Walk on the Wild Side: Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

Looking up at the stony face of the Santa Ynez Mountains, one sometimes gets the impression that the mountains are impenetrable. But studying a good map, you see that there are several canyons which provide access, at least into the foothills. They bear such names as Rattlesnake, Sycamore, Cold Springs – narrow canyons each with its own trail and stream which continue to carve out ever- deepening canyons.

The most important of all of them is Mission Canyon with its stream, Mission Creek. Unlike smaller streams, it runs year-round. And rather than hiking up an arduous trail, there’s a road that provides easy access by car.

Look for the signs directing you to the 72-acre Santa Barbara Botanic Garden which is devoted exclusively to the native plants of California. A path circles the meadow which sets off a stunning view of both Arlington and La Cumbre Peaks, the latter which rises to almost 4,000 feet, the highest point of the so-called front range. Trails lead you down into the canyon itself with live oaks and sycamores providing welcome shade on warm days. Most of the year, you can hear the refreshing sound of water tumbling over sandstone boulders. Of particular historic interest is the Mission Dam and Aqueduct built with Native American labor in 1807 to supply water to the Santa Barbara Mission.

Returning to the meadow, take a detour down to the Home Demonstration Garden, where plantings illustrate how to use good-looking, water-conserving natives around your home.

Across the street from the parking lot, is one of my favorite sections where Porter Trail follows an open ridge with both mountain views and views south over the channel to the islands. Here you can see close-up some of the chaparral plants which grow on the distant slopes.

Three years ago, the disastrous Jesusita fire burned much to the Garden including vegetation along the Porter Trail. The badly burned live oaks have since sprouted new leaves and understory plants have either grown anew from seeds or sprouted from their crowns, benefiting from the nutritious ash left by the flames, and reminding us that we live in a fire ecosystem.

Before leaving the Botanic Garden, check out the nursery where plants are always on sale. Stop, too, at the Garden Shop where The Pantry offers a pick-me-up beverage and a variety of snacks for munching at one of the nearby deck tables where you are surrounded by oaks and sycamores.

For more information about the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, including hours and tour information, visit their website here.

If you are curious to know more about the natural history of the Santa Barbara region, consider buying Joan Easton Lentz’s outstanding, newly-released volume on the subject. A Naturalist's Guide to the Santa Barbara Region is available in our online shop or at our retail outlet at 214 E. Victoria Street in Santa Barbara.

-Contributed by Phila Rogers