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Hike the Santa Ynez Valley

Column by Outdoor Editor John McKinney, aka The Trailmaster, (site and store here)

Hike the Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country and enjoy a couple of short trails that lead from tasting room to tasting room. Located near the little town of Los Olivos, the “Foxen Canyon Wine Trail” offers a tour from winery to winery along Foxen Canyon Road. The tour is for motorists (and some cyclists) but I’m happy to report there’s also a hiking trail to take in Foxen Canyon.

Unwind, uncork, and take a hike in the Santa Barbara wine country.

Unwind, uncork, and take a hike in the Santa Barbara wine country.

Perched atop a commanding mesa overlooking Zaca Canyon, the Santa Ynez Valley and the wilderness beyond, Firestone Vineyard is the oldest (established in 1972) estate winery in Santa Barbara County. The large (by valley standards) winery produces acclaimed Merlots, Chardonnays and Rieslings. And it boasts the first and only hiking trail, too,

During the 1990s, winery founder Brooks Firestone represented the county in the State Assembly for a few terms, before returning to expand the family business. From the earliest days of wine touring in the Santa Ynez Valley, Firestone Vineyard has been a major player and must-stop.

Hikers were pleased when Firestone constructed “Brooks’ Trail” around the vineyard. The pleasant pathway connects Firestone Vineyard with the former Curtis Winery tasting room, recently taken over by Andrew Murray Vineyards.

Andrew Murray wines are much admired, particularly for fine Rhône varieties, and it’s probably a safe bet that The Trailmaster is the one and only person who associates Andrew Murray wines with hiking. Let me explain:


Mountain and (Santa Ynez) Valley vistas are highlights of Brooks’ Trail.

A decade ago, when I was leading hiking tours of Santa Barbara for an upscale walking vacation company, Andrew Murray Vineyards was quite hospitable to our hiking groups. Andrew’s Mom (Fran Murray) was active with a wonderful group, the Santa Ynez Valley Women Hikers, and she and Andrew gave us permission to walk their property and then arranged a post-hike wine tasting. A couple times, Andrew himself did the pour and proudly explained where he wanted to go with the family business. For some of the hikers on my tour, it was the highlight of the week!

So here’s a toast to the Murrays, winemakers and hikers.

If you have a designated driver (always a good idea if you’re on a tasting tour), you can make this an even easier 1.2 mile one-way hike (mostly downhill) from Firestone to Curtis.

Plan your hike for a time when Firestone Vineyard’s tasting room is open, usually 10 A.M. to 5 P.M. daily. The main gain is open a little before and after these hours.

For a little more wine country hiking, pay a visit to Zaca Mesa Winery, which occupies a scenic plateau overlooking Foxen Canyon. The winery offers tastings and two short trails, which look a bit neglected these days. Windmill Trail (0.25 mile) climbs to a picnic area then up to a little overlook. Z Trail (0.25 mile) also climbs to an overlook (a popular promontory for exchanging wedding vows). The path winds among the region’s two kinds of oaks—coastal live and valley—helpfully identified by signs en route.

It’s uphill back to Firestone Winery but it’s an easy ascent, even after a bit of wine-tasting.

It’s uphill back to Firestone Winery but it’s an easy ascent, even after a bit of wine-tasting.

If you’re fantasizing about hiking across the valley from winery to winery and stopping at each tasting room along the trail, you’re going to be disappointed. Sauntering through vineyards in the valley is just not possible or encouraged like it is in Provence and Tuscany. We hikers are grateful to Firestone and Andrew Murray for this small sampling of Santa Ynez Valley wine-country trails, but the valley is so beautiful and enticing, we’re left thirsting for more.

The signed path begins by the picnic area, located just below the Firestone tasting room. Valley vistas are superb from the start of the trail. The trail descends to the vineyard, skirts rows and rows of grapes, and soon crosses the vineyard’s paved entry road.

Brooks Trail climbs a bit, then contours along oak-dotted slopes. Enjoy grand views of Foxen Canyon and the greater wine country. The sights and sounds of cars traveling Foxen Canyon and the rise and dip of active oil rigs amidst the rows of grape are also part of the valley scene. The path descends to Andrew Murray Winery and Visitor Center, where there are grassy picnic grounds under the shade of ancient oaks.

