10 Reasons Santa Barbara is for Outdoor Lovers

Photo credit: Cecilia Rosell

Tucked between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, the Santa Barbara South Coast features the best of both worlds when it comes to outdoor adventure. Water lovers can enjoy the beaches and some of the most scenic islands in California, which are just a short boat ride away. Hikers will find endless trails in the Los Padres National Forest with towering views of the Pacific. Add world-class wineries, fine dining, spas, manicured gardens and the beautiful Mediterranean-style architecture of the city, and you’ll understand why Santa Barbara is so beloved. If you’re an outdoor-lover, here are 10 ways that you can get the most out of a Santa Barbara getaway.

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Santa Ynez Mountains

This east-west range rises sharply from the Pacific, creating a towering backdrop to the coastal city. Located primarily in the Los Padres National Forest, the mountains are filled with excellent hiking trails, many of which culminate with spectacular views of the city and the ocean below. When this popular trail reopens, ambitious hikers can tackle the 2,485-foot Gaviota Peak, which is just two miles from the ocean and accessible by about a 6.5-mile (out and back) trail that rises nearly 2,000 feet in elevation. Many shorter trips are also available, including a popular trail to Lizard’s Mouth, a mountaintop rock formation that offers another unforgettable vista over Santa Barbara.

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Santa Barbara features some of the best surf breaks in the world, which is why many of the top names in the sport make the town their home. You can watch the top dogs in action or take to the waves yourself. Rincon Point, known in the surf community as the “Queen of the Coast,” features waves that travel for up to half a mile. Leadbetter Point features smaller breakers just west of Santa Barbara Harbor and is perfect for those just learning the sport. Campus Point at the University of California, Santa Barbara is another mellower spot for visitors to get up on a board and become a part of that famous surf culture.

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Channel Islands National Park

Just off the coast of Santa Barbara, the Channel Islands National Park offers a spectacular setting to explore. For thousands of years, the isolation of the islands led to the creation of unique plants and wildlife that you won’t see anywhere else. The park has mainland visitor centers in Santa Barbara and Ventura, but the best option is to take a trip to the islands. Once you’re there, there’s no transportation, food services or any other support. All you’ll find are scenic trails and unforgettable ocean views of these rugged national treasures. The best way to see the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary is by kayak, which allows you to explore many caves that are inaccessible by foot. Channel Islands Expeditions leaves directly from the Santa Barbara Harbor and takes guests to Painted Cave on Santa Cruz Island, one of the largest sea caves on the planet. Santa Barbara Adventure Company offers trips to the Scorpion Anchorage, which includes a ferry ride out of Ventura Harbor to the islands, boats, gear top-notch guides and unmatched kayaking adventures.

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Cycling is a great way to explore Santa Barbara. Bring your bike and enjoy comfortable beach cruises or challenge yourself by traveling through the mountains. For those who prefer to leave their bikes at home, join Cal Coast Adventures for a cycling adventure during one of its six bike tours.

Mountain bikers have lots of options when it comes to going off-road; stick close to town and explore Elings Park, which features about five miles of single-track trails that are perfect for beginners. Serious riders will want to check out Jesusita and its seven miles of trails in the mountains just outside of town. Be prepared for long climbs and some technical section of trail.

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Stand-up Paddleboarding

This water activity has exploded in recent years, and you won’t find a more scenic place to stand up on the water than in Santa Barbara. Both Paddle Sports Center and Santa Barbara Adventure Company offer rentals and lessons at several area beaches. (Both companies can help with rentals and lessons for kayaking and surfing as well.) One of the most popular spots is in the Santa Barbara Harbor, which features calm waters and sandy beaches. After your ride, stop by Shoreline Beach Café for a well-earned meal.

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Parks & Gardens

Get to know more about the area’s plant life at the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens. You’ll find more than 1,000 different native California plants in this 78-acre preserve that’s also a world-class center for research. You can take a docent-led tour to find out more, or simply enjoy a self-led hike. You’ll find everything from cool redwood forests to sandy desert terrain. In Montecito, nature-lovers will find tranquility at Lotusland, a stunning 37-acre Montecito estate once owned by the late Madame Ganna Walska. The property features 25 gardens, each with a distinct theme.

