Santa Barbara is a nature lover’s paradise. With its beautiful beaches, stunning hiking trails, and world-class surfing, there’s no shortage of outdoor activities to enjoy in this central California coastal town. If you’re looking for adventures and unique things to do in Santa Barbara to soak in the gorgeous nature on your next trip to town, here are seven incredible natural attractions and outdoor activities.
Hike to Inspiration Point
For breathtaking views of Santa Barbara and the surrounding area, head up into the Santa Ynez Mountains for a hike. There are trails of varying difficulty levels, so whether you’re a seasoned hiker or just getting started, there’s a trail for you.
One of the most popular trails in Santa Barbara is Inspiration Point. It’s an out-and-back trail just a few minutes outside of downtown Santa Barbara with stunning coastal views at the end – on a clear day, you can see all the way out the Channel Islands!
The trail is a moderately challenging 3.4 miles with 935ft of elevation gain and typically takes about an hour and a half to complete. There are multiple trails branching off from the same trailhead here, so you can always continue your hike if you want more of a challenge or take a different path if you want to avoid some of the crowds.
There is free parking located on the street near the trailhead. Be sure to bring plenty of water and sunscreen, as it can get pretty hot in the mountains, especially during the summer months. If you have furry friends, the trail is dog friendly, as are the majority of hiking trails in the area, so long as they’re on a leash.
Surf the Famous Rincon Point
Rincon Point is one of the most popular surf spots in Santa Barbara, as well as one of the best beaches in southern California for surfing. It’s a point break with long waves and a sandy bottom, ideal for both beginners (during the summer when the waves are smaller and gentler) and experienced surfers (during the winter when bigger swells come in).
Rincon is about a 20-30 minute drive south of downtown Santa Barbara. There is a free parking lot located right off the freeway to the north of the point, where you will then walk down a path to get to the beach. Just be sure to check the surf report before heading out, as the waves can get pretty big during the winter months or too flat during the summer.
If you’re a new surfer looking for lessons or want to stay in town, your best bet is to check out Leadbetter Beach or Campus Point (off of UC Santa Barbara’s campus).
Camp at Refugio State Beach
If you love camping but don’t want to venture too far from civilization, Refugio State Beach is the perfect spot for you. Just a short drive from Santa Barbara (about 30 minutes north), this beach offers visitors ample opportunities for swimming, surfing, and relaxing in the sun.
The gorgeous coastline of Refugio State Beach also offers plenty of trails and picnic spots. Plus, for those interested in kayaking, there are kayak tours offered from about Memorial Day weekend through August. For surfers, the surf tends to be fairly reliable year-round with more of a mellow longboarding right-hand point break, but it’s best during the winter months when bigger swells come in.
One of three state parks along the Gaviota Coast, you can use the beach for day use, overnight camping, and trailer/camper spots. Reservations are required and open six months in advance.
Visit the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
If you want a slower-paced natural attraction, the popular Santa Barbara Botanic Garden may be the perfect place for you. This 78-acre oasis is home to over 1,000 species of rare and indigenous plants, providing a tranquil setting for walking, picnicking, or simply relaxing.
There are 11 distinct ecosystems featured, such as desert, redwood, island, and meadow. Whether you’re looking to learn about horticulture or just want to enjoy some time in nature, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is sure to offer an experience that you won’t soon forget.
The gardens are open to the general public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and they also offer a variety of events and workshops throughout the year. This living museum is dog-friendly and has plenty of trails to wander along and admire the gorgeous flowers and plants.
For people living in Santa Barbara, there are often great deals and discounts for memberships. Garden members can receive perks such as free admission to the Moxi museum during certain months or the opportunity to attend frequent events and community days.
Kayak and SUP in the Santa Barbara Harbor
For a fun and unique way to experience the Santa Barbara Harbor, why not try kayaking or stand-up paddle boarding (SUP)? You can rent equipment downtown (Paddle Sports Center in the harbor is a good option), and it’s best to go at sunset when the water is calm and the scenery is looking exceptional.
Paddling out into the harbor means you’ll get to see all sorts of unique boats and marine wildlife, such as Californian sea lions, Harbor seals, and Brown pelicans. And of course, the views of the city and mountains are simply gorgeous. And if you want a bit more information, guidance, or historical facts, book in for one of the tours.
After your session, make sure to wander around Stearns Wharf. There are also plenty of incredible restaurants (such as Finney’s Crafthouse) and cafes (check out Jeannine’s) nearby to enjoy after you’ve worked up an appetite paddling around. Or head up the road into the Funk Zone, where you will find many craft breweries, wineries, and cocktail lounges for a refreshing post-activity drink.