Directions: From Highway 101, some 45 miles north of Santa Barbara, exit on State Highway 154 (San Marcos Pass Rd.) and head east 2.5 miles to Foxen Canyon Road. Turn left and follow the winding road 4.4 miles to a junction with Zaca Station Road. Firestone Vineyard is located 0.7 mile south on Zaca Station Road. Curtis Winery is just west on the continuation of Foxen Canyon Road.

The most direct route to Firestone Vineyard is to exit Highway 101 on Zaca Station Road and proceed 2.5 miles northeast.

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San Rafael Wilderness, America’s First

By John McKinney, Outdoor Editor. Follow the Trailmaster on Facebook.

The Wilderness Act celebrated its 50th anniversary on September 3, 2014, and my first thoughts are with the first Wilderness set aside by this amazing piece of legislation: the San Rafael Wilderness.

Interpretive sign near Manzana Creek describes the 25th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Time to celebrate the 50th anniversary with a new sign!

Interpretive sign near Manzana Creek describes the 25th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Time to celebrate the 50th anniversary with a new sign!

The San Rafael Wilderness also happens to be the one closest to my home. It’s about 16 miles as the condor flies from downtown Santa Barbara to the southern boundary of the San Rafael and about 25 miles to NIRA Campground, a popular trailhead for hikes into the wilderness. The Wilderness Act first protected some 9 million acres of America’s wild lands as official Wilderness. Many more wondrous wild lands have been added to the national wilderness system, and today about 110 million acres of mountains, desert, forest and seashore are part of the nation’s natural heritage.

The 197,380-acre wilderness includes two parallel mountain ranges, the San Rafael Mountains and Sierra Madre Mountains and two major waterways, the Sisquoc River and Manzana Creek, which eventually merge and flow into the ocean near Santa Maria.

Hit the trail into the San Rafael Wilderness (one of America’s first designated wilderness areas), located in Los Padres National Forest about 25 miles as the condor flies from Santa Barbara, California.

Hit the trail into the San Rafael Wilderness (one of America’s first designated wilderness areas), located in Los Padres National Forest about 25 miles as the condor flies from Santa Barbara, California.

The hiking along Manazana Creek is pretty mellow—a good day hike or fine family weekend backpack adventure. For something more challenging, hike along Hurricane Deck, a rugged 15-mile long sandstone ridge that divides the drainages of Manzana Creek and the Siquoc River.

“San Rafael is rocky, rugged, wooded and lonely,” President Lyndon B. Johnson remarked when he signed the San Rafael Wilderness bill on March 21, 1968. “I believe it will enrich the spirit of America.”

Certainly Santa Barbarans—at least those who’ve explored the Los Padres National Forest backcountry—have been enriched by our nearby wilderness.

Fortunate is he or she who has camped along the Manzana River, hiked the awesome and austere Hurricane Deck and sighted a condor soaring high over the oak-dotted potreros and chaparral.

It is altogether fitting that we give thanks for wilderness, refuges for Nature primeval and places that uplift the human spirit.

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Coast Walks in Santa Barbara

Coast-Walks-SB-coverSanta Barbara View’s outdoor editor John McKinney, aka the Trailmaster, has released a new book in time for the holidays titled, COAST WALKS: Santa Barbara; Best Beach Walks and Coastal Hikes.

“These are my home shores and I’m delighted to share my favorite beach walks, bluff-top rambles and coastal hikes,” says John in his blog about the new book. “COAST WALKS: Santa Barbara is a collection of time-tested classic walks long enjoyed by my family, friends and fellow Santa Barbarans, as well as newer adventures worthy of your time and attention.

Santa Barbara County offers miles of pleasant sand beach with the ocean and islands on one side and the mountains on the other. Many of the county’s beaches are lined by narrow coastal terraces that have the effect of protecting them from the hustle and bustle of modern life. Continue Reading →

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National Lands: Twelve Kinds of Public Land You Can Hike (Except when the U.S.Government Shuts Down)

By John McKinney, Outdoor Editor. Follow the Trailmaster on Facebook.

