Scramble in the Clouds

The rocky rib route up to Arlington Peak. Yes, there's a trail winding through all those rocks!

I've decided to start writing up some trip reports on this site. I'll include my photos alongside them as an excuse to brush up on both writing and photography. This will also force me to offload photos from my poor bloated phone!

It's a bit odd that, as an Idahoan, the first story I choose to recall is one that took place in California. It's the most recent and fresh in my memory, which helps motivate my writing, but I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed this particular route. The following describes what may be the jewel of the Santa Barbara area for hiking: a three peak loop bagging Arlington, Cathedral, and La Cumbre Peaks with an absolute blast of a scramble at the start.

Cloud-capped Arlington Peak from the Tunnel Trail in Santa Barbara, showing the ridge line scramble highlighted against the clouds.

I was in Santa Barbara with my parents on a late-November 2022 vacation, trying to escape the Idaho cold. We were only partially successful in this endeavor; it was actually a bit of a cloudy and cold week! Considering what Santa Barbara has experienced since then with the atmospheric rivers of 2023, we actually hit the area at a good time.

I hadn't planned out a hike in advance; our only set plan (that I knew of) was to go see the migrating monarch butterflies. That was, in fact, the primary reason we were in Santa Barbara in particular. We saved one of the few predicted sunny days for that journey, and it was well worth the trip! Check out the photos of Susie Clothier, who we met while we were there, for great examples of the beauty of the monarch gatherings near Santa Barbara.

I have a habit of looking at promising peaks and hikes in each new area I visit. Santa Barbara actually has some impressive trails, and the Arlington-La Cumbre loop on All-Trails caught my eye, not least because it touched three peaks. As an avid peakbagger, this was worthwhile even if it was a boring trail. So I asked my parents if they'd drive me to the trailhead the day after our butterfly viewing. It was slated to be a bit drizzly in the morning, but the days after looked worse, so it was my only shot. This turned out to be perfect timing.

From part way up the trail, reaching the ridge. The trail goes up the rocky rib slightly left of center. It's a blast of a scramble.

I started the hike at 8 a.m. and launched up the Tunnel Trail. After about a mile I made a couple wrong turns that I rectified thanks to my phone GPS, and the very beginning of the scramble up to the Arlington ridge was somewhat hard to follow as there's a number of branching trails that seem more prominent than the trail to the ridge line. There's a creek bed crossing that requires a somewhat keen eye to find the right trail, and it gets pretty rocky after that.

Example of the trail after the creek bed. This may look challenging, but it quickly gets more scrambly than this!

After reaching the ridgeline, I got a clear view of the remaining one-thousand feet of beautiful class-2 scramble. The photo one up from the trail photo gives you an idea of what lay before me. I was thrilled: I had expected a simple trail all the way but was about to be treated to something spicier. The clouds had also briefly parted, and it hadn't rained a drop on me. For the rest of the hike, I would remain about 200 - 500 feet below the cloud line at all times, with the clouds following me up to the summit of La Cumbre and then coming back down to obscure it as soon as I descended.

Arlington in the clouds. They would blow in and out several times as I was hiking.

The trail is surprisingly easy to follow up to Arlington summit, given that it is a scramble. But it's not 100% straightforward; there were times where I took a wrong turn and got into steeper, class-4 territory and had to turn around to find the easier route. There are some route-finding challenges even with the trail here, largely due to the trail being broken up by large boulders that function like stair steps. I do recommend caution; if you feel like you're going the wrong way and it's getting dangerous, you're probably right! The correct route is never exposed and never requires any technical moves. The only danger presented by the scramble to Arlington is the route-finding if you're unfamiliar. It's a great peak to practice that skill if you're a novice or intermediate scrambler like me!

The scramble was surprising to me in how much adrenaline I felt as I was climbing along. It wasn't the fear-based adrenaline that causes nervousness: it was mostly just the excitement of coming upon this unexpected gem of a hike and in finding a great weather window in which to sneak in a summit. It was one of those rare hiking days when almost everything thing turned out surprisingly great, despite threatening the whole day to make it otherwise.

All in all, if you prefer scrambling to hiking as I often do, the Arlington rib is a great section of nearly uninterrupted class-2 moves that is worth traveling for. There's no register at the Arlington summit that I was able to find. To sign your name to something, continue on the ridge with not much elevation gain or loss to Cathedral Peak. Here, there's a register with plenty of signatures and fun excerpts.

Cathedral Peak from the saddle on the ridge after summiting Arlington.

The big scrambly fun is complete after Cathedral Peak. The route to La Cumbre involves a steep downclimb from Cathedral, followed by a steep brushy upclimb before reaching the ridgeline road. There's some fascinating foliage here, especially for a high desert child like me who's used to monotonous beige grass dotted by one or two types of sage.

This photo does not capture how red the bark on these bushes truly is. Looks like blood when you first come upon it.

The views from La Cumbre are excellent, or I at least imagine they are: the clouds and haze obscured my view of the ocean and nearby peaks, and the mountain range further inland is actually even drier than the Santa Barbara ridge. There's a closed-down fire lookout at the summit, and the wind had started to pick up making me colder than I was expecting. I rushed down the road, seeing a few people driving on the paved ridge road to take their mountain bikes on the nearby trails. I will admit a tinge of jealousy for their quicker descent, but as I would find out, the trail I was about to take as my way down would be an abysmal bike route for my skills.

Clouds along the mountainous ridge from Cathedral Peak.
A nice place for a picnic on La Cumbre Peak.
Toward the Pacific Ocean from La Cumbre Peak.
Beautiful moment of lighting on a gulley after summiting La Cumbre Peak.

The road down to the second half of the loop is easy and quick. The trail starts off smooth and bikeable; I imagine it's quite popular. But after a fork in the trail, it starts to get horribly chossy. It's about 2,000 feet of downclimbing on uneven stairs. Ankle rolls are definitely possible on the trail I took, and my knees were absolutely shredded for days afterward. As I tried to watch my step and dodge tripping hazards, I heard some hikers across the valley trying to take the route I did. The clouds had come down fairly far at that point, and I shiver to think of the cold, viewless summit experience they had compared to my lucky window of sun. After a couple more miles I at last reached the end of the Tunnel Trail and collapsed in the parking lot for a brief respite.

I had been trying to use the vacation as a way to get back into running while I had access to warmth. So much for that, now I could hardly walk. But it was worth the soreness, and I hadn't gone overboard and actually injured anything. We timed it so my parents came and picked me up and I didn't have to limp back into town! They, meanwhile, had spent a nice morning getting breakfast and mimosas on the beach. In the moments after finally reaching the end of the trail, I was not convinced my sacrifice was worth it. But it didn't take too long for me to reconsider and realize it was one of the best solo hikes I'd done in recent memory. We went out for ramen later that was some of the best I've had, which I hope made up for missing out on the sunny morning beach.

I can't recommend this hike enough, particularly the clockwise loop. If you attempt it in summer, bring way more water than I did! If there's no clouds on your hiking day, you'll be sun exposed almost the whole time.

And as a last memento, here's my parents and I on the west beach, before I'd destroyed myself on the mountain!

That's pretty much how the mountains looked the whole week when I wasn't hiking.
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