Not quite out of sight along here is a farm that look like it must be a wonderful place to live. Immediately cross the creek once more and hike up onto a bench, which leads to a large flood-control dam.

There the trail crosses the dam and turns upstream. While several trails appear to be leading upstream from this point, the main path turns right and crosses the creek and passes by a long chain-link fence, which you can see before you make the crossing. The other trails lead up onto San Antonio Creek Road to provide horse riders access to the canyon. One of these continues along the west bank, though the trail on this side is fairly overgrown.

On the east side the trail wanders through a most enjoyable section, thick with oaks, thistle, and blackberry interspersed between large cream-colored boulders. In a half mile the trail intersects with Highway 154, where the trail ends under the bridge, near the beginning of the Vista Del Mundo Ranch.

The return trip leads back to Tucker’s Grove, where a picnic can await you.

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