Everyone knows of the nation’s crown jewels—America’s national parks. And it’s the national parks and the disappointment of people from across the nation and around the world who can’t visit them because of the government shut-down that’s made the news.

Few of us–hikers or not–realize that America boasts a dozen more national lands, some under the stewardship of the National Park Service and others under the jurisdiction of other federal land use agencies. Here’s a quick reference guide for the hiker.

National Conservation Area: Similar to National Monument status; applies solely to BLM lands. Granted only by Congress. Individual site determines allowable recreational activities.

National Forest or Grassland Land managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and may allow a wide variety of activities including logging, mining, and oil and gas drilling, as well as trail activities, hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, and OHV use.

Juan Bautista De Anza Historic Trail helps visitors follow in the footsteps of California’s early explorers and settlers.

Juan Bautista De Anza Historic Trail helps visitors follow in the footsteps of California’s early explorers and settlers.

National Historic Trail (NHT) Federally designated extended trails, which closely follow original routes of nationally significant travel (explorers, emigrants, traders, military, etc.). NHTs do not have to be continuous, can be less than 100 miles in length, and can include land and water segments. The Iditarod, the Lewis and Clark, the Mormon Pioneer, and the Oregon trails were the first to be designated as NHTs in 1978.

National Monument Federal areas of unique ecological, geological, historic, prehistoric, cultural, or scientific interest. Traditionally used for historic structures or landmarks on government land; more recently used to grant national park-like status to tracts of western land. Designated by Congress or the president. Individual site determines allowable recreational activities.

National Park Managed by the National Park Service primarily to protect resources and recreation opportunities. Some allow grazing, but do not allow hunting, mining, or other extractive uses. Continue Reading →

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Happy Birthday to the National Park Service: Celebrating its Past, Contemplating its Future

By John McKinney, Outdoor Editor. Follow the Trailmaster on Facebook.

Happy Birthday to the National Park Service, which is its 97th birthday today, and is beginning to ramp-up for a really big, all-year celebration when it turns 100 in 2016.


Channel Islands National Park encompasses five remarkable islands

There is much to celebrate about the National Park Service and the natural and cultural treasures in its charge. To help my fellow hikers celebrate, appreciate and just plain enjoy our national parks, I’ve launched the “National Park Hike of the Week.” Each week, from now through 2016, The Trailmaster will post a description of a favorite hike in a national park.

While we’re celebrating our parks by taking a hike or exploring them in other ways, it’s important we do a bit of contemplating them as well. I have strong feelings about the future of our national parks and the way we view them—gained from three decades of hiking about, and writing about dozens of them, from Death Valley to Acadia, and from Yosemite to Everglades.

I can affirm that our national parks as a whole need many and major infrastructure repairs and upgrades. National parks need roadwork, bridgework, ecological restoration and improved visitor facilities. The backlog of deferred maintenance is both obvious and appalling and speaks of decades of under-funding.

Continue Reading →

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Big Trees, Blessed Moments in California State Parks

By John McKinney, Outdoor Editor. Follow the Trailmaster on Facebook.

On the last stop of our 20-park tour, on the last mile of our last hike of the trip, deep in the dark forest of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, my son Daniel spots it and plucks it.

“A four-leaf clover,” he announces in a surprisingly quiet voice. There is something about the cathedral nature of a redwood grove that causes us—even boisterous teens—to speak in hushed tones. “It’s my lucky day.”

Indeed, the four-leaf clover has just got to be the world’s most recognized good luck symbol.

Daniel, a boy lucky enough to find a four-leaf redwood sorrel and to visit more than 200 California State Parks.

“Daniel, you are lucky,” I affirm. “How did you manage to spot a four-leaf one in the middle of all this?”

“After you’ve been hiking around the giant redwoods a lot and looking up, up, up, after a while you start looking down at the ground and you notice things.”

Like a four-leaf sorrel.

Daniel is not the least bit disheartened and, in fact, is delighted to learn that his four-leaf clover is actually a rare four-leaf redwood sorrel, a California perennial that usually has three shamrock-shaped leaves. Redwood sorrel grows in thick mats of green carpet right up to the bases of the towering trees and definitely adds to the magic of the redwood forest.

