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Paddling the Wild Gaviota Coast

Paddle Sports Center runs a lot of special tours that take advantage of the magnificent landscape and natural resources of Santa Barbara (like our Full Moon Paddles and our History & Wildlife Tours), but our most unique and breathtaking tours would be our paddling trips to the Gaviota coast, North America’s largest coastal Mediterranean ecosystem and southern California’s last section of undeveloped coastline. What better way to experience the amazing flora and fauna than from just inches above the water, gliding along in a kayak? If you’re looking for an unforgettable way to experience the last frontier of California’s unblemished beauty, you simply must experience the Gaviota Coast.

The Tours

PSC offers three tours of the Gaviota Coastline – our shorter day trip to Refugio is perfect for less experienced paddlers and those with children, and for those who have had more time on the water, our longer day trip to Hollister Ranch or our overnight paddle down the coast will offer more challenge. Regardless of your ability, all three of these tours are a rare opportunity to paddle pristine, untouched areas of the California coastline.

Morning Paddle around Refugio State Beach

This 2-mile paddle along the coast takes you through the flourishing kelp forests, past remote beaches, and has views of the coastline you’ll remember forever. Refugio beach is a gentle cove that’s perfect for paddling. You’ll learn about the rich cultural and natural history from our knowledgeable guides, and cross through the habitat of sea otters, dolphins, sea lions and many species of birds. There is no minimum age for this tour, as long as children are paddling with adults. To learn more about this tour, visit here.

Coast of California

Day Paddle to Hollister Ranch

Our more challenging, single-day, 5 – 6 mile paddle launches from Gaviota beach and winds along the gorgeous, undeveloped Gaviota coastline up to Hollister Ranch, where we’ll explore secluded beaches only accessible by boat, soak in the unforgettable views, and move through the habitats of lots of different wildlife. This tour is led by an experienced kayak guide and local filmmaker (creator of the Documentary film, Gaviota, the End of Southern California). To learn more and register, visit here.

Overnight Paddle

Our overnight paddle launches from Gaviota beach in the early morning and paddles down the coast, taking in the exceptional views, abundant wildlife and undisturbed beaches along the way. We land at Refugio Beach, called “Quasil,” or “beautiful,” by the Chumash. Refugio’s calm cove is lined with date palms, home to lush kelp forests and is teeming with an abundance of interesting creatures. Paddling at Refugio is a truly memorable experience, and the group will have time for further exploration before setting up camp for the night.

The next morning, the tour continues south towards Naples, the crown jewel of the Gaviota Coast, where we stop for a delicious lunch. In the afternoon, we’ll paddle the last stretch around Sands and Campus Point Marine Reserve, and end the trip back at Goleta Beach.

All paddling gear is included, with the option to include meals and snacks. Typically, we paddle in Ocean Kayak Scupper Pros or RTM Tempos, both of which hold plenty of space for food, water and gear. If desired, you can paddle a tandem with your mate. For more information about PSC’s Gaviota Paddle Tours and to register, visit here.

Gaviota’s Unique Climate and Wildlife

The Gaviota Coast spans 76 miles of Pacific shoreline between Goleta and Point Sal, and is the largest stretch of undeveloped coastline remaining in Southern California. It encompasses thousands of acres, stretching back through the foothills to the Santa Ynez mountains. Chaparral, Coast Live Oak and deciduous forests all thrive here, providing a perfect canopy for understory plants to flourish, and the animals that they support. The region is also part of the only coastal Mediterranean ecosystem in North America.

The Gaviota Coast is home to thousands of species of flora and fauna, many exclusive to the area due to the uncommon climate created by the overlapping of the North and South bio-geographic boundaries. These two systems merge in this region and form a third, unique climate that sustains a tremendous variety of wildlife. These habitats serve as safe harbors for many rare, threatened and endangered species. There are also significant Monarch butterfly winter roosting sites within Gaviota. In addition to a wide variety of mammals, reptiles and amphibians, almost 300 species of birds live along the Gaviota Coast or migrate through the area, from vultures and hawks riding the thermals high above to shorebirds running in the surf.

The healthiest marine ecosystems in southern California are along the Gaviota Coast, and during the winter months when the ocean tides drop, a rarely-seen ocean underworld is exposed, to the delight of snorkelers, paddlers, and wildlife who come to feed. Some of the healthiest kelp forests in southern California are located along the Gaviota Coast. Birds are often spotted standing atop the dense floating mats at the kelp canopy, allowing them a place to feed, rest and hunt. Below the surface, the cold water, abundant nutrients and constant circulation provide a perfect environment for over 1000 species of plants and animals to thrive. It’s an exciting area to paddle through!