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Let the wind do the work while you enjoy the views while out on a sailboat. Start at Santa Barbara Harbor and you’ll be able to explore the coastline, the Santa Barbara Channel and Channel Islands National Park. Regular northwest winds make this an excellent spot for both novice boaters and experienced sailors. Santa Barbara Sailing Center offers both instruction as well as private and public cruises. Sunset Kidd Sailing Charters and SunSwept Sailing offer more intimate sailing experiences along the Santa Barbara coast with excursions that hold up to six passengers.

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Whale Watching

An incredible way to get an up-close viewing of the world’s largest mammals (from a safe distance, of course) is through an on-the-water whale watching excursion. Hop aboard the Condor Express, where guests can get 360-degree views of the Pacific Ocean and its residents. On many trips, the boat travels as far as Channel Islands National Park. Between February and May, you’re likely to encounter the Pacific gray whale migration (one of the longest migrations of any mammal—coming in at a whopping 12,000 miles round-trip from Alaska to Baja California). In the summer months, you may catch a glimpse of some resident blue whales, common dolphins and sometimes a rare sighting of orcas.

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Santa Barbara features spectacular golf courses that are among the most scenic in the country. Glen Annie Golf Club is in the foothills just outside the city. The front nine holes feature lakes and water hazards, while the back nine on the mountain feature ocean and channel views. Sandpiper Golf Club, named by Golf Digest as one of the top 100 public courses in the country, features a links-style course with ocean and mountain views on every hole.

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Enjoy the Beach

A day at the beach doesn’t necessarily mean just lying around—although there’s nothing wrong with that. Santa Barbara has a wide variety of beaches to suit many moods. If you want to get in a game of volleyball, East Beach is the place to be. It also offers bike rentals, playgrounds, cafes and other beach amenities. Arroyo Burro Beach is a dog-friendly beach that’s an excellent beachcombing spot. Leadbetter Beach is the hot spot for surfing, boogie boarding and swimming, while the west-facing Butterfly Beach may be the best place to watch a sunset.

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Plan This Itinerary

Cal Coast Adventures

If you’re looking for a rental or tour of Santa Barbara or just something fun to do, you’ve found the right place! Cal Coast Adventures offers 10 different types of bike tours from electric bike tours of the city to leisurely mountain…

Glen Annie Golf Club

Glen Annie Golf Club is a championship golf course situated in the rolling foothills of scenic Santa Barbara. This challenging layout is enhanced by breathtaking panoramic ocean and mountain views and is always maintained with the highest…

Paddle Sports Center

Kayak and SUP Rentals and Tours - Ocean Fun Since '91 Santa Barbara's Only 90 minute rental and best "All-Day" rates! Explore the Santa Barbara Waterfront and get to paddle with Sea Lions and Dolphins! Paddle Sports Center is your gateway to ocean…

Santa Barbara Adventure Company

Experience an unforgettable adventure in Santa Barbara with the city's premier outfitter, providing exciting experiences to thousands of visitors yearly. CHANNEL ISLANDS TOURS Sea Cave Kayaking Tour at Channel Islands National ParkExplore Channel…

Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

Explore California’s unique natural landscape at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, a 78-acre living museum designed entirely with California-native plants. Five miles of easy walking trails crisscross the wild-crafted gardens, so you can…

Sandpiper Golf Club

The championship golf course at Sandpiper has been rated by Golf Digest in the top twenty five public golf courses in the nation. It was designed by William F. Bell and opened in 1972 featuring beautiful rolling fairways and challenging greens in a…

Shoreline Cafe

Meet us at the Beach! Put your toes in the sand or relax on our shaded deck while enjoying their casual beach fare. Located just North of the Santa Barbara Harbor on Leadbetter Beach they serve Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner seven days a week with…

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