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Gaviota State Park

Beach-to-Backcountry, Overlook, Hollister Trails
To Gaviota Pass Overlook is 5 miles round trip with 700-foot elevation gain;
loop via Overlook and Hollister Trails is 8.5 miles round trip
with 800-foot elevation gain

It would be unfair to say no one stops in Gaviota Pass. The pass hosts a Caltrans rest area, site of the only public restrooms along a 250 mile length of Highway 101 between Los Angeles and the hamlet of Bradley north of San Luis Obispo.

Most motorists who stop, and the multitudes who do not, remain oblivious to the area’s historical importance and natural attractions. Too bad, because Gaviota Pass and its pathways are too good to pass up.

Most of the pass—the green scene on either side of Highway 101—is the rolling backcountry of 2,775-acre Gaviota State Park. Park trails meander across oak-dotted potreros and travel ridgetops that afford hikers grand vistas of Gaviota Pass and the wide blue Pacific.

Surely the most memorable view of the pass, to moviegoers anyway, occurs in The Graduate when lost soul Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) drives a beautiful new Alfa Romeo through the mist and into the Gaviota Tunnel.

Explorer Gaspar de Portolá led his party through the pass in 1769. Expedition diarist, Father Juan Crespi dubbed the coastline here San Luis in honor of the King of France. However, Portolá’s soldiers figured that La Gaviota, Spanish for seagull, was more appropriate.

Gaviota earned its small place in California history as a place to avoid. During the short Mexican-American War, General John C. Frémont and his 700 men were marching south toward Santa Barbara when they learned that the Mexican californio troops awaited in ambush at Gaviota Pass. American forces were led through nearby San Marcos Pass by rancher Benjamin Foxen on Christmas eve 1846. Thus, the Americans occupied Santa Barbara without bloodshed on Christmas day.

Gaviota State Park offers hiking on both sides of the pass. Eastside trail attractions include a hot springs and connections to Los Padres National Forest footpaths. On the west side of the pass, the park’s trail network honeycombs a delightful backcountry and offers the hiker a number of loops of varying distances and difficulties.

Directions to trailhead: From Santa Barbara, drive up-coast (west) some 30 miles on Highway 101. Just as the highway makes a dramatic bend north, you’ll spot a sign for Gaviota State Park. Merge left into the left turn lane and turn left across the highway onto the state park entry road. The
park road leads to a kiosk (parking fee required) then down to the beach. You’ll veer right before the kiosk and follow the unsigned road leading to the exclusive Hollister Ranch community. At the first bend in the road, you’ll find the state park trailhead and a pullout for parking on the right.

The hike:
Begin on the asphalt road (closed to vehicles), which leads
0.6 mile across thickets of sweet-smelling sage and fennel on a route parallel to Highway 101. Join the left-forking, signed (“Multi-Use Trail”) path as it winds its way to the top of a mustard-splashed hillock. Here you can savor the first of many views of Gaviota Pass.

Next the path climbs more earnestly along a rocky ridge. Intriguing sandstone outcroppings protrude
above chamise, ceanothus, manzanita and other members of the chaparral community. Just as your eye is drawn to some (inaccessible) caves across the canyon to your right, the trail deposits you at the mouth of a large cave on your left. The wind-sculpted cave is a large, open-faced recess in the rock where, it’s easy to imagine, the native Chumash took shelter or early ranchers waited out the rain.

Beyond the cave, Beach-to-Backcountry Trail dips and rises another 0.5 mile or so before making a final dip to an unsigned junction with Overlook Fire Road.

A right on the fire road leads 0.5 mile to a viewpoint occupied only by a radio repeater antenna and a small concrete block building. Turkey vultures roost on nearby sandstone outcroppings, presumably taking in the same view as hikers.

A three-minute walk left on the fire road leads among grand old oaks to another unsigned junction. The fire road bends right (north) while Hollister Trail heads west. I prefer joining Hollister Trail which ascends west, then bends north along the boundary line between the state park and Hollister Ranch.

Hollister Trail travels a ridgetop and escapes the highway din that can irritate the hiker on other park trails. The trail offers great views over Hollister Ranch and the westward-extending coastline. After about 0.75
mile, the trail passes a junction (often very difficult to spot) with a right-forking connector trail that drops down to meet Overlook Fire Road.

Nearly two miles from its junction with Overlook Fire Road, Hollister Trail reaches a four-way junction. Hollister Trail ascends another 0.25 mile north to a viewpoint, then bends west to the park boundary line.

A right-forking fire road (Las Cruces Trail) descends steeply to a path near, and parallel to, Highway 101; Yucca Trail, signed on the ground but absent from park maps also descends to this path.

Hikers can make a loop trip out of this jaunt by descending on either the trail or the fire road to the footpath near Highway 101. Join a unsigned south-bound trail (overgrown in places) for 0.5 mile to meet Overlook Fire Road and ascend another 0.5 mile to a junction with Beach-to-Backcountry Trail.

© 2012 The Trailmaster, Inc.
From John McKinney’s
Day Hiker’s Guide to California’s State Parks
Trail descriptions and maps have been reproduced with the permission of the author.  To learn more about The Trailmaster and other related publications please visit their website at