In lieu of wine tasting, we headed to the hills to soak up the awe-inspiring wildflowers of Santa Ynez Valley.
Santa Ynez Valley, located in Santa Barbara County, is one of our favorite places in the world. Just two hours north of Los Angeles lies a magical landscape of undulating hills, winding country roads, quaint farmlands and countless wineries. In the spring, depending on rainfall and temperatures, this area gives way to the Superbloom. This occurs when an unusually high proportion of wildflowers blossom around the same time. This year was particularly remarkable with the explosion of flowers being so large, it was visible from space.
Making the ascent over San Marcos Pass, past the rustic stagecoach stop Cold Spring Tavern, we felt ourselves slide into another dimension. This area will do that to you. It’s the perfect recipe for rest and relaxation.
Santa Ynez Valley is comprised of six towns, each with their own draw.
As you head in on Route 154 from Santa Barbara, you’ll first encounter Santa Ynez. The valley’s namesake town delights with everything from fine dining to saloon karaoke. Up next: Solvang, the “Danish capital of America” entices curious tourists with its half-timbered buildings, cute pastry shops and wooden shoe shops. Nearby, tiny Ballard is famous for its centuries-old elementary schoolhouse, still in use today. Heading north, Los Olivos is the ideal place to spend a few hours perusing tasting rooms, art galleries and boutiques. To the west, Buellton is a bustling, working class town at the junction of US 101 and Route 246. And further afield, up-and-coming Los Alamos could pass for the set of an old western, if not for its hipster lodgings and chic eateries.
Every time we return to this stunning area, it’s a relief that nothing has really changed.
Even when the area gained attention from the award-winning film Sideways, it somehow remains under the radar. That said, on this latest trip, there was a noticeable difference: a drastic increase in wine tasting fees.
Back in 2003, when we first discovered Santa Ynez Valley and its 100+ wineries (that’s over 1 million cases), the average tasting fee was $5. Many wineries even waived the fee if you bought a bottle of wine. The low cost of entry provided a great incentive for trying different wines and made the experience more approachable. A totally different approach than somewhere like Napa which garnered a more exclusive image.
While living in LA, we’d drive up for a long weekend, easily stopping in up to five wineries a day.
Aside from it simply being fun, this is where the foundation of our wine education began. We learned how the wine was made, what varietals thrive best in the area and what descriptors to look for in the wine nose and taste. When we had our (literal) fill of wine tasting, we’d find a spot on a winery’s outdoor patio. Here, we’d take in a glorious wine buzz while overlooking a stunning mountain vista. Perfection.
Now, that same experience costs $20. Sadly, not so cheap and charming anymore.
As you can imagine, wine hopping at $20 per person, per winery adds up. So in an uncharacteristic move, we spent our most recent trip in the valley hiking instead of wine tasting. Winter rains had given way to incredibly green vistas and even in April, the Superbloom was in full effect. Best of all, it was free.
Grass Mountain had come recommended as an ideal day hike to get up close and personal to California’s iconic wildflowers.
So on a beautiful, sunny SoCal day, we headed to the trailhead, just off Figueroa Mountain Road in Los Olivos. The 4.5 mile hike starts off relatively flat, moving through an expansive meadow and briefly, a shaded forest with a babbling brook. Soon after, the steady incline begins. And up we went for 2 straight hours, all in pursuit of the Superbloom.
The farther we climbed, the farther it seemed we had to go. What kept us motivated were the orange poppies and purple flowering shrubs ahead. They beckoned us to continue. The higher we went, the more they populated the hillside. The Superbloom was in sight. Passing by meandering cows and the occasional tree outcropping, we eventually found ourselves in an enormous, breathtaking sea of wildflowers.
One last push, a nearly 90-degree scale, finally brought us to the top.
Catching our breath, we introduced ourselves to one of the few other hikers we saw that day. Heather, a mother of three boys, works as a nurse in the area. She told us she hikes Grass Mountain regularly, but this was her very first time to the top. Seeing as we were woefully unprepared for such a strenuous hike, she graciously shared her orange slices and nuts with us. We congratulated one another and chatted some before taking in the panoramic view of the valley before us.
It was almost too much to take in. The endless sky. The majestic mountains. The tiny farmlands. The Superbloom. It all looked like a painting. The world felt still, surreal in its silence. As we stood there, the beauty of the surroundings and the challenge of the hike gave way to a feeling of euphoria.
Who knew you don’t need wine to get a buzz in wine country?