Hiking Trails

Dan McCaslin: Hike along the Jesusita Trail to Inspiration Point and Tunnel Road | Outside

The Jesusita Trail is one of the few frontcountry hikes in Santa Barbara County that starts out a little downhill before climbing, as most frontcountry trails are steeply uphill from the start.

This seven-mile hike begins at the Cater Santa Barbara Water Treatment Plant at 1150 San Roque Road, above Foothill Road, and ends at the top of Tunnel Road (car shuttle required; see 4- 1-1 below).

Another variation is to walk the three miles to Inspiration Point and then return the same way.

When I moved to Santa Barbara in the fall of 1966, the local foothills and interior canyons immediately drew me outdoors. California hikers looking for wilderness head east and north and shouldn’t follow Horace Greeley’s 1865 saying “Go West Young Man”.

A bobcat turned roadkill.
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A bobcat turned roadkill. (Photo by Dan McCaslin/Noozhawk)

Unexpectedly, the postmodern hiker is looking east for more wilderness, more open skies and space, and increasingly intense encounters with raw nature.

These encounters and incidents—like the bobcat killed on a local lane—include fields of late-blooming spring flowers, fragrant ceanothus trees, the acoustic melodies of free-flowing water in San Roque Creek, and tailed hawks red hovering along the ridge above.

Various well-watered creeks flow out to sea here in Santa Barbara, and they’ve eroded into deep canyons like Rattlesnake, Romero, Cold Spring, and San Roque (where the Jesusita Trail passes). The Santa Ynez Mountains slope steeply down to the shore, creating stunning scenery and intoxicating views.

With my back to the steaming beaches, I happily trek along the Jesusita trail to San Roque Canyon in search of deep time and relative solitude.

Masses of yellow monkey flower.
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Masses of yellow monkey flower. (Photo by Dan McCaslin/Noozhawk)

After the trailhead, the path begins steeply downhill, crossing the nearly dry creek bed, then climbs a bit until 0.7 miles down is the well-signed Arroyo Burro trailhead that continues straight ahead. However, you must keep right and walk up the remnants of the old road towards Inspiration Point via the Moreno Ranch property.

The cutoff for the Arroyo Burro Trail.
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The cutoff for the Arroyo Burro Trail. (Photo by Dan McCaslin/Noozhawk)

This hike will challenge you, but since the halfway point is the famous Santa Barbara Inspiration Point (1,800 feet), one is drawn to this high point. This is a beautiful hike that begins in the shade of the riverside surroundings and eventually joins an old road leading to a mixed chaparral on a flat ridge with close views of Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara Channel.

By the end of May there was enough sea layer that I could only see clearly inland and above Arlington Peak at 3200ft. The usual “inspiring” seascapes were unfortunately blocked by the gray mists of May.

The Jesusita trail.
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The Jesusita trail. (Photo by Dan McCaslin/Noozhawk)

The hike is steep at times with an elevation gain of about 1,200 feet, so as the summer heat approaches, it’s essential to start early (we were hiking at 6:30 a.m.), pack plenty of water and a wide-brimmed hat, and go with experienced hikers. The second half of the trip descends the Tunnel Trail and ends at the top of Tunnel Road (where your second car was pre-parked).

On May 14, during what became the second half of my trek in late May, a 17-year-old San Marcos High School student sadly died from heat exposure while hiking the Tunnel Trail. This very sad story reminds us that, unlike Jesusita, much of the Tunnel (return) trail lacks overhead cover and can heat up quickly.

A view of Arlington Peak from Inspiration Point.
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A view of Arlington Peak from Inspiration Point. (Photo by Dan McCaslin/Noozhawk)

I’ve often introduced the term adjoining local hiking, my own neologism, to highlight a new situation in our encroaching Anthropocene with so many people crammed into cities and frantic to get away from the city (that’s what advise all of these On The Trail columns).

Today we are faced with situations where (rather) raw nature collides with the urban interface. Bears and cougars are now our close neighbours. Yet sometimes we rush into the hills from our towns and plan to hike for a few hours, then quickly return to “town” and resume our city lives.

But near-21st-century nature can be just as unforgiving as the 19th-century poet Alfred Lord Tennyson describes as “red-toothed and clawed” – despite all the supposed advances of Western civilization (4-1-1).

Example: When I plan a backpacking trip, I use a special list, I chat with hiking friends, we go over our safety procedures and determine who carries what emergency equipment and how much water needed. Every time we volunteer for a Partners in Preservation activity sponsored by the US Forest Service, we must carry a satellite phone and make regular calls at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.

But what about the times when we’re just civilians heading to Rattlesnake Canyon after work, or the Cold Spring or Jesusita trails? I still check my list, consider the time of day and local weather conditions, and plan to carry water. On this cool and foggy late May morning, I packed two liters of water plus energy snacks, as well as the usual medical kit, windbreaker and gloves.

During the first Jesusita phase of this trek, please respect private landowners, for example at Moreno Ranch, whose properties are legally traversed by trekkers. The trail is well marked and there are mountain bikers, so stay alert. You are also likely to encounter others near Inspiration Point.


» Directions: Since this is a shuttle ride, park your first vehicle at the top of Tunnel Road (there is limited parking!). Return to Foothill Road/Highway 192 and head back towards Santa Barbara. After Mission Canyon, you will see the San Roque Road traffic light. Turn right. Drive less than a mile to the entrance to the well-marked Jesusita Trail next to the Lauro Reservoir (Cater Water Treatment Plant, 1150 San Roque Road). There is another parking lot at Stevens Park, 258 Canon Drive; add a mile to your round trip if you do this.

» Map: at Ray Ford A Hiker’s Guide to the Santa Barbara Front Country; “In Memoriam, Canto 56” by Alfred Lord Tennyson includes the oft-quoted lines, “Nature is a world of strife, strife and violence – ‘red in teeth and claws’…”

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone anchors in antiquity and has written extensively about the local hinterland. His latest book, Autobiography in the Anthropocene, is available on Lulu.com. He is the Archaeological Site Steward for the US Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes readers’ ideas for future Noozhawk columns and can be reached at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

Red penstemon along the trail.
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Red penstemon along the trail. (Photo by Dan McCaslin/Noozhawk)