A Pedacito of Hot Springs in Santa Barbara, CA
When you look up what to do in Santa Barbara, the hot springs are one of the first things listed. My boyfriend and I were staying in Santa Barbara for about a month, but we spent the majority of our days surfing. We checked out all of the local spots, from the world-famous Rincon, to Mussel Shoals (Little Rincon), to Leadbetter. We’re both avid surfers, so if you have any questions about the waves—reach out and let me know!
When our friends said they were coming to visit, we wanted to show them the hot springs although we’d never been before. I decided to scope out the scene a few days before they arrived. While my boyfriend was working remotely at our apartment, I set out on an adventure. I promised I’d find the hot springs so I could show him and our friends later.
I entered “hot springs” into Google Maps and the “Hot Springs Trailhead” came up; I assumed that was correct. I hit Go. The road winded through thick trees, fenced-in horses, and estates. It dropped me at a dirt parking lot of about eight spaces. I pulled into the only empty space and stepped out, looking for some kind of trailhead.
There was no trail, let alone a map, in sight. I followed a group of people down the hill behind my parking space until they abruptly turned and got into their cars. Shoot. I was clueless. I started walking back up the hill because it felt right. Again, I saw a pack of people walking down the hill. So I followed them.
An older, sweaty man with no shirt passed me on his way up the hill. He jogged lightly while his fanny pack bounced up and down his waist. He called to me, “Hey there! That was quick!” Shoot. I was so obviously lost. But his comment meant only one thing— that the trail began at the top of the hill. I brushed off his comment with a wave and a giggle and when he was just out of sight, I turned around and sneakily tried to follow him.
Walking fast, but calm, but fast, I caught a glimpse of his bobbing head in the distance. He was somehow in front of the parking lot; on the other side of a rickety, wooden fence that fenced in the cars. To the far right hid a foot-traffic only dirt path. Hallelujah! I never would’ve found it on my own.
From there, the path was pretty straightforward; mostly because the only option was the path in front of my feet, and because I was trailing a girl in front of me just in case. She seemed like she knew what she was doing. The path winded through Sycamores and Oaks. Graffiti buildings decorated the sides of the path. But the farther I walked, the thicker the trees became and the more remote everything felt. I was entering a mountain forest. I’d read online that when you start to smell the sulfur, you’re getting close to the springs. And jeez, it smelled like sulfur. I knew I must be getting close.
I’d also read that the hike should take about 40 minutes; I was 45 minutes in and the sulfur smell was fading. The main trail went straight but also forked into a side path. The girl I had been trailing was paused at the fork, and I caught up to her. “Do you know where the springs are?” I asked her. “No. I think we’re close, though.” We decided to stay on the main trail.
The girl’s name was Jasmine and she was a tattoo artist in Santa Barbara. We walked and talked about COVID, unemployment, the self-employed’s unfortunate situation, and before we knew it; we emerged from the trees. The trail had opened up and we were standing on the side of a mountain with an incredibly vast view of the ocean. Apparently, we had emerged from the trees. It wasn’t the hot springs, but it was still beautiful.
Committed to finding them, we backtracked about twenty minutes and waited for others to show up at the crossing. Ah ha! Two moms with a herd of children scrambled on the rocks of the path we avoided earlier. We headed in that direction, crossed a small river, and asked the women if we were going the right way. They said yes! We were so close. We walked about five minutes and stumbled upon natural, rocky pools.
There were six layers of pools; one pool (more or less) per layer. Thick clusters of bamboo framed the water area. At the very top level, a group of about four people sat on rock ledges and stood, waist-level, in the pool. Their heads dipped under, and then out, and then under, every few minutes. I’m sure they’d been there all day. There were enough chip bags and beers to feed an army. Their clothes were hung up, drying, on a string between trees. Not to mention, some were shirtless. I heard a rumor that clothing was optional here; I can now confirm that it’s true.
Jasmine and I wandered to the bottom pool; it was about 4 pm and we were late to the party, so we thought we’d take the most indiscreet pool. A couple cuddled to the far left, but we could squeeze into the far right. She stripped down to her bathing suit and I, less prepared, planned on just wearing my workout clothes. As much I wanted to fully strip down and enjoy the experience in its entirety, the majority of people were fully clothed.
We crawled over the rocks and submerged ourselves in the blue water; it was cozy, so much warmer than room temperature, but nowhere near hot. Just warmly comforting. I felt like I was back in the womb—Mother Earth’s womb.
When I arrived home, I was ecstatic about showing my boyfriend and our friends. That night, due to COVID, we found out that our friends wouldn’t be coming after all. Regardless, my boyfriend and I walked the trail at sunrise that weekend. The hike took about 35 minutes and we arrived just in time for one of the deeper pools a few levels up. We dipped our heads, swam around, and perched on rocks. We closed our eyes and just floated, relaxing in the warm pools. We stayed until we were starving for breakfast. Turns out, there’s more to do in Santa Barbara than incredible surfing.
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