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Peak Experience in Santa Barbara

March 22, 1992|JOHN McKINNEY

La Cumbre Peak, visible from the beach and downtown Santa Barbara, is the high point of the mountain range that sits behind the city. Rewarding the hiker for the long climb to the peak are terrific views of Santa Barbara, the Goleta Valley and the Channel Islands.

The 3,985-foot peak is particularly striking in early spring, when black storm clouds swirl about its stony ramparts and clouds of white ceanothus cloak the mountain's broad shoulders.

Leading to the peak is Tunnel Trail, which is the only major foothills trail to travel on exposed slopes rather than in a canyon bottom. That means the trail's a little less beautiful, but quite a bit more view-full than Santa Barbara's footpaths.

Tunnel Trail was used by workers to gain access to a difficult waterworks project launched early this century by the city of Santa Barbara. Workmen burrowed a tunnel through the Santa Ynez Mountains to connect the watershed on the backside of the mountains to the growing little city. Braving floods, cave-ins and dangerous hydrogen gas, a crew labored eight years and finished the project in 1912.

Tunnel Trail offers two ways to go: an easy family outing in the foothills, with a chance to cool off in Mission Creek, or a more strenuous trek to the top of La Cumbre Peak.

Mission Creek once provided water for Mission Santa Barbara. Near the Mission, which you'll pass as you proceed to the Tunnel trail head, are some stone remains of the padres' waterworks.

Mission Creek also flows through the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, which is well worth visiting because of its fine displays of native California flora. Paths lead through chaparral, coastal sage and succulent environments to a Mission Creek dam built by the Spanish friars and Indian laborers.

A ramble through the Santa Ynez Mountains, combined with a visit to the Mission and Botanic Garden, would add up to a very pleasant day's outing in Santa Barbara.

Directions to trail head: From Highway 101 in Santa Barbara, exit on Mission Street and head west to Laguna Street. Turn left (north) and wind around the historic Mission Santa Barbara. Laguna Street gives way to Mission Canyon Road. At the T-intersection, turn right on Foothill Road, then immediately turn left back onto Mission Canyon Road. At a distinct V-intersection, veer left onto Tunnel Road (veering right at this intersection takes you to the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden). Follow Tunnel Road to its end. Park along the road and read the signs; many a hiker has received a Santa Barbara "souvenir" (i.e., a parking ticket) for not obeying the signs.

The hike: From the end of Tunnel Road, hike past a locked gate onto a paved road, which soon turns to dirt as you leave the power lines behind and get increasingly grander views of Santa Barbara. The road makes a sharp left and crosses a bridge over the West Fork of Mission Creek.

Beyond the bridge, you'll hike a short distance under some handsome oaks to a junction.

The easy trail is signed Jesusita Trail, which descends briefly but steeply to Mission Creek. Here you can relax in the cool pools. If you decide to hike up Mission Creek, be careful; reaching the famous Seven Falls--particularly the higher ones--requires quite a bit of boulder-hopping and rock climbing. From the creek crossing, Jesusita Trail switchbacks a mile steeply up the chaparral-cloaked canyon wall to a power line road atop a knoll. Although Inspiration Point is not all that inspiring, the view from the cluster of sandstone rocks at the 1,750-foot viewpoint is worth the climb--it's a slightly less dramatic version of the one from La Cumbre Peak.

Tunnel Trail begins angling northeast, uphill. As you ascend, you'll look down on a steep gorge that was cut from solid sandstone by Mission Creek. Geologically inclined hikers will recognize fossilized layers of oyster beads from the Oligocene Epoch, deposited about 35 million years ago. In more recent times, say, for the last few thousands of winters, rainwater has rushed from the shoulder of La Cumbre Peak and cut away at the sandstone layers, forming several deep pools.

About two miles from the trail head, you'll start getting good views of Santa Barbara and the ocean and pass a signed junction with a connector trail leading east from Mission Canyon to neighboring Rattlesnake Canyon.

As you near the "sky road," East Camino Cielo, you'll see rugged, 3,333-foot Cathedral Peak, situated just below La Cumbre Peak. The ridgeline above you bristles with digger and Coulter pine, along with the occasional big leaf maple. A bit more than four miles from the trail head, you'll reach paved road until you see a gate for the entrance to La Cumbre Peak. At the picnic benches up top, catch your breath and enjoy the panoramic views.

Santa Ynez Mountains: Tunnel Trail

WHERE: Mission Canyon, Santa Barbara.

DISTANCE: To Seven Falls, 3 miles round trip, with a 400-foot elevation gain; to La Cumbre Peak, 11 miles round trip, with a 3,000-foot gain.

TERRAIN: Dramatic sandstone rock formations and deep canyons form an impressive backdrop behind Santa Barbara.

HIGHLIGHTS: Mission Creek and towering La Cumbre Peak, highest in the Santa Ynez Mountains, have been popular destinations of Santa Barbarans since before the turn of the century.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Moderate to strenuous.

PRECAUTIONS: Use care while climbing up-canyon to Seven Falls.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call Los Padres National Forest at (805) 683-6711.

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