Seven Falls

Los Padres National Forest / Santa Barbara, California, USA

About Seven Falls

Hiking Distance: 3.2 miles round trip
Suggested Time: 2-3 hours

Date first visited: 2015-02-14
Date last visited: 2017-04-01

Waterfall Latitude: 34.47452
Waterfall Longitude: -119.70939

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Seven Falls were a series of small waterfalls and punchbowl-like pools that definitely had that reputation of being one of the most popular spots in Santa Barbara. Indeed, it seemed like the perfect place to take a break from the heat as all the waterfalls and pools certainly made this place have the potential of being the most fun of the Tunnel Trail sights. That said, I’ve been to this waterfall twice, where the first time I was here, the falls were pretty much dry. The second time I was here, it followed a period of about 1.5 months without rain following the last of the rains that deluged this area and seemed to have at least put a dent in the multi-year drought that had affected much of California, especially Santa Barbara county. In my latter visit, I went as far as the top of the waterfall you see pictured at the top of this page, where I saw a succession of at least four or five tiny waterfalls, certainly making me appreciate how it got its name.

The hike began with the frustrating search for parking space along Tunnel Road (see directions below). The parking situation here was reminiscent of the trailhead parking at Sturtevant Falls where it wasn’t unusual to have to park upwards of a half-mile or so away from the trailhead before even starting the actual hike! The parking was actively patrolled as enforcement personnel were checking closely that vehicles remained to the right of the white lines. The first time we were here, I think we were lucky to have found a precarious spot in a little gully or gutter at about a 15-minute walk from the trailhead. The second time I was here, I managed to park a little bit closer though there were already lots of cars parked along the street despite it being about 7:30am! And so after finding parking, the initial part of the hike involved walking along the paved Tunnel Road between residences and ultimately towards the end of the residential road. Julie and I wondered how much the residents must not like the weekend traffic that this place must get every week.

Seven_Falls_053_02152015 - Julie stream scrambling on Mission Creek
Julie stream scrambling on Mission Creek

Next, at the end of the road, we encountered a fork where we followed the signs, and followed a paved utility road past 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. 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 and the Channel Islands 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, where there was some dam infrastructure just downstream of the bridge. Right below the bridge was a fairly interesting waterfall called Fern Falls that was said to be about 25ft. Short of making the unsanctioned steep scramble into the creek itself, it was difficult to get a clean look at the falls due to the overgrowth.

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-protruding mountains further inland as well as the ocean. Ultimately, the pavement would end at a junction nearby. At this point, we continued straight ahead on the Inspiration Point and Jesusita Trail (as opposed to going right, which would eventually lead to the Tunnel Trail). 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, which 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.

Seven_Falls_SB_17_057_04012017 - The pair of waterfalls at the so-called 'First Pool', which had turned us around when Julie and I did this hike in 2015
The pair of waterfalls at the so-called ‘First Pool’, which had turned us around when Julie and I did this hike in 2015

This narrow trail then started to hug the gorge carved out by Mission Creek before descending down to the creek itself (roughly about a mile from the trailhead). At this point, we left the Tunnel Trail (that was continuing on to Jesusita Trail and Inspiration Point among others), and we then had a choice of following a somewhat overgrown but well-used narrow path to the left of the creek, or just stream scramble in the creek directly. Keep in mind that in a bit of a catch-22 situation, the latter option of stream scrambling would be a bit more difficult if there was more water in the creek. Along the faint trail, there were several unsigned forks branching back down towards some intermediate small falls and pools along the way. There was also one real steep trail to the left that joined back up with the Inspiration Point/Jesusita Trail. For the most part, I was able to follow the trail paralleling Mission Creek, which eventually led me back to the Mission Creek just downstream of an attractive two-tiered waterfall spilling into a pool, which I’ll call Pool 1. Incidentally, on my first attempt at hiking Seven Falls, this was my turnaround point.

In order to get past the waterfall at Pool 1, I was able to scramble around the pool to the right. There were some rocks and enough informal footholds in the bedrock to allow me to scale the sloping walls supporting the falls at Pool 1. Then, a short distance of creek scrambling further upstream then led me to the attractive waterfall of the second pool. The waterfall at this pool probably fell around 15-20ft or so. There was also evidence of a landslide to the left of the pool that left behind what appeared to be a natural arch of some sort. According to the locals whom I met here, that arch wasn’t there before, and it was undoubtedly the result of the heavy rains that had hit the area in early 2017. Anyways, for most people, Pool 2 would be the turnaround point as the sandstone walls of Mission Canyon had closed in.

That said, I was able to do a precarious scramble to climb up around the right side of the falls at Pool 2. There was quite a bit more of dropoff exposure, and it would certainly not be something I’d attempt if the walls were wet. So just at the top of the falls for Pool 2, I encountered a third pool. This pool spanned the entire width of the canyon so further progress meant needing to wade through the pools, which I opted not to do. However, I was able to scramble a little ways up a slope with some interesting patterns in the bedrock for a nice view of the remaining waterfalls of Seven Falls in succession. It was only with this perspective that I finally understood how Seven Falls got its name.

After having my fill of the Seven Falls, I then headed back to the car in a mostly downhill hike. While there was certainly the option of continuing on the trail up to Inspiration Point, I opted to head downhill back to the trailhead. Overall, in both times I’ve done this hike, it took about 2.5 hours to cover the roughly 3.2-mile round trip distance. The nice thing about the return hike was that now the trail was facing the gorgeous views of the ocean and the Channel Islands. So that made for an enjoyable return hike, and it was easy to see why this place was so popular.

