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Arroyo Hondo's pristine preserve

February 16, 2003|John McKinney | Special to The Times

Hikes range from easy to strenuous in Arroyo Hondo, a new preserve sometimes called "a little Yosemite" because of its steep-walled gorge. The preserve, 30 miles north of Santa Barbara, rises 3,000 feet from the Pacific to the upper slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains in Los Padres National Forest.

The Land Trust for Santa Barbara County bought the 782-acre site, formerly the Arroyo Hondo Ranch, for $7 million from rancher J.J. Hollister and co-owners in 2001. Its central feature is a deep sandstone gorge cut by Arroyo Hondo, or Deep Stream.

The preserve, between Refugio State Beach and Gaviota State Park, could be the cornerstone for further conservation efforts along this stretch of coast.

That bright future is matched with a colorful past. Evidence of a Chumash village, estimated to be 5,000 years old, lies near the stream. Old, wild grapevines twist their tendrils among creekside sycamores. One trail here dates to the early 19th century, when Chumash and padres used it to reach Mission Santa Ines.

Other paths abound: Hikers can follow Brandy's Creekside Trail, walk through Hollister Meadow and take a jaunt on Lower and Upper Outlaw trails, which serve up great coastal views. Depending on conditions, you may have access to a rocky beach on the other side of the highway.

History buffs will be intrigued by a visit to the historic adobe, built in 1842 by descendants of Jose Francisco Ortega, first commander of Santa Barbara's Presidio. The adobe later served as a stage stop and, for 10 years, as Hollister's home. The structure may become a museum or visitor center.

The entire preserve is managed by the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, which coordinated fund-raising and secured $4 million from the state Coastal Conservancy, plus other government grants and private donations.

Land Trust officials say they intend to allow limited public access while emphasizing careful stewardship of the relatively pristine site, which is habitat for the endangered steelhead trout. Other species found in the preserve include the previously endangered (now no longer listed) peregrine falcon, the endangered tidewater goby and the threatened California red-legged frog. The organization plans to make only minor changes to the preserve, such as improved parking, better trails and added picnic areas.

Arroyo Hondo Preserve is free but open only by reservation on the first and third weekends of the month. Docents lead hikes 10 a.m. to noon on the first Saturday and third Sunday of each month. Call the Land Trust for information. After your reservation is confirmed, you will receive detailed directions to the preserve, off U.S. 101 about four miles north of Refugio State Beach.

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John McKinney offers other tips at www.thetrailmaster.com.

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