Water and Wine

Hike at Lake Cachuma and Wine Taste in Santa Ynez Valley

Galileo once quipped, “Wine is sunlight, held together by water.” On the surface, it’s a truly romantic notion, but the great scientist’s quote also has its roots in the scientific craft of vineyard irrigation. Pay homage to the process with a visit to the largest water source on the Santa Ynez River— Lake Cachuma—via a 4.5-mile out-and-back hike along the shores of the reservoir. Then follow it up sipping a Gruner Veltliner Sauvignon Blend.

Park at the Lake Cachuma Vista Point overlooking the Bradbury Dam just off the CA-154 to find the Sweetwater trailhead, which is an even more appropriate name than you think (in botany, it’s a term for a white grape varietal). First, check out the viewing platform (western edge of the lot) next to a historical plaque dedicated to the 200-foot dam, built in 1953 and responsible for the vast majority of the county’s water supply.

It’s an epic first look at the 3,100-acre lake, named after the Chumash word for “sign,” but find the trailhead behind you at the eastern edge of the lot. The Sweetwater Trail immediately descends among massive coast live oaks and other resident flora, as it meanders along the southern shore of the lake. At times, you can take spur trails right up to the water’s edge, which offers great photo opportunities and, if you brought the binoculars, some local birding (look for white pelicans floating on the surface!). 

The trail, which roller-coasters most of the way, providing some decent ups and downs (about 500 feet total), eventually reaches Harvey Cove, home to a serene picnic area. Just a quarter mile further is your turnaround point—this is the main parking lot and campground for the Cachuma Lake Recreation Area. There’s also a cafe and nature center here, and opportunities to kayak or canoe when open (no swimming allowed). We enjoy this hike most at sunrise or sunset when the light best reflects off the water, but be sure to make it back to your car before dark!

WINERY WALK: A hike around a watering hole is best paired with a hike to multiple watering holes! Check out the nearby town of Santa Ynez, one of three wine hubs in the area, for some good food and drink. We particularly like starting at Kalyra Winery, whose vineyards border the Zanja de Cota Creek. It was a prominent feature in the movie Sideways (where Sandra Oh’s character works) and offers relaxed vibes, good views and, most importantly, tasty wines—our favorite is the Gruner Veltliner Sauvignon Blend. Walk along the picturesque Refugio Road to reach multiple other wineries here, such as the French villa–inspired Sunstone Winery, just half a mile to the south. Talk about turning water into wine!

To get to the Lake Cachuma Vista Point, take the US-101 to the CA-154 and head north. After 19 miles, turn right at the sign for the lake and dam. After a quarter mile, find the paved lot, viewpoint, and trailhead. To get to Kalyra Winery, continue on the CA-154 for just over 5 miles and then take a left onto the CA-246/Mission Dr. After 2.6 miles, turn left onto Refugio Rd. Kalyra will be on your right after about a mile. Dog-friendly!

Story and photos by Matt Pawlik.

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