Scuba Dive and Snorkel at the Channel Islands
Some of the best snorkeling and diving in the world is located just off the coast of Santa Barbara along the Channel Islands. The islands are a good spot to see marine wildlife, including Californian sea lions, Harbor seals, Common dolphins, plenty of unique fish, and even whales (if you’re lucky). The clear waters make it ideal for both diving and kayaking, whether you’re looking to explore underwater or above it.
Santa Cruz Island is considered to have the largest number of sea caves in the world, often explored by kayak and by scuba diving. Diving into these underwater caves can be extremely dangerous, so it’s best to be a more experienced diver and to go with a guided group.
There is plenty of diving around the islands (especially Santa Cruz and Anacapa), which is great for more beginner divers as well! The islands also offer plenty of hiking, camping, fishing, and birdwatching and make for a wonderful day trip from Santa Barbara.
Rock Climb and Boulder Around Lizard’s Mouth
If you’re looking for some extra adventure and enjoy climbing… Lizard’s Mouth is a must-visit! This rocky area in the mountains offers beautiful views out to the ocean, and you can anchor yourself in for more serious climbs or just climb around as you please. Many people bring pads and boulder around in the expansive area filled with rocks.
Named after the lizard-like rock formation, whether you’re a seasoned climber or just getting started, it’s the perfect place to test your boundaries. Kids also love running over the rocks and exploring the caves. Plus, parking is easy and free, and it’s just a short walk over a few rocks if you want to simply enjoy the views and see the famous “Lizard’s Mouth” rock.
It’s a lovely place to watch the sunset or come for a picnic and to enjoy one of Santa Barbara’s more unique natural attractions. Some people even camp here on the rocks without a tent to enjoy the night sky. However, it can get extremely windy up there at night, so make sure to check the weather reports and have a backup plan to stay safely out of any intense winds.
BONUS: Relax at One of the Natural Hot Springs
If you’re looking to relax and rejuvenate outdoors, there’s nothing quite like soaking in a natural hot spring. Though the smell takes some getting used to, the warm waters are rich in minerals, and the gentle heat can help to ease muscle tension and relieve pain.
In addition, hot springs are believed to have numerous health benefits, including improved circulation and detoxification. Fortunately, there are multiple hot springs within a short drive around Santa Barbara.
The best two are Gaviota Hot Springs to the north and the Hot Springs Canyon (also known as the Montecito Hot Springs). The Gaviota Hot Springs are about a one-mile hike in on the “Trespass Trail.” They aren’t incredibly well-marked, so keep a close eye out for the signs. These hot springs are a bit cooler and smaller but also tend not to be as crowded. There may be a small fee to park at the trailhead.
The Hot Springs Canyon Trail is about 3.7 miles long and takes an average of 2-2.5 hours to complete. There are about 5 hot springs here, the hottest ones are at the top then they get progressively cooler towards the bottom pools. There’s a small free parking lot at the trailhead but try to come early in the day as this trail can get packed!
Where to Stay in Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is a very safe city to visit and has plenty of beautiful places for visitors to stay in to be near all the best natural attractions and activities. Downtown Santa Barbara is a great option for those who want to be close to the action. State Street is the main thoroughfare, and it’s lined with shops, restaurants, and cafes.
The Funk Zone is also located downtown, and it’s home to many art galleries, bars, and breweries. Visitors who are interested in the Santa Barbara waterfront can stay near the harbor. This area is perfect for those who want to enjoy the city’s natural beauty and go for walks or bike rides along the beach.
For a family-friendly resort-style hotel, check out the Harbor View Inn. It’s in a fantastic location and can typically be found at a reasonable price. For an exceptional stay with 5-star treatment, the Ritz-Carlton Bacara is an upscale resort that overlooks the ocean.
Best Time of Year for Nature Adventures in Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is a beautiful city any time of year, but some natural attractions are best enjoyed during certain seasons. Here are some more suggestions for enjoying Santa Barbara’s natural attractions throughout the year.
The warmest months tend to be July through September or even October. Enjoy the beach, swimming, or any ocean-related sports throughout the summertime. Summer is also the busiest time of the year when tourists are often visiting.
Spring is best for viewing blooming wildflowers and can be quite nice for most outdoor activities as well. The weather tends to be most variable during the winter and spring, so prepare by wearing layers and having alternate activities planned in case it’s raining or windy.
Fall is lovely for hiking as it still tends to be warmer outside but cool enough to enjoy a more active time outdoors. The ocean has had a chance to warm up all summer, so you might be able to enjoy some water-related activities as well.
The coldest weather typically lasts from about December through February. Surfing is at its best during the winter when bigger swells come in and provide ample surf opportunity along the coast. Though the water will be cold, and you will certainly need a thicker wetsuit!
To sum up: there’s no shortage of things to do in Santa Barbara if you love being outdoors. From hiking and camping to surfing and stand-up paddle boarding, there’s something for everyone. So, whether you’re a nature lover or adrenaline junkie, be sure to include a few of these nature adventures in Santa Barbara in your trip.
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