Riding California's Central Coast

Santa Barbara's Mountains and Woods
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On the outskirts of Santa Barbara, a narrow bridle path cuts across a hillside.
On trail through the chaparral

The Santa Barbara area offers more than a dozen places to ride, most of them located near Goleta, which is about 20 miles north of town. Goleta is obviously serious horse country: Driving along Route 101, you pass horse-filled corrals, one after another. The rolling hills, well-maintained barns, and crisp white fences wouldn't look out of place in Kentucky. Our ride started a few miles off the highway, in the foothills of the Santa Ynez mountains. This particular ranch had an almost theatrical Old West atmosphere, from sun-bleached cattle skulls and prickly pear cactus to tobacco-chawing cowboys clad in chaps, neckerchiefs, and ten-gallon hats. The wranglers quickly assigned horses to our group of four, and gave a few brief instructions about guiding our mounts.

The well-maintained trail up into the foothills was steep, and narrow in most places, so we traveled single-file. Early fall, the time of our Goleta ride, is the tail end of the dry season. Nevertheless, we passed a couple of small waterfalls and crossed several creeks. There were also some dry creek beds, which would be full of water at another time of year. The path ascended a mountain that was lushly wooded with a mix of trees, including olive and sycamore. Some of them were turning golden. There were tree-sized rhododendrons, which must be spectacular when they bloom in the spring.

When we passed a grove of avocado trees, our guide picked a dozen or so and handed them out to the riders. Many of the trees were gnarled with age, their dark trunks photogenically twisted. One elderly tree in particular caught our attention. It was embellished with a hand-painted plaque proclaiming that it was the Joaquin Murietta hanging tree. Murietta, a bandit said to have preyed on gold miners, has the dubious distinction of being the first outlaw executed in the state of California. After he was hanged in the Santa Ynez mountains in 1853, his head was preserved in a jar of brine and displayed in San Francisco until 1906, when it was destroyed in the earthquake and fire.

On a clear day, the Channel Islands off the coast are said to be visible from the mountaintop. Unfortunately, we were there on an overcast day, so we can't vouch for that. However, we had a wonderful view from the summit, extending across several steep, wooded canyons. We rested our horses there for a while, taking advantage of the photo opportunity. There was the beginning of a beautiful sunset highlighting the ominous cloud formations as we started our return to the ranch. Our guide was new to the area and didn't have answers to a lot of questions. Whatever he didn't know, he wasn't shy about inventing. For example, he told one of the riders that the mountains were called the coastal range, and laughed when he was corrected. However, he kept things lively with jokes and one-liners, and he did share those fresh avocados. Except for a couple of very brief trots, this was a 90-minute walk. I had been told to expect mostly trotting and some cantering, but that didn't work out. Two of the people in our group were first-time riders and strongly preferred a slower gait. The horses were frisky, and it was a little disappointing not to have a chance to see what they could do, but the land was beautiful and it was nice to have the opportunity to enjoy it at any speed.

Essentials: Goleta is about 20 miles north of Santa Barbara. Take Route 101 to the Refugio State Beach exit, then take Refugio Road 3.5 miles north to the Circle Bar B Guest Ranch, at 1800 Refugio Road (805-968-3501). Three 90-minute group rides are scheduled daily, and cost $25 per person, one of the lowest prices I've been quoted anywhere. Half-day lunch rides are available, and private rides can be customized to accommodate your schedule and specific interests.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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