Seven_Falls_002_02152015 - 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
Seven_Falls_004_02152015 - Julie walking by some of the parked cars along Tunnel Road
Seven_Falls_007_02152015 - 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
Seven_Falls_014_02152015 - Julie walking past the sanctioned parking area and was now headed towards the water tank and gate
Seven_Falls_016_02152015 - The gate marking the official start of the Tunnel Trail
Seven_Falls_019_02152015 - It was mostly uphill and exposed to the sun along this paved stretch of road
Seven_Falls_023_02152015 - The Tunnel Road was flanked by sandstone cliffs while further up ahead were more of those sandstone mountains
Seven_Falls_029_02152015 - 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
Seven_Falls_SB_17_099_04012017 - Looking across the canyon towards some interesting sandstone protrusions jutting out of the slope on the opposite side of the canyon
Seven_Falls_030_02152015 - Approaching the bridge over Mission Creek
Seven_Falls_124_02152015 - Looking beneath Mission Creek Bridge at where Fern Falls was supposed to drop
Seven_Falls_145_02152015 - Looking towards the ocean from the main trail
Seven_Falls_032_02152015 - 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
Seven_Falls_036_02152015 - The dirt trail continued to go uphill flanked by some burnt trees
Seven_Falls_038_02152015 - 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
Seven_Falls_039_02152015 - 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
Seven_Falls_042_02152015 - The path now skirted a ravine carved out by Mission Creek as the trail was starting to descend down towards it
Seven_Falls_SB_17_041_04012017 - We finally made it to Mission Creek, which wasn't flowing well but did feature pools like this one.  This was when we had left the Jesusita/Inspiration Point Trail to scramble on Mission Creek itself
Seven_Falls_SB_17_044_04012017 - Attractive pools making for a nice place to cool off, but this would also mean that any stream scrambling would involve wading.  Fortunately, there was still a trail I could follow to the left of the creek
Seven_Falls_SB_17_045_04012017 - This was the somewhat overgrown but obvious trail that I was able to follow for quite a ways alongside Mission Creek
Seven_Falls_052_02152015 - This was one of the few spots on Mission Creek where there was still water on our first visit back in 2015
Seven_Falls_053_02152015 - Julie stream scrambling on Mission Creek, which was made much easier as there was hardly any water present in the creek on our first visit in 2015
Seven_Falls_055_02152015 - Approaching another bare section of rock where there's supposed to be a waterfall on Mission Creek
Seven_Falls_SB_17_047_04012017 - A pair of small falls near a potholed rock seen en route to the main Seven Falls
Seven_Falls_SB_17_050_04012017 - Another small but attractive waterfall along Mission Creek en route to the main Seven Falls
Seven_Falls_SB_17_056_04012017 - This was about where the trail descended into Mission Creek and I had to stream scramble from here on out, but it wasn't extensive as the waterfalls from the first pool was just up ahead
Seven_Falls_077_02152015 - This pair of trickling waterfalls was the turnaround point of our stream scramble on our first visit. In order to continue past this obstacle, you have to scramble around the right side of the plunge pool and the falls itself
Seven_Falls_SB_17_060_04012017 - This was the waterfall at the second pool, which was probably the most attractive one of the lot
Seven_Falls_SB_17_067_04012017 - This was the context of the landslide that left behind the 'arch' to the topleft with the second pool waterfall on the right
Seven_Falls_SB_17_077_04012017 - Beyond the second pool's waterfall was this series of waterfalls. This was my turnaround point
Seven_Falls_SB_17_078_04012017 - There were very interesting patterns in the sandstone bedrock besides the second pool's waterfall
Seven_Falls_SB_17_094_04012017 - Looking back at a group of hikers who opted to do the Mission Creek scramble directly instead of the trail to the left of the creek
Seven_Falls_114_02152015 - Julie now rejoining the Tunnel Trail.  We hadn't noticed this water tank before until we were headed in the other direction
Seven_Falls_143_02152015 - Julie enjoying the ocean views as we were returning to the trailhead
Seven_Falls_SB_17_108_04012017 - Looking far ahead towards the Channel Islands, which were offshore from the coastline at Santa Barbara
Seven_Falls_151_02152015 - Returning to the gate at the trailhead with some expensive homes perched above on the hills ahead of us


While there are many ways of driving to the trailhead, we’ll describe what we think is the most straightforward route from within Santa Barbara. So assuming that we were driving along the US101 west towards downtown Santa Barbara, we’d then leave the freeway at the Mission Street exit (Exit 99A). We then headed inland from the US101 onto Mission Street, where we then followed it 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 to continue onto Mission Canyon Road. Shortly after driving on Mission Canyon Road, we reached a signposted fork in the road where we veered left to leave Mission Canyon Road and go 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 street parking. From say the Hyatt Centric Santa Barbara, this drive would take around 15 minutes.

Seven_Falls_012_02152015 - Lots of cars parked along Tunnel Road
Lots of cars parked along Tunnel Road

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.

Finally for some context, Santa Barbara was 95 miles (about 90-120 minutes drive) northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

Right to left sweep of series of minor waterfalls near some pothole formations on way to the main Seven Falls

360 degree sweep from the first main pool near the Seven Falls

360 degree sweep from the 2nd main pool before scrambling to the top of the falls at the first main pool

360 degree sweep from the turnaround point checking out the main Seven Falls then sweeping to the top of the falls above the 2nd pool as well as the landslide-induced arch or tunnel, then ending with an examination of the patterns on the bedrock before the main falls themselves

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Tagged with: mission falls, seven falls, santa barbara, mission, california, southern california, los padres, national forest, swim, swimming, drought, parking situation, jesusita

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