This is a great run for what it is: moving water with great road access, a reliable online gauge, and only about a half hour from Santa Barbara. It's probably not worth a drive from outside of the areas of Santa Maria, Santa Barbara or Ventura.
Overall, the run is class II+ in difficulty at most flows, solid class III at higher flows. However, there are a few hazards (strainers and a low-head dam). For an intermediate boater, the hazards are easily avoided. Pure beginners would want someone more experienced on the run. The run responds to rainfall and can be runable for a few days after a heavy rain or for weeks in a row in the event of a heavy el nino winter full of rainfall.Put in where Paradise Rd crosses the Santa Ynez river. Paradise Rd is found off of hwy 154 between Lake Cachuma and Santa Barbara. There is a new parking lot constructed at this spot. A Forest Service Adventure Pass is necessary to park here. If the water level is boatable, a gate will block the river crossing here.
There are two possible takeouts. The first (and recommended) is White Rock, also on Paradise Rd. This Forest Service campsite allows day use parking with an Adventure Pass. Walk down to scout the takeout, as the parking lot is not visible from the river. An advantage to this takeout is that the shuttle can easily be biked or even run along Paradise Rd. Taking out at White Rock makes for a 3 mile run. The harder rapids are on this section of the river.
An alternate takeout is further downstream, just above Lake Cachuma, making for a 7.8 mile run. Kayaks and canoes are now allowed on Lake Cachuma. The takeout above Lake Cachuma is potentially problematic, but I'm including it because I have used it and I would rather pass on the best information I have. It requires using land at the Live Oak Group Camp, which is owned and managed by the county of Santa Barbara. During the winter months, the camp is closed, but a caretaker lives on site and oversees the land. A past caretaker told me he was most concerned with ATV use on the horse trails, and was not concerned at all with boaters using the land for takeout. However, please note that access has never been officially granted to boaters and could be revoked at any time. I suggest if you plan to use this takeout that you respect the caretaker. To get to this takeout, off of hwy 154 at the upstream (southeast) end of Lake Cachuma, there is a turnoff for Live Oak campground and a golf course. Exit the highway, and veer left toward the camp. Just outside a locked gate, there is one parking spot on the left. From here, hike several hundred yards down the road to the horse trail trailhead and scout the takeout.
Note that although the land on the first few miles of the run is Los Padres National Forest, the banks on the last few miles above Lake Cachuma are privately owned and consist of ranches and a golf course. Please respect property rights.
The action on the water starts quickly, with a class II rapid right after putin. In general, strainers are an issue at any water flow. Several rapids have mid-stream trees growing in the channel. However, none should cause a serious obstacle for boaters with some degree of boat control. Scout if you are unsure. At higher flows (above 3 thousand), a good playspot is about a half mile downstream from the putin on river right. Here, a bedrock ledge extends into the current, creating a good hole with fine eddy access. Several class II and II+ rapids are in this section, except at high flows, when most of the run can be considered class III.
The most serious hazard on the run is a reversal created from a concrete road crossing. Although the drop at the crossing is only 18 inches or so, a strong low-head dam-like reversal can formed. This crossing can be scouted beforehand, it is right near the ranger station on Paradise Rd. There is an easy portage on the left bank, or the drop can easily be run with some momentum. A ranger told me that years ago, a drowning occurred at this spot, and the drop has been modified to reduce the strength of the reversal. Do NOT test this by getting stuck in the reversal.
About 2 miles below the putin, at a sharp right hand bend, a downed tree trunk is in the left channel. It can be hard to see from upstream, but can be avoided by taking the lower volume right chute. It is possible to maneuver past it, but please be careful.
If you takeout at Live Oak Camp (the lower takeout), be aware that log jams may be present right above takeout (due to the high water mark of Lake Cachuma).
In general, there are a few small playspots throughout at medium flows, but many good playspots at higher flows. Taking out at White Rock makes for a fairly short run. Continuing downstream, the intesnity of the rapids slackens, but at high flows there is still some good play. Two friends report that at 5,000 cfs, a playwave on this lower stretch was phenomenal.
Scenery is good on this run. What is most amazing is how close this small river is to Santa Barbara. You can leave class at noon, and be in a totally different world for the afternoon. During heavy storms, many waterfalls cascade into the Santa Ynez. These falls dropping 50 feet or so don't add a lot of flow, but make for great scenery. After cold storms, snow will dot nearby peaks, adding to the great aesthetics.
Water quality is good as well. Although during high flows the river is muddy and turbid, most of the contributing watershed is undeveloped Wilderness areas, so don't worry about the kind of infections you might encounter in many urban SoCal drainages.
This section is raftable. I have taken a 10 foot raft down at many flows and had a great time. Due to its small nature, however, hardshell and sit-on-top kayaks are more fun.
At low flows (below 1,000 cfs), expect narrow passages and gentle hydraulics. At 6,000 cfs (the highest level I have run the stretch at), the current is strong and pushy, with big waves, although no horrible holes were noticed. At these high levels, there are still routes through all the rapids, but less room for error.
It is possible to put in higher up, but the logistics get much tougher for very little gain. Although Paradise Rd continues upstream above the putin, during boatable flows the river crossing will be closed. The only option is a hike down a fire road from East Camino Cielo to Gibraltar Reservoir. Putting in below Gibraltar Reservoir will add a few miles to the run, but the gradient is small, with several road crossings (read "hydraulics") and a barbed-wire fence. It's a better area to hike, mountain bike, or run than to haul gear for a paddle.
USGS gauge Santa Ynez below Los Laurels Canyon.
The gauge is located on the run. Very little flow enters the stream from tributaries, so what you see on the gauge is exactly what you get on the run. Above a few thousand cfs, the run is definitely class III.
Permits are not required for this reach.
We have no additional detail on this route.
Use the map below to calculate how
to arrive to the main town from your zipcode.
Snow on the peaks
Wavetrain and waterfall
Put-in wave at high water
Moderate flow boogie water
If someone gets hurt on a river, or you read about a whitewater-related injury, please report it to
American Whitewater. Don't worry about multiple submissions from other witnesses, as our safety
editors will turn multiple witness reports into a single unified accident report.
Log into the American Whitewater website and you can contribute to river descriptions,
flow and access tips, and maps associated with runs you've done. You can even add new
runs to the inventory!