San Ysidro Trail

Distance: 1.75 miles to the end of the canyon section; 4.5 miles to Camino Cielo   
Elevation Gain: 2,970 feet  
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous depending on distance  
Topo: Santa Barbara and Carpinteria   
RECREATIONAL MAP SERIES: Map No. 2—Santa Barbara Front Country—Trail #8

Though at first the trail winds past a home and then follows a graded dirt road for a half mile, the upper end of the canyon is picturesque as it winds through a series of narrows formed by a thick layer of Matilija Sandstone. You’ll find an 80-foot waterfall at the upper end of the canyon section. Several connector trails lead to the east and west, making several short scenic hikes possible, none of them too far from your car. A dirt road leads across the upper end of the canyon, providing access to Hot Springs Canyon on the west and Romero Canyon on the east. A great climbing wall can be found a mile up from the trailhead, with a variety of routes of varying difficulty.

Take the San Ysidro exit off of Highway 101. Turn north on San Ysidro Road and continue on it a mile to East Valley Road. Turn right and follow East Valley another mile to Park Lane. Look for the eucalyptus-shrouded entrance to this narrow road just after crossing San Ysidro Creek. Turn left onto it, and then left again after a half mile on Mountain Drive. Follow it several hundred yards then park near the horse corral fifty yards before a locked gate. When parking, please be considerate of those owning the houses and stables in the vicinity.

San Ysidro Creek, like Cold Springs, begins high in the Juncal Formation and thus flows late in the summer when other creeks are nearly dry. To reach the many pools and quiet rest spots, however, you must hike a mile up from the traillhead, until the canyon narrows and the trail comes close enough to the creek to have access the many pools and quiet rest spots.

Oddly, the canyon is much narrower where it passes through the Cozy Dell Shale than below where it courses through the usually resistant Coldwater Sandstone. This is due to the peculiar nature of the geologic layers of the Santa Ynez Mountains which do not run parallel to the crest, but pass obliquely over the crest and then dip to the east across the mountains and under the coastal plain. The character of each layer changes as it descends from top to bottom.

For instance, when crossing the top of the mountains, Coldwater Sandstone crops out as intricately worn boulder fields, such as those at Lizard’s Mouth or the Playground. Closer to Santa Barbara this sandstone angles down to form the Mission Crags and the magnificent toothed shape of Cathedral Peak. At lower elevations the sandstone forms exquisite narrows such as those at Seven Falls and Rattlesnake Canyon.

As it dips under the coastal flood plain, as it does in San Ysidro Canyon, the sandstone is well eroded and the canyons are wider. This occurred during the Pleistocene, the period of rapid uplift, when the canyons were much deeper and continued farther seaward, perhaps as much as three miles.

The trail begin just right of a long driveway  leading to a private home. A small sign marked with the San Ysidro Ranch brand is fastened to a nearby oak tree. The path continues along the driveway for a hundred yards, then winds around the rear of a house and up onto a paved road. Follow this up to a wide dirt road that has a chain link gate partially across it and head up it. After a half mile you will come to a thick sequence of Coldwater Sandstone forming a deep “V”, the gateway to the inner canyon beyond.

Just before this “V”, several connector trails lead off to the east and the west, providing access to the canyons on either side. The Pueblo Trail is to the right, leading east, sharply uphill, and over a ridgeline down to upper Park Lane.

The McMenemy Trail, marked by a sign, leads to the west. This trail crosses San Ysidro Creek and follows a small canyon up onto a grassy plateau above the San Ysidro Guest Ranch. From the meadow, several thin paths radiate out, with the McMenemy again being noted by a small wooden trail sign. The route continues up a depression behind a large hill west of the meadow.

The reach the upper end of San Ysidro Canyon follow the dirt road through the narrow “V” created by the Coldwater Sandstone. Look a large sandstone wall on your left. This is a popular rock-climbing area. The road continues on past this, gradually gaining elevation to a point where it is directly below the power lines. There it turns left, crosses the creek, and heads up to Hot Springs Canyon.

Look for the beginning of San Ysidro Trail just before the turn. The trail wanders for a mile through canyon vegetation and oak woodland before heading up into the chaparral.

This one mile section is the prettiest part of the canyon. There, the Cozy Dell Shale dominates, and is filled with small waterfalls, numerous pools, and many short paths leading down to picturesque spots for relaxing or picnicking. As you continue on, the canyon narrows and steepens as the trail passes into the Matilija formation. Along one section you’ll find a pipe railing to aid the climb upward, though it is hardly needed. You might also follow the creek through the narrows if you are adventurous enough to brave the rock scrambling and occasional willow thickets.

At the point where the creek branches, the trail turns northwest and steeply uphill. This marks the beginning of the Juncal Formation, as well as the point at which you will no longer have access to water. You’ll need plenty if you plan to continue up to the crest.

If you‘d like to keep this a relaxing, cool, and moderately easy hike, stop here. You might also try exploring the east fork. There is no trail, but the rock hopping is fun and keeps you along the creek.

The trail to the crest begins to climb immediately beyond this point. Several switchbacks provide 300’ of elevation gain, bringing you out on the side of the mountain and above the west fork of the creek. From here the trail contours above the west fork for a half mile and then turns back to the east and up a prominent ridge-line that separates the two forks. Hiking to the crest adds another two miles, but the effort of making it to the top is well worth it.

From Camino Cielo, Cold Springs Trail is only a short distance to the west and it is tempting to make this a loop trip back down. Either follow Cold Springs Trail all the way down to Mountain Drive (if you’ve arranged a shuttle) or when you get to the power lines,  turn east and follow it back to San Ysidro Canyon.

I leave it to you to discover the 80-foot waterfall, which is hidden somewhere in the upper end of San Ysidro Canyon.

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