Say "Santa Barbara" and most people envision palm-lined beaches, red-tile roofs, and magenta bougainvillea. The genteel seaside city has all that and much more: It's also an outdoor adventure playground with miles of sun-baked Pacific coastline hugged by the rugged Santa Ynez Mountains.
Those oak- and chaparral-clad mountains make a perfect start to an action-packed visit. On the edge of the city, Los Padres National Forest trails lead to waterfalls, sculpted sandstone formations, and high perches offering ocean and city views. For an easy hike to Pacific vistas, follow Tunnel Road to Jesusita Trail, then ascend to aptly named Inspiration Point. Or start at Skofield Park and follow Rattlesnake Canyon Trail on a serpentine ascent alongside gurgling cascades and deep pools.
Ambitious hikers rise to the challenge of La Cumbre Peak, Santa Barbara's highest summit, nearly 4,000 feet above the sea. The 10-mile round-trip provides a sweeping view of the South Coast, the Channel Islands, and the undulating slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains. You can bag the peak on a road bike, too, by pedaling your way up twisting Gibraltar Road to the sandstone-studded ridgeline of East Camino Cielo.
You can also explore Santa Barbara from the back of a trusty steed. Los Padres Outfitters will saddle you up on a horse suited to your riding ability, then guide you on a beach ride along the brayed-tan Pacific sand or on hillside trails through a canopy of oaks. For the ultimate experience, book a private picnic ride: Your equine companion escorts you to a viewpoint where you'll savor a hearty lunch and stunning scenery.
If you want to play in the ocean, Santa Barbara offers myriad options. Santa Barbara Adventure Company will teach you the basics of surfing or stand-up paddleboarding with lessons at a local beach. For a longer adventure, they'll take you on a kayak tour past dense kelp forests, exotic marine life, and deep sea caves at Santa Cruz Island, part of Channel Islands National Park.
For no-sweat ocean-based fun, rent a jet ski at Sea Landing in Santa Barbara Harbor and zip around the calm harbor waters. Or go sailing on the Double Dolphin—Santa Barbara Sailing Center's colorful 50-foot catamaran takes guests on a waterfront cruise past local landmarks like Stearns Wharf or on longer trips along the coast. Their Friday sunset cruise with a local band on board is a perfect way to end a Santa Barbara week.
You can spot dolphins zipping across the ocean's surface from almost anywhere on Santa Barbara's shores, but if you're hoping to see even bigger wildlife, sign up for a whale-watching cruise on the Condor Express, a jet-powered catamaran with a raised bow and wraparound decks. Depending on the season, you might see gray, humpback, blue, or minke whales. More than 27 species of whales and dolphins cruise through the Santa Barbara Channel, making it one of the most productive wildlife-watching areas along the Pacific Coast.
Families can choose from a wide range of easygoing outdoor activities: Rent bikes and cruise the paved, seaside Cabrillo Bike Path from Leadbetter Beach to Butterfly Beach. Along the way, make stops at the Andrée Clark Bird Refuge to scan for sunbathing turtles and Stearns Wharf for a seafood lunch. Stroll the gentle blufftop paths at Douglas Family Preserve, or wander through the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, where 5.5 miles of easy walking trails visit cactus and succulent gardens, shady redwoods, and a Japanese teahouse.
Of course, there's always the option of spending your entire vacation on Santa Barbara's languid south-facing beaches. Walk the palm-studded promenade or join in a game of beach volleyball at East Beach. Climb down—and then up again—the bougainvillea-lined stairway to Mesa Lane Beach, or get in a stair workout at Thousand Steps Beach. At Arroyo Burro Beach—nicknamed Hendry's—join the swimmers, stand-up paddleboarders, and boogie boarders playing in the gentle waves. To snap perfect sunset photos, head to Butterfly Beach, one of the city's only beaches that faces west, not south.