By John McKinney
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Rattlesnake Canyon Trail
From Skofield Park to Tin Can Meadow is 4.5 miles round trip with 1,000-foot elevation gain; to Gibraltar Road is 6 miles round trip with 1,500-foot gain.
Rattlesnake Canyon Trail is serpentine, but otherwise far more inviting than its name suggests.
The joys of the canyon were first promoted by none other than the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce. Many early 20th century visitors to Santa Barbara resorts enjoyed hiking and riding in the local mountains. Eager to keep the customers satisfied, in 1902 the chamber purchased easements from canyon homesteaders to develop a recreation trail.
"Chamber of Commerce Trail," as the chamber called it, was an immediate success with both tourists and locals. However, to the chamber's consternation, both the trail and the canyon itself continued to be called Rattlesnake. Chamber of Commerce Canyon sounded a bit self-serving, so the chamber tried to compromise with an earlier name, Las Canoas Canyon, and adopted a 1902 resolution to that effect. "The name of Rattlesnake Canyon is unpleasantly suggestive of a reptile," it argued, "which is found no more plentifully there than elsewhere along the mountain range and may deter some nervous persons from visiting that most delightful locality."
In the 1960s, the city of Santa Barbara purchased the canyon as parkland. A handsome wooden sign at the foot of the canyon proudly proclaims: Rattlesnake Canyon Wilderness.
This trail explores Santa Barbara's little wilderness canyon. Red-berried toyon, manzanita with its white urn-shaped flowers, and purple hummingbird sage cloak the slopes and offer a variety of smells and textures. Early in spring, ceanothus blooms and adds frosty whites and blues to the gray-green thickets of chaparral. Shooting stars, larkspur, and lupine also spread their color over the slopes and meadows in spring.
Directions to trailhead: From Highway 101 in Santa Barbara, go uptown (toward the mountains) on State Street to Los Olivos Street. Turn right and proceed a half mile, passing by the Santa Barbara Mission and joining Mission Canyon Road. Follow this road past its intersection with Foothill Road and make a right on Las Canoas Road. Follow Las Canoas to Skofield Park. Leave your car on the shoulder of the road or in the large parking area near the picnic grounds. The trail begins on Las Canoas Road near the handsome stone bridge that crosses Rattlesnake Creek.
The hike: From the sandstone bridge across from Skofield Park, hike up a brief stretch of trail and join a narrow dirt road that parallels the east side of the creek. For lovely picnicking, take any of the steep side trails down to the creek. In the early 19th century the mission padres built a dam in the bottom of the canyon, which channeled water into a stone aqueduct and diverted it into the mission's waterworks system. Portions of the aqueduct still exist and can be seen by the careful observer.
The trail zigzags across the creek, finally continuing along the west bank to open, grassy Tin Can Meadow. The triangular-shaped meadow gets its name from a homesteader's cabin constructed of chaparral framing and kerosene can shingles and sidings. For the first quarter of this century, Tin Can Shack was an important canyon landmark and several guidebooks of that era mention it. It was a popular destination for picnickers who marveled at the inspired architecture and posed for pictures in front of it. In 1925, a brushfire destroyed the shack and it soon disintegrated into a pile of tin.
If you're feeling energetic, hike on toward the apex of the triangular meadow where you'll find a junction. The trail bearing left leads 0.75 mile and climbs 500 feet to its intersection with the Tunnel Trail--and incidentally to many points of interest in the Santa Barbara backcountry. To the right, Rattlesnake Canyon Trail climbs about 0.75 mile and 500 feet to its intersection with Gibraltar Road. There you will be greeted by an unobstructed view of the South Coast.
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