Nestled between the steep, scrubby San Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara is a welcome, mountainous reprieve from the concrete proliferation of Los Angeles—its raucous neighbor to the south. Though Santa Barbara is by no means unknown or under-utilized as a tourist destination, its roomy beaches and steep hikes can offer a peek at the more relaxed side of southern California.
Santa Barbara boasts the longest stretch of south-facing beach in the western United States, and it is often referred to as “The Riviera” because its topography and climate mirrors that of the area along the northern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. The relatively new, dramatic San Ynez Mountains are punctuated with several peaks exceeding 4,000 feet in altitude, and every so often they receive a dusting of snow. Covered in chaparral and cartoonish sandstone spires and outcrops, they are excellent stomping grounds for hikers, mountain bikers, and rock climbers. Adventurers with a keen eye and a bit of luck could get a chance to see the region’s keystone predator, the black bear, or other mammals like cougars, bobcats, red foxes, and white tailed deer.
The Santa Barbara Channel is one of the best places in the world to catch a glimpse of migrating whales. From November to April, Pacific gray whales migrate south to the temperate lagoons near Baja, Mexico, then back up to their summer homes near the Bearing Straight of Alaska. From spring to fall, humpback whales abound, and the colossal blue whale is a bit more difficult to spot. Elusive minke whales sometimes make an appearance, as do fin whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, coastal bottlenose dolphins, and rissos dolphins.
Whether you’re a sea-going adventurer, a hiker, a history buff, or someone who simply wants to wake up to a view of the Pacific Ocean, these adventures below are sure to incite the spirit of exploration.
One final note: practicing the principles of Leave No Trace is imperative in places that see lots of traffic. Red Rock Pool has been horrifically mistreated in the past—help contribute to its restoration and the betterment of public spaces by doing your part to pick up after yourself and others.