Daniel wonders at the odds of finding one. I tell him I seem to remember from one of those St. Patrick’s Day news reports that a mutation of the shamrock (a three-leaf clover), happens in about 1 in 10,000 shamrocks. I’d guess the odds are about the same for redwood sorrel: perhaps 1 in 10,000 sorrels is a 4-leaf one, too.

A rare four-leaf redwood sorrel; more typically is has three shamrock-shaped leaves.

We briefly kick around the science of this, whether the rare fourth leaflet is caused by a possible recessive gene appearing at low frequency, but our discussion soon stalls because it’s been way too many years since high school Biology for me to remember much and because for Daniel this academic discussion is a downer, a reminder that summer is almost over and he’ll soon be back in the classroom.

“Time to make a wish,” I say, bringing us back from botany to the magic of the moment.

Continue Reading →

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On the Trail to Good Health in Santa Barbara

He loves nature and the great outdoors, likes to camp and…smokes like a fiend.

Or did.

Eric Larson quit smoking after 39 years and is back on the trail to good health.

What a pleasure–and surprise–to recently run into my longtime friend Eric Larson hiking in the Santa Barbara foothills. I DIDN’T ask, “What are YOU doing here?” But Eric must have known I was wondering how he hiked nearly three miles up San Roque Trail to a scenic vista point, because shortly after we greeted each other, he explained his new passion for hiking.

I got a nasty, lingering cold and cough in February,” he began. “I took that as an opportunity to stop smoking.”

“Just like that?” I asked.

“Just like that. I’d smoked for 39 years. First couple days were hard, but now I’m OK.”

I was shocked. We all know how hard it is to quit smoking. Especially after 39 years!

“Eric, that is awesome!”

Eric told me more of his story as we descended from Inspiration Point and hiked along San Roque Creek. It seems Eric, a book designer, did like to get out of the office and take a hike, and more than occasionally, during those many years when he was smoking. It was a challenge getting back to the trailhead to get a smoke; once in while he even succumbed to the urge and climbed up into some rocks to smoke a cigarette, understandably nervous about the potential fire danger in the highly flammable Southern California backcountry.

Now he literally and figuratively breathes easier on the trail. And the sage and fennel that perfumes the air along Santa Barbara’s front country trails in spring smells mighty good.

“You on any meds, anything to counter the urge to smoke?” I ask.

“Just this.” Eric drops a piece of candy in my hand and pops one in his mouth. “Hikers like them too.”

He laughs when I pucker up.

“Salty licorice?” I question, resisting the urge to spit it out.

“Salmiak, very popular in Finland and northern Europe,” Eric explains. “Ammonium chloride gives the licorice an astringent salty taste.”

An acquired taste to be sure. Maybe there are more hikers than I imagined trying to give up smoking and they find salmiak the perfect trail trail treat.

Never mind that, it’s great to see my friend smiling, arms swinging, lungs filling with fresh air.

“Eric, congratulations,” I say when we get back to the trailhead. “Not many people can quit smoking after 39 years and take off hiking.”

“One day at a time,” he says. “One hike at a time.”

John McKinney’s new books include HIKE Santa Barbara and HIKE for Health & Fitness, available at Chaucer’s and online from The Trailmaster Store, CLICK HERE.

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Ocean Beach County Park

The Guide to Santa Barbara has detailed overviews of all Santa Barbara County beaches by Santa Barbara View Outdoor Editor, John McKinney, The Trailmaster.

Want to know a military secret? There’s a five-mile long beach in the middle of Vandenberg Air Force Base no one knows, where no one goes. Explore the wild and windswept beach and watch for abundant birdlife at the large lagoon at the mouth of the Santa Ynez River. Speaking of birds, this is prime habitat for the snowy plover, and beach access can be restricted or even closed entirely from March 1 to the end of September. Oh yeah, the beach is closed during rocket launches, too.

Information: 805-934-6123.

Cost: none

Directions: North of Santa Barbara, just past the Gaviota Pass tunnel, exit Highway 101 onto Highway 1 and proceed toward Lompoc. Join Highway 246 heading west toward Vandenberg and drive about 8 miles out of Lompoc to reach signed Ocean Park Road on your right. Turn right onto Ocean Park Road and drive a mile past some railroad sidings and freight cars to Ocean Beach County Park.