In summer months, mother Grey whales come to the Gaviota coast with their newborn calves and rest during their long migration from Baja to Alaska. Migrating Humpback whales and pods of dolphins also move through the area. Out by Point Conception, where the wind rages and powerful swells pound the jagged shoreline, northern elephant seals are perfectly happy to live and breed.

kayak on the sea

Threats of Development and Limited Public Access

For many years, this land has been in a tug of war between conservationists and developers. The Gaviota Coast currently hosts five state and county parks as well as National Forest lands, but the Coast is primarily made up of private ranches that continue to fight to retain rights to develop the land, creating significant threats including residential and commercial development, oil extraction and mining. With 95% of the Riperian forests along the California coast lost to development, and only 5% of the coastal wetland habitat remaining in Southern California with the majority of that land on the Gaviota coast, protection of this land is essential.

Hollister Ranch and Public Access to the Beach

Atop a bluff, spanning 14,400 acres, Hollister Ranch is a privately-owned, subdivided land currently embroiled in a fierce battle between the landowners who want to barr access to the pristine but public beaches, and conservancy groups who want to create safe access to these public areas. Currently these beaches are only accessible by sea, via kayak or soft-bottomed boat. Paddlers are then dependent on changing weather conditions for their return, often resulting in unsafe passage, even for experienced paddlers.

Last month, the Santa Barbara courts ruled that the Gaviota Coastal Trail Alliance (GCTA), a nonprofit association of groups dedicated to opening Gaviota Coast beaches for public use, had the right to participate in the current lawsuit concerning public access to a portion of Hollister Ranch. The case will be in court again January 14. If successful, the GCTA will help secure much safer public access to these beaches.

Recent Conservation Wins

In a big win for conservation, two of the ranches within the Gaviota Coast were just purchased, ensuring these large tracts of land will remain undeveloped. In 2017, the Nature Conservancy purchased the Cojo-Jalama Ranch, a huge 24,500-acre parcel that surrounds Point Conception and extends almost to the western boundary of Hollister Ranch, encompassing coastal bluff, marine terrace and mountainous regions. Currently a working cattle ranch, Cojo-Jalama Ranch is one of the most beautiful pieces of land on the coast, and as such, the land has faced significant development threats for decades. This purchase, by the Nature Conservancy, was made possible by a single $165M donation from local philanthropists, Jack and Laura Dangermond, and includes an expansion of the existing Jalama County Park by 36 acres.

This past December, philanthropist Charles Munger purchased the 1,800-acre Las Varas Ranch and donated it to UC Santa Barbara. The land, which extends from the Pacific ocean back to Los Padres National Forest, includes 2 miles of shoreline along the Gaviota coast, over 500 acres of pastureland, an 18-acre lake and fruit orchards. “We are immensely fortunate to have been entrusted with this ‘coastal jewel’” UCSB Chancellor Henry T. Yang said in a statement to UC Santa Barbara’s The Current. The university will to steward this land as a working ranch for the foreseeable future.

Getting Involved

We can all be part of the conservation of the Gaviota Coast! Check out the organizations below to learn you you can get involved.

Gaviota Coast Conservancy

For two decades, the Gaviota Coast Conservancy has worked to prevent the development of Gaviota. Because of the group’s efforts, the Gaviota Coast is still largely undeveloped. Their website posts the latest news on what’s happening with the Coast’s rules and regulations.

Gaviota Coastal Trail Alliance

The Gaviota Coastal Trail Alliance is an association of non-profit groups dedicated to opening Gaviota Coast beaches for equitable public use and completing the California Coastal Trail. Their partners include the Gaviota Coast Conservancy as well as the organizations listed below.

Santa Barbara County Trails Council

SBCTC has spent the last 50 years advocating, collaborating and volunteering for all those who use trails for outdoor recreation.

California Coastal Protection Network

CCPN is an advocacy organization dedicated to protecting California’s 1,100-mile coastline.

COASTWALK / California Coastal Trail Association

COASTWALK’s mission is to “ensure the right of all people to reach and responsibly enjoy the California Coast.”

Gaviota Coastal Trail Alliance

The Gaviota Coastal Trail Alliance is an association of non-profit groups dedicated to opening Gaviota Coast beaches for equitable public use and completing the California Coastal Trail.

For more information about PSC’s Goleta Paddle Tour and to register, visit here.

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