Santa Barbara conjures images of beaches, bikinis and the smell of coconut oil. Just ninety short minutes north of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara is more than just a beach town. At the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains, with trails that reach into the Los Padres National forrest, Santa Barbara is a runner’s town. The trails are generally more technical and steep than average, but just remember the steeper the climb, the better the view.
Second only to Santa Barbara’s beauty is the community that has grown along the narrow strip of land between it’s beaches and trailheads. Come ready to run, yes, but also come ready to eat, drink, recover and play like you never have before.
Where to Run:
To pick just three trails to share is nearly impossible. I tried to pick three trails that feed into different parts of town for post-race refueling. For those of you that would like a more complete picture, imagine this…a race that connects all nine of Santa Barbara’s front country trails (including the three I’m going to write about here): Nine Trails. Nine Trails is a whole other article, but for those of you whose interests I’ve piqued, definitely check it out.
Summerland and the Romero Trailhead
If you’re driving from Los Angeles, just before you reach Santa Barbara between Summerland and Montecito lies the Romero Canyon Trailhead.
Romero is incredibly user friendly. It’s a multi-use trail, lots of happy runners, mountain bikers and even the occasional horse. Passing through the gate at the trailhead you are led onto a fire road. There are a lot of ways to skin this cat, but I have two simple and satisfying routes.
For a 14-mile out and back run you can stay on the fire road for seven miles: 2 climbing, 2 flat-ish, 3 more climbing to reach “the top.” The top can be identified by a rarely traveled cement road called East Camino Cielo. Take a deep breath, absorb the amazing 360-degree views and spin around for a fast seven mile decent back down Romero…weeeeeee!
For a 6 mile route, travel up that same fire road, at the 4 mile mark you will come to a four-way trail intersection, the only one so far. Take in the amazing tree and it’s exposed roots on the right, the make-shift bench, and then head down the single track on the left. Technical and steep, but truly beautiful. You’ll be treated to creek-crossings, shade and poison oak. Oh, did I mention poison Oak? Santa Barbara trails are full of PO, so if you are sensitive to it, keep your eyes peeled. At the bottom of the single-track you will be spit out onto the fire road you started on, turn right and follow it back down to the trailhead.
Post Run : Running Romero will certainly leave you famished. A short drive down the road is the aptly named town of Summerland. On the main strip lies one of the few dog friendly restaurants in all of Santa Barbara, Summerland Beach Cafe. A perfect place for brunch and perhaps a walk down main street to see the antique shops and for a few wine tastings. If you can’t wait any longer to put your feet in the ocean, you can walk or drive to Lookout Park . In addition to the beach access there is also a park for the kids and a dog wash!
Montecito and the Hot Springs Trailhead
Far and away my family’s favorite trail, Hot Springs, offers the shortest distance trip with the most to see. The trail slinks between the last few houses that sit at the foothills and then breaks away into a moderately technical single track. A highlight for kids big and small is the the beautiful boulder section of this trail called the Saddle Back. If you have the time and desire, this is a great place for a little picnic or toast. We’ve celebrated many birthdays up there and have even done homework sitting on the big rock that marks the top. The trip back down is mostly a fire road. You pass by the remains of the Hot Springs Hotel and the actual Hot Springs. Worth a short detour, the sulfur Hot Springs are not anything you would want to soak in, but a worth a look. You can almost just follow your nose to find them! Save approximately an hour and a half to make the 3 mile hike.
Get Your Snacks! : If you’ve decided to pick-up sandwiches and snacks to take on the trail, I would recommend stopping by Pierre LaFond Market. Located in the quaint Upper Village of Montecito they have a little bit of everything, from a coffee and chocolate bar to soups and sandwiches. If you’re looking for a post hike/run meal the pizza at Via Vai is out of this world. Thin crust, melt in your mouth good. It’s a slightly upscale restaurant, but don’t be deterred, running clothes are welcome virtually everywhere in Santa Barbara. Be warned though, Montecito is a bit pricey in general and the restaurants reflect it.
Directions to the Hot Springs Trailhead.
Jesusita and Santa Barbara
Just north of the heart of Santa Barbara lies the Jesusita Trail, and it’s ever popular final destination: Inspiration Point. If I only had time to run one of these trails, Jesusita would be my pick. There are multiple ways to start this run, but I like to park at Stevens Park. Always happy to start a run from a place that has a bathroom and drinking fountain, Stevens Park does not disappoint! The trail starts as a single track at the top of the park. The first two miles of the run are a gentle climb, crossing creeks and continuing through the trees. Right around the 2 mile mark you cross a road and come to a water fountain. Yay, a water fountain! From there the trail continues as a single track and begins to climb. When you get to the switchbacks you are closing in on the top, the view is worth the burn. The single track will dump you out on to a fire road. You have to continue a short way up to take in the full view. The run down is a blast. Watch for fellow hikers and bikers as the trail can be busy on the weekends. Round trip the run is 8 miles with approximately 1,500 ft of climbing.
Post Run: I have three words for your post run activities: The Funk Zone. The options are endless, I’m going to let you pick your own line here, but if your looking for good food, the urban wine trail or local breweries, The Funk Zone is where you want to be. While walking around take in the sights and stop by the local run shop Santa Barbara Running. Knowledgable about all things running, they can help you out with gear or point you to another great trailhead.
Where to Recover (Santa Barbara Style)
I promised you recovery, and the Funk Zone has just the place. The Lab was developed with the athlete in mind. If you’re in need of a massage, strength class, a recovery dip in the cryotherapy tank or a moment to put your feet up in some norma-tec boots, call and make an appointment.
Where to Race
Hoping to throw a race into your visit? It seems Santa Barbara has at least a 5K every other weekend. However, there are a few races that truly stand-out and will make your trip worth while.
Nine Trails and Red Rock: For the fearless and fiercest trail runners, race director Luis Escobar delivers the real deal. Come ready for adventure, climbing, long courses and good old fashioned Ultra fun. Did I mention climbing?
Pier to Peak: Although it’s not on the trails, this 13.1 mile race is a climb. Starting at the beach, the route climbs up, up, up to top out at 3,996 feet. With amazing views from La Cumbre peak, you’ll look down at the start in amazement. This is not a plush or well supported race, but it is a once in a lifetime climb. Unless you do it twice, or three times…
She.is.Beautiful: Traveling to Santa Barbara with a mixed group of runners for a girls weekend? Don’t miss this race! The road 5K and 10K deliver a course full of inspiring quotes and cheer groups. Pack your pink and get ready to feel loved and to give love in return, because this race is all good! For those of you eyeing the podium, the top 3 finishers in the 5K and 10K win prize money.
I moved to Santa Barbara seven years ago with my husband, two boys and our dog Miles. The day after we moved in, I snuck out to hike the trail closest to our house and never looked back. I love being outside, sharing the trails with friends new and old. I organize a weekly hike, seven years later we have shared a lot of laughs and a few tears on these trails.
I love nothing more than to explore a new place; have a friend show me their favorite route, figure out how to connect two trails or set out to enjoy a little peace and quiet. The relationships built on moving our bodies through nature run deep. Thank you for letting me share this small piece of the place I call home!
Trail Sisters Club on Strava:
Track Goals, Share Runs, Build Camaraderie – Click here to join.