5 Best Day Trips from Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is stunningly beautiful. Its Spanish architecture, brawny cliffs, and beautiful beaches draw visitors from all over the world, and there are endless things to do all over town. However, you’d be remiss to come to this amazing vacation destination and not experience any of the wonderful day trips from Santa Barbara.

We’ve created a list of the 5 best Santa Barbara day trips, so you can get the most out of your California vacation. If you're still looking for a home base, check out our list of Santa Barbara vacation rentals as well, and let us help you start planning the perfect trip.

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#1. Channel Islands National Park

Regarded as the “Galapagos Islands of North America,” this chain of five islands features an astounding array of flora and fauna amid breathtaking cliffs and caves. The islands also boast the highest concentration of sea grottos anywhere in the world, and are home to sea lions, cormorants, brown pelicans, and the peregrine falcon - the fastest bird on the planet.

What to do:

  • Rent kayaks and explore the sea caves. Scorpion Anchorage, a part of a marine reserve on the island of Santa Cruz, is a renowned kayaking spot, and is regarded as one of the most beautiful sea caves in the world.
  • Go snorkeling. The waters surrounding the islands made Jacques Cousteau’s list of the top 10 cold water dive locations in the world. You can expect to see massive kelp forests, seals and sea lions, dolphins, and enormous schools of fish.
  • Hike to Inspiration Point. Starting at the visitor center of East Anacapa Island, it’s an easy 1.5 mile (roundtrip) hike with extraordinary views. Once at Inspiration Point, you’ll see the west coast’s last permanent lighthouse. Click here for a trail map and guide.
  • Watch for whales as you cruise from island to island. With more than 20 species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises calling the Santa Barbara Channel home, it’s some of the best whale watching anywhere in the world.

How to get there:
  • Park Concessionaire Boats - These public transportation boats run from Santa Barbara to all the islands. Find out schedules and ticketing information here. Adult ticket prices range from about $60 to $100 for the full day, and the boat ride is about an hour. 
  • By plane. For the ultimate in luxury travel, book a flight on Channel Islands Aviation, which makes the 25-minute flight to the memorizing island of Santa Rosa, and lands on a remote dirt runway. 
  • Private boat. If you want to take your own boat to the islands, there are guest slips where you can park your vessel for as long as you like. Fees depend on the length of stay and the size of the boat.

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#2. A day in Solvang

Transport yourself from the Spanish-influenced town of Santa Barbara to a Danish enclave that feels European in every way. Solvang, California, located in the Santa Ynez Valley in the heart of wine country, is built with traditional Danish designs, and is home to world-famous bakeries that serve authentic Danish pastries. It’s convenient to get there with public transportation, too, which makes for a unique and very European experience.

What to do:

  • Visit the Elverhøj Museum of History & Art. Open Wednesday - Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., here you can see Danish art and Viking artifacts, and learn about the history of this unique town. Admission is free, however, they do accept and encourage donations of any value. 
  • Get a pastry from Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery. You can try Scandinavian dark limpa bread, Danish butter cookies, and traditional hot cross buns. 
  • The Solvang Julefest. The California town turns into a Christmas wonderland every December, and features Santa visits, wine and beer walks, and a nativity scene.
  • The Danish Heritage Festival. In September, gain free entry and be a part of several parades, watch Danish folk dancers and musicians, and visit a re-creation of a Viking encampment. 

How to get there:
  • Bus. Perhaps the most fun and unique way is to take the Clean Air Express, which travels along scenic highway 154. On Saturdays, it picks up and drops off passengers in Santa Barbara at State Street at La Cumbre Plaza at 10:25 a.m., Mid-town at 10:30 a.m., Paseo Nuevo at 10:40 a.m., and the Train Station at 10:45 a.m. It takes a little over an hour, and costs $7 each way, which can be paid on the bus. Check here for a complete schedule.
  • Driving. The quickest way to get there is your own wheels, taking only about 45 minutes.

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#3. Los Padres National Forest

Beautiful mountain wildflowers, pouring waterfalls, rugged cliffs, and excellent hiking make up Los Padres National Forest, which is a Santa Barbara day trip tailor-made for those who love the outdoors. With several protected wilderness areas, it’s still a very untamed part of the state, but only a short drive from your Santa Barbara vacation rental.

What to do:

  • Take a road trip. While not for the faint of heart, the roads that crisscross through the mountains and forests provide unbeatable views of the south and central California mountains. Take Highway 58 and you’ll pass several scenic overlooks, spots to pull over, and places to have a picnic with unimaginably good views.
  • Take a hike. There are dozens of hikes through the forest, however the North Fork Matilija trail is regarded as one of the finest. At a moderate difficulty, out and back it would be about 16 miles, however there are four camps along the way, should you decide to stop and turn around at any of them. Other trails to look into include Cerro Alto Trail loop (difficult) or the Rose Valley Falls trail (easy). 
  • Go for a swim. Within the park there are four designated swimming holes: The Arroyo Seco Day use Picnic Area, the Arroyo Seco Group Campground, the Sand Dollar Beach Day Use area, and the Sandstone Day Use Area. For day-use prices and opening times, check here.

How to get there:
  • Car. Using your own car is really the best way to experience everything this beautiful park has to offer, and it’s only about 15 minutes from Santa Barbara. You’ll want the freedom and flexibility to stop when you want, go where you want, and spend as much time as you want at any of the amazing locations within the park.

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#4. Hearst Castle

It’s a bit further than the others on this list, but worth it. The Hearst Castle is unlike any other museum in the state, and is a National Historic Landmark for good reason. It was built in the early 20th century for media magnate William Randolph Hearst, and is a display of craftsmanship and luxury that rivals anything in Europe.

What to do:

  • The Grand Rooms Tour. You’ll have several options when it comes to which tour to take, however each one costs extra. The tour takes you through five exquisitely decorated rooms of the house that demonstrate the true opulence in which Hearst lived. Tickets start at $25 for adults, and reservations are strongly encouraged.
  • Bring a picnic. As is the case at most museums, food and drinks are expensive. While you won’t be able to bring in your own food onto the castle grounds, there are plenty of places to picnic near the parking lot. San Simeon Pier and San Simeon State Park are both excellent areas. 

How to get there:
  • Car. From Santa Barbara, it’s about a three-hour drive to San Simeon and the Hearst Castle Visitor Center. Once here, you can park, buy your tickets, then take the shuttle that transports you from Highway 1 into the hills above town.
  • Private shuttle. There are many companies that run private tours and shuttles to the castle. You can see all of your options and buy tickets here.

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#5. Nearby Villages

Santa Barbara has its share of amazing ways to spend the day, but if you’re looking for smaller, quainter beach and mountain towns, there are plenty within a two-hour drive of the city. Here are our recommendations for the best beach villages for a Santa Barbara day trip.

  • Avila With a population of about 15,000, Avila is a seaside treasure. With only one road in and one road out, you’ll feel right at home among the locals. There are always local events going on, so be sure to check the town’s calendar.
  • Ojai Even smaller is the village of Ojai (Oh-Hi), with just over 7,000 people. Tucked within the hills, there are plenty of pastoral things to do here. Visit an olive oil farm, hike the Rose Valley Falls trail, or shop at the farmer’s market.
  • Pismo Beach At just over 8,000 people, Pismo beach has a lot to offer. Adrenaline junkies can rent dune buggies to take for a ride on the beach, while those who prefer a calm afternoon can walk through monarch butterfly shelters. During the cooler months, these shelters fill up with migrating monarchs.

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Santa Barbara Day Trips

There's plenty more to discover on the American Riviera

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