Gaviota Overlook: A Valentine’s Gift to Santa Barbara

By Hattie Beresford   |   February 21, 2023
View of Arroyo Hondo Preserve and the adjacent “Gaviota Lookout.” Photographer Bill Dewey captured the riparian woodland of Arroyo Hondo, its historic Ortega Adobe, the current highway, the 1919 arched bridge that carried the original HWY 101, the 1900 train trestle, and the first avenue for transportation, the sea. The rolling hills to the left, up to the creek just past the dirt drive, comprise the length of Gaviota Lookout. The ranch complex at the end of the road are private lands of new neighbors and roughly indicate the width of the Gaviota Lookout Lands.

The Land Trust for Santa Barbara County has given us an amazing Valentine’s Day gift. A thousand red roses could not compete with the nearly 50 verdant acres the Trust has just added to its Arroyo Hondo Preserve. Since the Preserve’s founding in 2001, more than 1,600 visitors have walked its trails and 26,000 students have been instructed by Preserve docents on school group visits. 

An ephemeral creek at Gaviota Overlook (photo by Brent Winebrenner)

Now, the Trust plans to build additional trails and picnic tables along the grassy slopes next door, which proffer amazing views of the coastline, ocean, and Channel Islands.

I was lucky enough to be given a tour of the newly acquired “Gaviota Overlook” by John Warner, Arroyo Hondo Preserve Manager, who had driven the Preserve’s MULE over a newly mowed trail on the hills to meet me. Accompanying us were Katie Szabo, marketing and communications coordinator, and Leslie Chan, Land Programs manager, who had the full lowdown on the newly acquired land. 

They met me at the gate, and, at first, I had no eyes for anything except a piece of concrete road just inside the borders of the property. It was a strip of the original 16-foot-wide coast highway built between 1913 and 1919. (Pieces of it remain in many spots along the current route of Highway 101, and I have a passion for finding them.) Nevertheless, the luxurious green grasses and rolling hills backed by magnificent sandstone escarpments soon claimed my attention, and John quickly drove us up to the first knoll from where Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel islands were glimpsed on the horizon under an illuminated slate grey sky.

I was duly impressed but John said, “Just wait,” and off we went along the path pocked with the hoofprints of cattle to a higher knoll. “Here,” he said, “will be a picnic table.” It was an even more glorious outlook, and I’m already planning the contents of my first picnic at that yet-to-be-built table. Forget the gorp, this view deserves an elegant spread!

The newly acquired property has three drainages, the main one being a creek beloved by black Angus cattle. Each draw leads to sandstone escarpments and offers sanctuary to a host of plants and animals. We see a curious kestrel that rides the air above us, and we flush a large flock of kingbirds, who fly ahead and settle into the tall grasses until our continued approach causes them to rise again. The males have brilliant yellow breasts and make quite the fashion statement.

San Miguel Island can be glimpsed at the horizon under an illuminated slate sky

Once a piece of the aptly named Nuestra Señora del Refugio land grant, Arroyo Hondo Preserve offers refuge to wildlife and humans alike. During the pandemic, the Preserve stayed open and offered the public a respite from “cabin fever” and the stress of continuing frightful news and restrictions. The additional acres will meet the increasing needs of the community for the benefits of connecting with nature. John Muir, who extolled the ability of nature to refresh one’s inner being, once said, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than one seeks.” 

Since 1794, the lands of the Gaviota Coast have been ranch lands and are a vestige of California’s rural past that needs preservation to continue to function as a refuge and to protect its scenic beauty. The State of California recently recognized this stretch of Highway 101 as a State Scenic Highway for being a magnificent example of one of the few remaining areas of rural coastal California. The alternative to this uplifting scenic beauty can be seen in the consequences of dense housing on both sides of the highway at Shell Beach and elsewhere to the north. 

The Trust believes that purchasing the Gaviota Overlook property could kick off a new wave of Gaviota Coast conservation by the Trust and several other groups working toward this goal.

Besides providing more public access along the Gaviota Coast, the property of Gaviota Overlook also offers some important ecological benefits. Meredith Hendricks, executive director of the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, says that under Land Trust management, climate benefits will be enhanced. “Conserving Gaviota Overlook and adding it to Arroyo Hondo Preserve is an act of love and promise for the future – for the land, for the community, and for the life it sustains,” says Hendricks.

Since 1985, the Trust has worked with community groups, willing landowners, and other partners to conserve, restore, and manage open space, wildlife habitat, and family farms and ranches throughout the county. Among those projects are Rincon Bluffs Preserve, Sedgwick Reserve, and Hot Springs Trail in Montecito.

This year, the Land Trust has given the people of Santa Barbara County an amazing valentine. Those who wish to return the sentiment can send a valentine of their own by helping the Trust achieve the final $750,000 to protect, conserve, and make publicly available the “Gaviota Overlook.” For more information or to donate, go to  


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