- Location: Highway 101, about 27 miles west of Santa Barbara and 4.5 miles past Refugio State Beach. Access to the preserve is only accessible from the northbound lanes on Highway 101 so if you are coming from the north, you will have to drive 4.5 miles past the preserve to the Refugio State Beach exit, leave the freeway and turn around. Note: The preserve is easy to miss; keep an eye out for a small sign indicating the entrance. Just before you get to the preserve, you will pass the Arroyo Hondo Vista Point on the left (south) side of the highway. Once inside the preserve, follow signs to the parking area. (Parking is free but donations are encouraged). When leaving the preserve, to head southbound, you must turn right and head north for a mile to the first place where you can make a U-turn.
- Agency: Arroyo Hondo Preserve/Land Trust for Santa Barbara County
- Distance: 5.8 miles
- Elevation gain: 1,500 feet
- Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Steepness, elevation gain)
- Suggested time: 3 hours
- Best season: Year round but hot during the summer; the preserve is open on the first and third full weekends of each month from 10am to 4pm. Access is free but reservations are required. Docent led hikes are offered on some of the days as well. Call 805-567-1115 for more information.
- Dogs: Not allowed
- Cell phone reception: Good for most of the route; weak to fair in some spots
- Water: Arroyo Hondo usually has water year-round but since the preserve is only open for day hiking, it’s probably easier to pack water for the day instead of bringing a filter. Water is also available from a faucet at the parking lot.
- Restrooms: Chemical toilets at the trail head
- Camping/backpacking: None. RV camping is available at Refugio State Beach, about 4 miles east of the preserve. Camping is also available farther west at Gaviota State Park.
- Recommended gear: Hiking poles; sun block; sun hat
- More information: Article about the preserve here; TripAdvisor page here; Description of the preserve here
- Rating: 8
Updated July 2018
Though it’s a bit of a drive for most So Cal hikers and only open two weekends per month, the Arroyo Hondo Preserve is a must-do. Few hikes in the region offer excellent ocean views, secluded canyons, a year-round stream, unusual geological formations and historical artifacts – but all of the above can be seen at the 782-acre Arroyo Hondo Preserve, a property that has been owned by the Ortega and Hollister families before being deeded to the Land Trust of Santa Barbara County in 2001.
The preserve offers multiple hiking options. It’s an ideal spot for a stroll among the oaks along the stream – a good choice for hot days or for families with small children – but the steep walls of the canyon offer a chance to get a vigorous workout as well. The route described below climbs ridges on both sides of the canyon, providing some excellent views at the cost of some leg burning. The layout of the trails may sound confusing at first but they are usually well signed and park maps are available at the trail head.
Begin by following the dirt road into the park (note the descending West Ridge Trail on your left; this is the return route). You walk under oaks and sycamores, passing another junction with the West Ridge Trail and the Bear Crossing Trail before entering Hollister Meadow, where several artifacts from the preserve’s past, including the remains of a grist mill, can be seen. (You can also take a fun little detour on the Hideaway Trail, which briefly climbs the hillside before descending back into the meadow).
Soon after you reach a junction with the Lower Outlaw Loop Trail, which climbs to a view point with a picnic table. If you are looking for an easier hike, you can continue following the Lower Outlaw Loop Trail downhill back into the canyon. However, for hikers up for a challenge, the Upper Outlaw Trail awaits.
The Upper Outlaw Trail wastes no time, ascending a steep ridge to the tune of 600 feet of elevation gain in 0.7 mile. As you climb you get better and better views of Arroyo Hondo and the coast line including Santa Cruz Island and, on clear days, Santa Rosa and San Miguel Islands. After the vigorous ascent, you are rewarded with an easier 0.7 mile loop along the top of the ridge. Head left first, passing under some welcome shade oaks and getting up close to some gnarled sandstone formations. The north side of the loop yields views of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Some gradual climbing brings you to the highest accessible point in the preserve. After completing the loop, carefully descend the Upper Outlaw Trail back to the view point and the picnic table.
From here, head right and continue following the Lower Outlaw Loop into the shaded tranquility of the canyon. The trail crosses a wooden footbridge and reaches a junction. Head right and cross the stream, soon arriving at another junction. Turn right for a scenic 0.3 mile detour along the Creek Trail. The path heads deeper into the canyon, crossing the stream again before reaching its ending point at the preserve boundary. This is a nice spot to rest and enjoy some quiet before heading back.
Retrace your steps and continue along the Brandy’s West Creek Trail. You can end the hike by following this route back downstream to the starting point. However, if you want to burn a few more calories and take in some more views, follow the West Ridge Trail, which climbs about 600 feet in just under a mile. The start of the ascent is moderate and shaded by oaks but the upper half is steeper and exposed. You are rewarded with an impressive aerial view of Hollister Meadow below.
The trail levels out at the top of the ridge. The coastal views are partially blocked by the chaparral but you can still see the ocean and Highway 101 far below. A metal fence must be climbed over (you are still on preserve property at this point). The trail descends along an exposed ridge; note flags along the side of the trail marking plant restorations. You pass a bench looking out toward the ocean before dropping back down into the preserve. One more metal fence must be climbed before returning to the parking area.
After completing the hike, drop by the Discovery Center, where displays include locally excavated artifacts and taxidermy of native species including a rattlesnake and an owl.
Text and photography copyright 2018 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.