Hiking the Seven Falls Trail in Santa Barbara
- Distance: 2.68 miles round-trip
- Elevation Gain: 675 feet
- Route Type: Out-and-Back
- Trail Type: 1st half dirt fire road, 2nd half scrambling up a stream bed
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Parking: Paved lot or street (free)
- Locality: Santa Ynez Mountains
- Nearest City: Santa Barbara, CA
- Kid-Friendly: Yes
- Dog-Friendly: Yes
If I was forced to live in a city for the rest of my life, but allowed to choose which city it would be, it would be Santa Barbara. I still sorta regret choosing UCLA over UC Santa Barbara back in the day, but I do enjoy visiting whenever I can. So when I saw a “Screamin’ Daily Deal” for an extremely discounted stay at the Old Yacht Club Inn bed and breakfast, I grabbed it and booked it for my birthday week, right around Labor Day.
In doing our traditional pre-hiking trip research at Samsoutdoors and other places, I found the Seven Falls and Inspiration Point Trail. Our plan was to do both parts–the beautiful falls and pools, as well as the scenic lookout point, with views of Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands. The total was billed as less than 4 miles, which seemed quite reasonable, based on descriptions of oak canopies and a shaded trail.
To get to the trailhead, you get to drive right by the Santa Barbara Mission, which is always a treat for history geeks like us. You climb up the base of the mountains on Mission Canyon and then Tunnel Road, through some very nice neighborhoods. On weekends and holidays, you will almost certainly begin to see cars parked on the side of the road considerably before the trailhead at the end of the road. We found a parking spot about a third of a mile (and 150 feet in elevation) from the trailhead, but there were quite a few people parked further down the road.
Signage At The End Of The Road
Signage and gate at the trailhead. The trailhead was very well marked and pretty much impossible to miss. Just walk around the locked (at least the day we were there) gate across the paved road, and head up the canyon. We were there in the early afternoon, which we usually try to avoid, but on most days in Santa Barbara, it never gets that hot, so we weren’t too worried. Unfortunately, it was a particularly hot week, and the wildfires from a few years ago had burned away any trees that might have lined the trail, so the canyon road was completely exposed to the afternoon sun, and it got uncomfortable quickly.
We kept thinking we’d hit that shaded area soon, and it would become comfortable, so we kept looking for our turnoff up towards the creek bed. We had a brief false hope at the metal bridge, where we thought we might be turning, but it was clear from our GPS (and lack of signage or obvious path) that we weren’t where we needed to be yet.
Fortunately, it was only one more bend to where we’d been promised the trail “descends into the forest” and we’d be sheltered from the sun. Unfortunately, much like the fire road, the stretch of the forest at the beginning of this trail had also suffered serious fire damage, and there were very few trees that still provided any level of shade at all.
As we cooled off under one of the few shady spots there near the beginning of the trail and realized there may not be any shade anywhere along the trail, we discussed turning back. Right about then we encountered a couple of hikers returning from the falls, and they looked wet and refreshed, and they assured us that the trail would quickly go down to the creekside and become much more shaded.
Sure enough, within 500 feet or so, there was a single track trail that headed off to the left and quickly started to descend into the canyon. Just as quickly, there were real trees with real leaves to protect us from the afternoon sun. And about 650 feet or so from the trail junction, we were at the water’s edge.
This late in the season, the water right there at the crossing was sort of murky and still, but it definitely cooled down the trail. Early in the season, this is probably a popular place to wade and relax on the rocks and in these pools. Right across the creek was the trail we had originally intended to take to Inspiration Point, and also the “high road” trail along the north side of the creek we had originally intended to follow up to the falls. But after observing the landscape on the way in, and talking to some other hikers returning from those paths, we decided both those alternatives were too exposed for our comfort, and that we’d be better off just following the creek bed up towards the other falls and pools.
We knew that meant some bouldering and scrambling, but we actually enjoy that, and figured we would at least follow the stream as far as we could before we turned around. It really was a beautiful stretch of creek, with a series of rapids, falls, and pools, some higher and deeper than others. We encountered quite a few people along the way–this was definitely not a good hike for enjoying the peace and quiet of God’s green Earth.
Most of the trail was either bouldering or scrambling up smooth granite rock faces. Sometimes it was easier just to walk through the water, rather than trying to stay dry (we wore river sandals on this hike).
We saw a couple of families with younger kids at the lower pools, sliding down the mossy waterfalls and playing in the water with their dogs, but the biggest crowd was at/near the end, where the highest falls and deepest pools came together. This area was a natural playground for the college aged kids, with a dozen or so of them laying around sunning on the rocks, swimming in the water, and jumping off the falls into the deep pools below.
This was the tallest fall, with a big pool below that people jumped into, and a big pool above it that people swam in. People swimming in the hole above the large falls. From the top of the biggest fall, I could see a series of other falls and pools further upstream, but it was impossible to access those falls without either scaling the sheer wall on either side of the canyon, climbing up the slippery face of the waterfall, or backtracking a bit and going up the dirt trail up above the canyon to go around the falls. I did jump into the pool and tried to climb the waterfall, but just couldn’t get a handhold to let me up to the next pool.
Getting up this wall to the next hole was harder than it looks! Note also people at the upper pools, which we couldn't/didn't get to. We saw several groups of people who had taken the “high road” trail coming down the sets of falls from above, who encountered a similar problem coming down–they’d managed to stay dry thus far on their hike, but now were confronted with either jumping off the top of the fall into the pool, or backtracking up the canyon to the trail to bypass this choke point. Almost all ended up stripping down and jumping in the end, and in retrospect, if we’d gotten up there earlier in the morning when it was cooler, we probably would have done that. That would have allowed us to hike up the canyon above the falls and creek while it was still cool, and then come back down along the water when it was warmer.
It was definitely a younger crowd there at the falls, but we enjoyed hanging out a while and even swimming a bit before heading back downstream. By the time we left, the shadows were getting longer and the heat of the (less) exposed trail wasn’t nearly as bad going downhill back to the car.
A look back up the canyon on the way back home. Despite our early misgivings, we really enjoyed this trail, and had we left earlier in the day, it would have been a great trail to take the kids on. Packing a picnic lunch and spending some time playing in the various falls and hopping up rocks would have made for a great family day in the outdoors. Our dog also would have loved this trail. Because we were staying in a bed and breakfast, we left her behind, but she would have totally enjoyed it, and we felt guilty every time we encountered another dog playing in the water.
On another note, we were doing this very late in the season, so most of the falls were very mild (and look even milder in these pictures!). Earlier in the year, especially after a rain, these falls would be much more impressive, and the creek much more difficult to navigate, I’m sure.
It would certainly be impossible to do without getting very wet. You could tell how high the falls and water level can get during the spring, and we would love to come back and see it this way. The way we hiked it was only 3.1 miles round trip, but the unimproved trail makes it feel further than it really is. If you wanted to add more mileage, you could add on the trip to Inspiration Point, or go up the hill to the “high road” to visit the upper falls, but we weren’t interested in either on this particular day.