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9 of Santa Barbara County's Best Coastal Hikes

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Damian Gadal/Flickr/Creative Commons License
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This guide is part of KCET's California Coastal Trail project, which looks at the state's massive undertaking to build a trail over 1,000 miles in length along its whole coastline.

With nearly endless beaches and a rugged mountain range hugging the coast, Santa Barbara is ideally situated for hiking, biking or otherwise recreating within eyeshot of the Pacific. Though there are far too many excellent trails of this kind to mention, here are a handful well worth the time and effort.

Carpinteria Bluffs

3 miles, Easy

This protected stretch of bluffs in south Santa Barbara makes for a convenient, easy, and lovely outing. A small network of trails that can be picked up near Bailard Avenue, west of the 101 Freeway, leads through a bluff-top park and down to the beach. The western end of the beach, near the pier, is home to a harbor Seal rookery, and can be closed in the winter and spring while the animals give birth and the pups get strong. During those times, you can glimpse the rookery from an overview above the animals. This is a 3-mile loop.

Inspiration Point

7 miles, Moderate

Rest assured this lookout point, the 1,800-foot summit of a peak in Los Padres National Forest, will live up to its name. Reach the trail by driving up San Roque Road, finding the trailhead near a water filtration plant, and starting up the Arroyo Burro Trail, which quickly joins the Jesusita Trail. The trail is steep in places and given the length and warm, dry conditions, can be a real challenge. The route is 7 miles, out and back.

Arroyo Burro Beach to Goleta

5 miles, Easy

Arroyo Burro Beach
Arroyo Burro Beach | Damian Gadal/Flickr/Creative Commons

Also known as Hendry's Beach, Arroyo Burro Beach is another classic bluff-and-beach area. The steep walls make for secluded stretches of beach but, paired with high tides, can make stretches impassable at times. Plan ahead if you'd like to hike the entire five miles to Goleta, arranging a car shuttle or hiking back the way you came for a 10-mile outing. Seals and nudists favor the area; something to keep in mind. If you'd rather not have such a wild encounter, you can stick to a small network of trails in Arroya Burro County Beach Park, which delivers gorgeous views straight over the Pacific.

Lizard's Mouth

1 mile, Easy

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The Lizard's Mouth | Jesse Vaughan/Flickr/Creative Commons

This reptile-shaped sandstone formation basks in the sun above Santa Barbara, with its mouth agape. Probably, the open jaw is due to the dramatic views of Santa Barbara, the coastline and the ocean. What's more, at a half-mile, the jaunt to the reptilian rock is a snap compared with some of the longer, more rugged hikes in the area. From Hwy 154, turn onto West Camino Cielo. The trailhead is just before the Winchester Canyon Gun Club, the source of gunfire sounds that may detract from a wilderness experience, if that is desired. One mile, out and back.

Refugio to El Capitan

2.5 miles, Easy

Refugio State Beach
Refugio State Beach | Pam Lane/Flickr/Creative Commons

Again, this is the type of beach Santa Barbara it littered with: bluffs, intermittent stretches of rocky and sandy beaches, and serene ocean views. Luckily, it never gets old. Here, you'll find five miles of tidepools, rock outcroppings, and uninterrupted ocean views. Like some other stretches in this neck of the woods, high tides can turn a pleasant beach stroll into a rock climbing expedition, so take note of tides and high surf. This hike is 2.5 miles in one direction and can be done north-to-south, or vice versa. Turn around at any point or arrange for a car shuttle back to your starting point.

Bill Wallace Trail

12 miles, Moderate to Difficult

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Signs for the Bill Wallace Trail | The City Project/Flickr/Creative Commons

If you like hiking high above the beach, into easy-to-reach backcountry with spectacular views of the coastline and the Santa Ynez Mountains, then this trail will be your cup of tea. In its entirety, the Bill Wallace Trail is a moderate 12-mile loop, but shorter variations are available, including a five-mile loop. The trails follow an old oil road through chaparral, and depending on the route, take in 1,000 feet of elevation gain and cross the Shady, wooded El Capitan Creek.

Gaviota Peak

6 miles, Moderate

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Views from Gaviota Peak | Matt Grant/Flickr/Creative Commons

Ocean views hardly get more dramatic than from the 6-mile Trespass Trail. The coastline stretches incredibly far, and from high up on the slopes you can see the ruggedness of the Santa Ynez Mountains in all their glory. But you will certainly have to work for it. The trail gains 2,150 feet of elevation on the 2,500-foot peak. This is a 6-mile loop.

Gaviota Wind Caves

2.5 miles, Easy

The hills above Gaviota State Beach are a wind-sculpted sandstone dreamscape. Just one mile from the ocean, a 2.5-mile round-trip hike accesses some of the wildest formations. From the 101, take the Hollister Ranch Road to Gaviota Beach Road and find the trailhead in a gravel turnout. The first half of the trail is paved, but the second half is a dirt trail and where you'll encounter most of the 600 feet of elevation gain.

Jalama County Beach Park

10 miles, Easy

Jalama Beach
Jalama Beach | Damian Gadal/Flickr/Creative Commons

This might be the mother of all Southern California beach walks. The isolated nature of the region -- 15 miles from the freeway -- is just the start. Point Conception thrusts bravely into the maw of the Pacific, where it gets lashed with wind and heavy swells. But aside from the guests occupying the small campground and day use parking lot, where you can begin your hike, the place is deserted. Though the wind and waves might be legendary, Jalama gets more than its share of blue skies and warm breezes. To take it all in, walk the beach southeast to Indian Head Rock, the promontory home to the picturesque Point Conception Lighthouse. Try to time the 10-mile roundtrip hike so you arrive at the point when the tide hits a negative, to ensure you won't need to get wet at any point.

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