When a Beloved Natural Site Suffers From Over-Use: The Montecito Hot Springs Trail

By Sharon Byrne   |   May 3, 2022

A lawsuit has been filed against the County to halt them from making a parking lot out of Mountain Drive for the Hot Springs Trail. Neighbors are understandably upset. Stakes were driven deep into their yards in October, showing the County’s right-of-way. The implication: they could seize all of it for trailhead parking. 

The Hot Springs Trail is heavily over-used by tourists on weekends. The visible sign – parking overrun – exploded in July of 2020. Here’s a picture of trailhead parking in 2018, from Google:

The parking lot is always full, as are the trash cans, and this is Mountain Drive now:

(photo by Tim Walsh, neighbor)

Many people worked on this problem: neighbors in the area, the Montecito Association, MFPD, the sheriffs, CHP, County Public Works, and the Montecito Trails Foundation. 

We hoped this was a pandemic phenomenon and would lift when restrictions eased. It went viral on the internet instead. 

Just a few of the national websites that promote the Montecito Hot Springs:

Alltrails.com, Ultimate Hot Springs Guide, HotSpringers – “the world’s most informative blog dedicated to geothermal springs in North America,” The Hiking Project, Hike Speak, Silent Hiker, Mainstay Luxury Estates – vacation rental site, Outsideonline.com, Yelp, Trip Advisor, Findinghotsprings.com – It’s even in Secret Los Angeles!

Instagram takes the prize for views and hits, though. Just search #montecito hotsprings. Influencers are all over it; including visitors who are not worried about those “park closed at dusk” signs:

Instagram and social media encourage us to capture amazing ‘this is it!’ pictures of spectacular places and share them with the world. As places become more ‘collectible’ in our social media documenting of them, natural sites that were never meant to host thousands of yearly visitors get bombarded by them. 

The Montecito Hot Springs is presently being Loved To Death by visitors eager to experience what they’ve seen on social media. I talked with Woody Jackson, who worked with the Land Trust of Santa Barbara County to acquire the Hot Springs. He talked about how it was a sacred Chumash healing site. Now, the Springs are being physically altered to create more pools, disrupting the natural environment. 

Not everyone embraces rejiggering nature, as this review from Yelp illustrates:

What Can Be Done? 

In many national parks and nature sites with heavy visitor traffic, rangers serve as a moderating factor. When a site is too crowded, or parking is full, they turn people away. There is no ranger at the Hot Springs Trailhead. Proposals for one, with funding provided by neighbors, have been discussed, but not implemented. This could be a viable solution. The current sign showing the park is closed at sunset is not enforced. A ranger could enforce it.

The Montecito Trails Foundation, a solid partner, is bringing on community service interns this summer that will pick up trash and help keep eyes on the situation. The MTF maintains and restores our trails from public donations, but they have no ability to regulate use. They regularly get complaints that locals can no longer access the Hot Springs due to overcrowding.

In the absence of County resources, like a ranger, CHP, and Sheriffs have valiantly tried to keep visitors from blocking roads and driveways. The parking tickets cost $37.50. This is less than a day of parking at Venice Beach, not a big revenue generator. Maybe it should be increased. 

Shuttles partially funded by neighbors have also been proposed, from a location with parking, like Mt. Carmel, or Manning Park. But why bother waiting for a shuttle if you can wrangle parking up there?

Some self-anointed advocates push unrelentingly for unfettered access to the Hot Springs and public parking, but they ignore something extremely salient to this community: fire. The Hot Springs is in the Very High Fire Severity Zone. Great consideration and deference must be given to the Montecito Fire Protection District’s forthcoming evacuation study. The County should exercise considerable caution and fully incorporate that study before bulldozing front yards on Mountain Drive for a 60-car parking lot. This is purported as necessary to replace ‘lost’ parking on Riven Rock. That’s a specious argument, given parking on Riven Rock was ‘found’ parking at best, meaning someone thought they could squeeze their car in, no signs said otherwise, so others followed suit, to the point of rendering the road effectively one-way. When Riven Rock was designated no parking, people just drove over the curb onto the creek shoulder – more ‘found’ parking. No parking has been ‘lost.’

Would the County also responsibly post signage so that visitors unaccustomed to California’s high wildfire risks are alerted that they might have to evacuate rapidly? Warning of serious fire danger could deter people carrying camp stoves and firewood up the trail. 

The U.S. Forest Service recently banned all camping and fires in the front country until 2024. But would all the tourists and residents up there be able to evacuate in a swiftly moving wildfire? These questions make first responders sweat, on the inside, understandably.

The California Insurance Commissioner repeatedly warns we should not push more people into the high fire areas. Mountain Drive and Riven Rock residents lost their homeowner’s insurance because insurers deem the fire risks are too high. Belief in climate change is not required to know that California wildfires in mountainous communities produce tragic stories of people who could not get out in time, perishing in their cars. 

No one wants that in Montecito. 

So why the rush to jam more people up there without really thinking this through? It feels reckless. The Hot Springs is a beautiful natural site that visitors should be able to access. But it’s in a very high-fire setting that requires major caution, not blatant egging-on to over-use. Mountain view neighbors were offering additional parking spaces adjacent to the trail before the lawsuit was filed. We can find a way to balance access with protecting this natural resource from overrun and fire danger.

The Montecito Association will be discussing this issue at our Land Use Committee meeting on Tuesday, May 3 at 4 pm. You’re welcome to attend. For more information, email info@montecitoassociation.org. 

Sharon Byrne is the Executive Director of the Montecito Association


You might also be interested in...

  • Woman holding phone

    Support the
    Santa Barbara non-profit transforming global healthcare through telehealth technology