Seven Falls and Mission Falls were supposed to be a series of waterfalls and punchbowl-like pools that definitely had that reputation of being one of the most popular spots in Santa Barbara. Unfortunately for us, our visit to the falls was during a multi-year drought (currently going in its fourth year as of February 2015) so it turned out that we didn't see any waterfalls save for a couple of trickles and murky, stagnant pools nearby. It was pretty much bare sandstone rocks along much of Mission Creek, and we really had to leave it up to our imaginations how the place would've looked like had the creek been flowing. The dry conditions persisted even despite there being some rain a week prior to our visit and there being a lot of rain in December, which underscored just how severe the drought had been to this point.
Anyways, the hike began with Julie and I looking for parking space along Tunnel Road (see directions below). The parking situation here was reminiscent of the parking situation at Sturtevant Falls where it wasn't unusual to have to park upwards of a half-mile or so before even starting the hike! I think we were lucky to have found a spot at about a 15-minute walk from the trailhead. And so we hiked on the residential road where there were not only cars parked for the hike (most of them were aiming for Inspiration Point as opposed to Seven Falls), but there were lots of upscale residences as well. Julie and I wondered how much the residents must not like the weekend traffic this place must get.
Once we got towards the end of the sanctioned parking area, we then followed the road towards a water tank and gate. Beyond the gate, the paved road continued, but now it was part of the hike. At this point, most of the hike was exposed to the hot sun as the road was a fire road. Plus, the hike was mostly uphill as it hugged some cliffs, which further added to the difficulty of the hike considering how much the sun was beating down on us. Throughout this part of the hike (which persisted for about the first 3/4-mile), we were able to get impressive views of the ocean out in the distance sprinkled with some expensive homes in the foreground to our right. Eventually, the path would curve over a bridge spanning Mission Creek, which was dry during our visit. Right below the bridge was a bare rock that was said to be where 25ft Fern Falls would tumble during the times when Mission Creek would flow.
Not long after the bridge, the trail continued climbing towards a bend where we managed to get impressive views both in the direction of the sandstone mountains further inland as well as the ocean. Ultimately, the pavement would end at a junction. At this point, we continued straight ahead on the Inspiration Point and Jesusita Trail (as opposed to going right, which one lady had almost misled us into going before another lady had told us otherwise). About five minutes of climbing beyond the junction on the now dirt path, we then reached another junction where a single-track path veered to the left while the wider trail continued to the right. We went left onto the smaller path to leave the Tunnel Trail. This path narrowed considerably as we found ourselves walking beneath bare trees with black bark indicating that a fire had passed through this area in the recent past.
This narrow trail then started to hug the gorge carved out by Mission Creek before descending down to the creek itself (roughly 50 minutes from the trailhead). At this point, we left the Jesusita Trail to Inspiration Point and started scrambling upstream on Mission Creek. The paths were faint and we had frequently found ourselves rock scrambling, but I'd imagine that under wetter conditions, this stream scramble would be a bit more difficult and slippery. I guess that's the catch-22 of this stream scramble - when it's dry like it was on our visit, the stream scramble was considerably easier. But when it's wet, I could totally see how doing the stream scramble would be quite a bit more difficult and dangerous.
Anyways, Julie and I persisted on the stream scramble for the next 30 minutes trying to make our way up to the uppermost of the waterfalls. We could see that most of the bare sections of rock were where the waterfalls were supposed to be, and we could see that potholes in the sandstone was where there were supposed to be pools. We ultimately made it up to a dual-tiered section of rock that was fronted by a pool with a couple of trickling streaks on the rock (see the photo at the top of this page). This was the lone part where we saw there was a "waterfall", but it was certainly nothing to brag about. This was also our turnaround point of the hike, but I couldn't help but wonder if we had continued scrambling whether we'd find taller and more impressive waterfalls. From what I could tell, this was either the uppermost tier of Seven Falls or one of the lowest tiers of Mission Falls. It was hard to tell which was which at this point.
The rest of the hike back to the parked car was pretty quick and uneventful as it was predominantly downhill with plenty of ocean views along the way. Overall, Julie and I had spent about 2.5 hours away from the car. We felt we were going at a slow pace, but I could totally envision spending even more time on the stream scramble under wetter conditions.