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Santa Barbara County Beaches: Gaviota State Park

The Guide to Santa Barbara has detailed overviews of all Santa Barbara County beaches by Santa Barbara View Outdoor Editor, John McKinney, The Trailmaster.

Railroad trestles tower over the sand strand and usually crowded campground located at the bend in the road—where east-west trending 101 turns north-south. A train rumbling over the high trestles is an impressive site. Take a walk out onto the historic fishing pier, which includes a boat hoist to get craft in and out of the water.
Facilities: Restrooms, picnic area, campground, fishing pier.

Cost: California State Parks day use fee.

Information: 805-968-1033, 805-968-1711

Directions: From Highway101 in Santa Barbara, drive 32 miles up-coast to Gaviota State Park.

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East Beach in Santa Barbara, California

The Guide to Santa Barbara has detailed overviews of all Santa Barbara County beaches by Santa Barbara View Outdoor Editor, John McKinney, The Trailmaster.

Extending a bit over a mile from Cabrillo Pavilion to Stearns Wharf, East Beach is quintessential Santa Barbara. The beach is bordered by lovely Chase Palm Park. Depending on which way you look, the palms frame views of the city and Santa Ynez Mountains or the wide blue Pacific. At the Cabrillo Pavilion end of the beach, you can break for refreshments, rent a body board, catch an art show or play volleyball on storied sand courts that have hosted many world-class tournaments. Near Stearns Wharf is Skaters Point, a fabulous skateboard park.

Facilities: Restrooms, restaurant/snack bar at Cabrillo Pavilion, Volleyball courts, skateboard park.

Cost: pay parking, $3 minimum for 3 hours.

Information: City of Santa Barbara, 805-897-2680

Directions: East Beach is located along East Cabrillo Boulevard from Cabrillo Pavilion Bathhouse (1119 East Cabrillo Blvd.) to Stearns Wharf at the foot of State Street. Parking is free along East Cabrillo and for a fee at two lots above and below the Cabrillo Pavilion.

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Campus Point Beach in Santa Barbara, California

This month Santa Barbara View unveiled a Guide to Santa Barbara, above. The Guide will help unlock the secrets of the Central Coast, including a detailed overview of all Santa Barbara County beaches by Outdoor Editor, John McKinney @TheTrailmaster.

A popular surf and body boarding spot on the UCSB campus, beach patrons here are a mixture of students, faculty, families and surfers of all ages and abilities. At low tide, walk around the point to visit other campus beaches; at high tide walk over the point on hiking trails and partake of fine ocean views as well as vistas inland over the beautifully situated university. Continue Reading →

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More Mesa Open Space and Beach

Santa Barbara County beaches by Outdoor Editor, John McKinney

More Mesa offers more: a defacto nature preserve, great bird-watching, a network of walking-hiking trails and access to the beach. This land has been threatened by development for decades. And it still is, though any development scheme would face vociferous opposition. A mile-long walk up a residential street, across the bluffs, and down the cliffs on a combo stairs-pathway leads to a clean, mellow and sandy beach, which for some resolute naturists has long been clothing-optional.

Facilities: none.
Cost: none.

GPS Coordinates: N 34 25 497
W 119 49 735

Directions: In Santa Barbara, from the far upper end of State Street, continue west under the freeway. State becomes Hollister Avenue, and you’ll proceed to Puente Drive. Turn left (south) . Puente Drive bends west and passes Mockingbird Lane on your left. Park along Puente Drive and walk up Mockingbird Lane to the gated entrance to More Mesa.

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Hot Springs Canyon Permanently Preserved for Public Use

Hot Springs Canyon, the last undeveloped, privately-owned canyon in the Santa Barbara front country, has been purchased by The Land Trust for Santa Barbara County for protection and public enjoyment. The local, non-profit conservation group announced that it closed escrow on the 462-acre property this week.

“This is great news for hikers and for everyone who treasures access to the lovely mountains behind Santa Barbara and Montecito,” said Santa Barbara View Outdoor Editor John McKinney. “Congratulations to the The Land Trust for Santa Barbara County for raising the big bucks and working tirelessly to put together a very complex preservation effort with lots of moving parts.”

Continue Reading →

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