La Jolla Trail to Upper Ballard Campground (Los Padres National Forest)
- Location: Figueroa Mountain Recreation Area, northwest of Santa Barbara. From Highway 154 at Los Olivos (3.3 miles east of the western end at Highway 101; 29.4 miles northwest of Santa Barbara) head north on Figueroa Mountain Road for a total of 12.4 miles. After the first five miles, the road becomes one-lane so exercise appropriate caution. Park in a large dirt lot at the intersection with Tunnell Road, across from the La Jolla trail head. A National Forest Service adventure pass ($5 per day or $30 per year) is required. Click here to purchase.
- Agency: Los Padres National Forest/Santa Lucia Ranger District
- Distance: 3.6 miles
- Elevation gain: 950 feet
- Difficulty Rating: PG
- Suggested time: 2 hours
- Best season: October – June
- USGS topo map: Figueroa Mountain
- Recommended gear: Long sleeves and long pants; hiking poles; sun hat
- Recommended guidebook: Day Hikes Around Santa Barbara
- More information: Trip descriptions here, here and here; article about the hike here; Figueroa Mountain Recreation Area information here
- Rating: 9
Some hikes might visit quiet and intimate places; others may boast outstanding, wide-ranging views. On this hike, one doesn’t have to choose. While the Figueroa Mountain Recreation Area is a long drive – even from Santa Barbara, allow at least an hour – it offers a level of scenery that is quite rare in So Cal and the hike down to the Upper Ballard Campground via the La Jolla Trail provides a perfect sample of the region’s eye candy. The only downside to this hike is that the area can be heavy with ticks, so plan accordingly, especially if you are bringing dogs.
From the road, follow the signed La Jolla Trail through a rolling, oak-dotted meadow, with Birabent Canyon spread out to the north and the coastal plains (and possibly the ocean if visibility is good) to the west. The trail meanders north for 0.8 miles and makes a hairpin left turn, heading downhill through the shade of big cone spruces, pines, manzanitas and oaks. A few spots of the trail are washed out and somewhat overgrown but overall progress is not difficult.
The descent continues, following a tributary of Birabent Canyon. Details of the water-carved geology and trees below become more visible. A steep descent along a ridge brings you to the Upper Ballard Trail Camp, shaded by giant oaks. When flowing, seasonal Birabent Creek adds to the attraction of this remote spot.
At 1.8 miles and 950 feet below the trail head, this is a good turnaround point for a moderate day hike, but if you have time and don’t mind adding to your soon to come due bill of elevation gain, you can continue following the trail, which heads northwest, heading down canyon through thickening vegetation and several stream crossings. Lower Ballard Campground (signed as Ballard Campground on some maps) lies about 0.6 miles beyond Upper Ballard. Both camps, as well as a small village between Los Olivos and Solvang, were named for William Ballard, who ran the local Wells Fargo station in the 1860s.
Text and photography copyright 2016 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.