This was the Old Mission of Santa Barbara, which we stumbled upon while making the drive up to Seven Falls. It's said to be one of the few living missions still run by Franciscan Friars
This was the view looking towards the mountains backing the city of Santa Barbara as seen from the clock tower at the Old Courthouse in downtown Santa Barbara
Seven Falls was further inland from the city of Santa Barbara, but the city did a great job of retaining that Spanish charm. This is a view of State Street - the main throughfare of downtown
This was the parking situation along Tunnel Road, where most of the spots were taken up, and apparently they're quite strict about staying behind the white lines
Julie walking by some of the parked cars along Tunnel Road
While we were walking along Tunnel Road, we saw this nice view over a ravine towards some mountains fronted by some expensive home or estate
Julie walking past the sanctioned parking area and was now headed towards the water tank and gate
The gate marking the official start of the Tunnel Trail
It was mostly uphill and exposed to the sun along this paved stretch of road
The Tunnel Road was flanked by sandstone cliffs while further up ahead were more of those sandstone mountains
The Tunnel Road persisted as it continued going deeper into the mountains. We were also being passed by other local hikers who seemed to have a better idea of where they were going than us
Approaching the bridge over Mission Creek
Looking beneath Mission Creek Bridge at where Fern Falls was supposed to drop
Looking towards the ocean from the Tunnel Trail
This was the junction where the pavement ended and the dirt trail began. Go straight at this point to continue on the Tunnel and Jesusita Trails and don't the trail on the right
The dirt trail continued to go uphill flanked by some burnt trees
Above five minutes after the pavement ended, we encountered this other junction where we veered left to leave the Tunnel Trail and go onto a single-track path that was considerably narrower than the main trail to this point
While on the single-track path, Julie was walking beneath some burnt trees, which clearly showed that a fire had passed through here in the not-to-distant past
The path now skirted a ravine carved out by Mission Creek as the trail was starting to descend down towards it
We finally made it to Mission Creek, which wasn't flowing but did have stagnant pools like this one. This was when we had left the Jesusita Trail to scramble on Mission Creek itself
Bare rocks where Mission Creek was supposed to flow
More bare rocks where there was supposed to be water on Mission Creek
This was one of the few spots on Mission Creek where there was still water
Approaching another bare section of rock where there's supposed to be a waterfall on Mission Creek
Julie crouching down above another section of bare rock where there was supposed to be more of the Seven Falls
This was another section of bare rock where there was supposed to be another one of the Seven Falls
Continuing the stream scramble in search of the upper Seven Falls or the lower Mission Falls
This pair of trickling waterfalls was the turnaround point of our stream scramble. I'm sure there might have been more waterfalls further upstream, but we didn't have faith that it would be worth the effort to continue
A closer look at the pair of trickling falls
Julie stream scrambling back towards the main Jesusita Trail
Julie continuing the stream scramble back towards the main Jesusita Trail
Back on the main Jesusita Trail, which was just around this pool on Mission Creek
Julie now rejoining the Tunnel Trail. We hadn't noticed this water tank before until we were headed in the other direction
Julie enjoying the ocean views as we were returning to the trailhead
Returning to the gate at the trailhead with some expensive homes perched above on the hills ahead of us
The rest of the walk was following along Tunnel Road in search of our parked car
Lateral sweep of one of the former sights of the lower pools for Seven Falls. Unfortunately, a multi-year drought ensured that the conditions were bone dry even though there had been rain the prior week.
Sideways sweep of the dry Mission Creek leaving behind a trickle at a pair of the uppermost pools that we were able to reach. Not sure if this is actually Mission Falls as opposed to Seven Falls
Within Santa Barbara, the route that we took was to exit the US101 at Mission Street. We then headed inland from the US101 onto Mission Street, where we then followed Mission Street past several lights until turning left onto Laguna Street. After a couple of blocks, we then found ourselves at a four-way intersection with Los Olivos Street right in front of the Old Mission of Santa Barbara.
Turning right onto Los Olivos Street, we then followed this winding road (becoming Mission Canyon Road en route) until it junctioned with Foothill Road. We then turned right onto Foothill road before turning left onto Mission Canyon Road. Shortly after driving on Mission Canyon Road, we reached a signposted junction where we veered left to leave Mission Canyon Road and onto Tunnel Road. At this point, we were on another winding road flanked by expensive residences as well as some parked cars. It was along this road that we were to find parking.
The trail began at the end of the drivable part of Tunnel Road (by its junction with Spyglass Ridge Road). Since we were unsuccessful finding parking close to the trailhead, we had to use the turnaround spot in front of the gate and water tank. Then, we looked for parking as we were slowly making our way downhill on Tunnel Road away from the trailhead.
I guess depending on how busy it gets here, it's conceivable that the only available parking spaces would be well downhill from the trailhead, and that it would require over a half-mile (maybe even a mile) or so of walking on the road to even get to the trailhead itself. During our visit, we managed to find a spot that was about a 15-minute walk from the trailhead.
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