Saturday, March 16, 2013

Arroyo Hondo Preserve: Hiking Through Time

I am not a botanist. Nor do I pretend to know much about native plants, habitat restoration, or land use regulation. Regardless I committed to a 10-week program of habitat restoration at the Arroyo Hondo Preserve along the Gaviota Coast; that stretch of sun baked coastal land which extends from Santa Barbara out to where Highway 101 turns inland. This 30 mile stretch is one of the last un-spoiled tracts of coastal land in California and is a multitude of agriculture pasture lands, canyons and pristine beaches.

At 782 acres the Arroyo Hondo canyon looks deceptively small. The earliest known inhabitants of Arroyo Hondo were the Barbareno-Chumash civilization going back about 5,000 years. When Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed through the Channel in 1542, his team recorded a camp of the Native Americans located here at the mouth of Arroyo Hondo creek. Just 227 years later when the De Anza expedition actually walked this area, the village at Arroyo Hondo was abandoned. Of course the arrival of the Spanish spelled doom for the Chumash, maybe they understood that.

Rancho Arroyo Hondo was part of the original 26,530-acre Rancho Nuestra SeƱora del Refugio Mexican land grant to former Santa Barbara Presidio Commandant Jose Francisco Ortega in 1827 – that’s quite a gift by today’s standards. Only three families have owned this land since the Chumash first inhabited it and the adobe house on the property was built in 1842 by the Ortega family and was used as a stagecoach stop on the route between Lompoc and Santa Barbara in the late 1800s and the old road (since there was no freeway or railroad crossing) passed by the adobe. There is a small museum inside, two rooms actually, mainly photos and a few scrapbooks providing some history. 

Undoubtedly because of the narrow canyon at Hondo and its streamlined views down to the road it became a refuge for outlaws including Joaquin Murrieta, known to have murdered at least one man (Murrieta was killed by a posse in 1853 at his headquarters near Coalinga), and Jack Powers who terrorized travelers after the gold rush. Therefore you have the aptly named and best hiking trail here- The Outlaw Trail which takes you from the mouth of the canyon far up into the mountain with killer views. The trail is really two parts, a low key stroll through Hollister meadow and a slight incline which stops at a small grass clearing. Housed there is a wood picnic table placed strategically so you can rest and enjoy ocean views. If this seems taxing, don’t bother with the rest of the trail. From here it ascends sharply into the mountains and you leave behind the lush meadow by the stream and as you ascend the vegetation becomes more sparse, low to the ground, the heat becomes more pronounced, and the land more unforgiving.
Views along the Outlaw Trail

Heading up the Outlaw Trail you pass through successive layers of rock formations, some estimated to be about 40 million years old. At the top are sweeping views and a cool malformed sandstone outcropping looking more like Swiss cheese with holes and tunnels permeating its core, where you can stand and feel like you own the whole world. The views to the Pacific and the Channel Islands are unsurpassed. It’s just you and the random hawks and turkey vultures who silently soar above you. To your left is the Tajiguas landfill (which one local paper described as the “prettiest and most expensive landfill” in the tri-counties) and the peculiar juxtaposition of two canyons, one a nature preserve and one a garbage dump, is amusing, if not a little sad. But then that’s exactly the point of keeping Arroyo Hondo in perpetuity. This canyon won’t end up being a dumping ground for our insatiable need to waste things.

Looking down the canyon from the top of Outlaw
During my 10 weeks at the preserve I weeded, hoed, planted “native” plants under the direction of botanist Darlene Chirman, weeded again, mulched, watered, and tediously weeded again. I was curious about restoration, after all, what are “native” species and how do you track a chronology of plants? The rule of thumb in California is that native plants refer to plants here prior to the arrival of the Spanish and the goal is to bring Hondo back to that close approximation. Once the Spanish came they began cultivating the land with seeds and cuttings from Spain and Mexico, forever altering the landscape. It seems futile in some regards to get back to that point in time, and certainly with ubiquitous weeds piercing through the ground and the constant effort to root them out, it’s a perplexing task. But if left unchecked, this preserve, along with the plants and animals like mountains lions, newts, birds and fish that have long called this place home, would suffer from a changing landscape forcing them to retreat elsewhere.
Volunteers doing their thing

Perhaps that is the obvious nature of evolution and we should not try and maintain a piece of land, memorializing it from its heyday. Perhaps evolution demands we let nature take its own course, and that’s a viable argument. But after 10 weeks here I realize that we humans are stewards of this planet and the animals and plants in it. The work that restoration volunteers do here may not stop nature from what She wants to accomplish, but they are helping to preserve Hondo as it was before Westerners came along. The hope is that this place of natural beauty and history will inspire others, and that, regardless of what might happen with building codes, zoning laws and property rights, this valuable section of the Gaviota Coast will remain unspoiled and available to everyone.

Hondo is open the first and third weekends of each month. There are free docent led hikes the first Saturday and third Sunday of every month at 10 a.m. There’s no cost to visit, but donations are gladly accepted. Advance reservations are required – simply do this on-line – as a way of knowing who comes out, in part because the gates get locked and you don’t want to be stuck here. From Santa Barbara north on Highway 101 Arroyo Hondo is four miles past Refugio State Beach. Look for the blue CalTrans call boxes spaced one mile apart on the right hand side of the highway. The Arroyo Hondo entrance is located immediately after call box 101-412.   ARROYO HONDO PRESERVE


  1. Michael,

    It was a pleasure to get to volunteer with you at Arroyo Hondo this spring. This is a very well written and produced blog. Thanks for the great exposure and all of your hard work.


    Jonathan Appelbaum

    1. Thanks, Jonathan. My hope is that more people will get to know Hondo. Such a cool place.