It’s no secret that Santa Barbara is a top destination for water lovers, with miles of Pacific coastline to enjoy a swim or a surf session. But venturing away from the beach to explore the surrounding state parks, wilderness areas and mountain ranges will reward visitors with opportunities to take a dip in freshwater creeks, wade beneath waterfalls and bathe in natural hot springs. If you’re looking to enjoy water in all its forms, check out our seven favorite swimming spots around Santa Barbara.
1. Seven Falls and Three Pools
Just 10 minutes from downtown Santa Barbara in Los Padres National Forest, the 3-mile hike to Seven Falls and Three Pools sends hikers rock hopping up Mission Creek to enjoy a dip and scenic waterfalls. From the trailhead on Tunnel Creek Road, follow the access trail for a little over a mile, then decide whether to venture up the creek to the base of Seven Falls, or hike the steep trail that winds up above the falls and down to Three Pools for a swim. Exploring up the creek requires rock hopping and wading through the water, so comfortable water shoes are a plus. Those who opt for the more difficult route up to Three Pools can top off the adventure with a 15-foot cliff jump into one of the pools.
2. Gaviota Hot Spring
Thirty miles north of Santa Barbara on U.S. 101, Gaviota State Park offers hiking, camping and—of course—a natural hot spring perfect for a post-hike dip. Getting to the hot spring requires only a one-mile roundtrip hike starting from the trailhead at the parking lot ($2 parking fee). After hiking 0.5 mile on the Gaviota Peak Trail, continue straight at the fork for the Gaviota Hot Springs Trail, which leads to the warm pool after 200 yards. The milky blue hot spring is nestled amongst trees and foliage, creating a spa-worthy, secluded feel. Those looking for more of an adventure can hike the Gaviota Peak Trail and soak in the hot spring after finishing the 6.5-mile loop.
3. San Ysidro Waterfall
What sets the San Ysidro Trail apart from others is that the scenery along the way is equally as beautiful as the destination waterfall. For many, the 2-mile hike along San Ysidro Creek to the waterfall is the perfect turnaround point on this out-and-back trail. By this point, hikers have already ascended more than 1,000 feet and will be lured to gaze up at the tranquil falls and take a dip in the pool below. Those looking for a full-day excursion can continue past the falls towards East Camino Cielo Road where the trail becomes less defined and the hiking more rugged (9 miles roundtrip).
4. Big & Little Caliente Hot Springs
Those seeking an off-the-beaten path hot springs experience near Santa Barbara should find their way to Big and Little Caliente Hot Springs in Los Padres National Forest. There are two options for accessing the hot springs: eight miles of driving up a rugged, adobe clay road (closed during wet weather), or a 13-mile roundtrip hike with 3,000 feet of elevation gain on the return. Despite the isolated location, these tubs are often crowded on weekends. The Forest Service does not allow camping at the hot springs, but those planning an overnight journey can stay at one of the four small campgrounds along the trail.
5. Tangerine Falls
Well-known as Santa Barbara’s most beautiful waterfall, the 100-foot Tangerine Falls gushes into an impressive flow after a spring rain. In the scenic Santa Ynez Mountains 20 minutes from downtown, the 2.5-mile roundtrip hike to the falls via the West Fork Trail meanders up Cold Springs Canyon, crossing the creek and passing smaller waterfalls along the way. After a bit of rock hopping, hikers will reach the base of Tangerine Falls, where they can wade in the water and take in the sweeping vistas of the Pacific Ocean.
6. Willett and Sespe Hot Springs
Tucked away in the Sespe Wilderness of Los Padres National Forest, the Sespe Creek Trail features a warm creek—deep enough for swimming in some spots—and two options for hot springs. In total, the trail runs 16.8 miles (one way) with little elevation gain, making it perfect for weekend backpacking trips as well as shorter day hikes. After 9.5 miles on the trail, hikers will approach Willett Campground and the nearby Willett Hot Spring, a raised tub with natural spring water piped into it. Sespe Hot Springs are an additional 5.5 miles past Willett, about 15 miles from the trailhead. Hikers and backpackers will need to purchase an Adventure Pass online or at the Piedra Blanca trailhead before setting out into the wilderness.
7. Arroyo Burro Beach
Sandy shores, calm water, coastal bluffs—and just a 5-mile drive from downtown Santa Barbara—give Arroyo Burro Beach Park a true California vibe. Known to locals as Hendry’s Beach, this spot is a favorite for bringing along four-legged friends to run freely and play in the ocean and adjacent creek. The area to the south of the creek is an off-leash doggy playground, while the waves north of the creek attract surfers, swimmers, and boogie boarders as well as on-leash dog walkers. Bonus trip: head 0.5 mile up Cliff Drive to Douglas Family Preserve for three miles of trails with stunning views of the Pacific.
Originally written for Visit Santa Barbara.