The River’s Journey

It’s a steep pull going up the Yucca Trail in Gaviota State Park. Today’s hike is my wife’s first time on this particular route. For many years the path was so overgrown I couldn’t even find traces of it. Thankfully the Santa Barbara Trails Council restored the trail a couple of years ago, and they perform periodic maintenance on it to keep it from becoming overgrown again.

The River's Journey - Yucca Trail
Heading down the Yucca Trail

Sunday’s loop was also my first ‘real’ hike of the New Year. Several weeks of cardio-rehab have paid dividends. Plus we ate breakfast at Ellen’s Pancake House in nearby Buellton, so we have plenty of calories to burn. As we ascend towards the crest, I can make out part of the watershed for the Santa Ynez River, the river which was the reason we traveled to the Santa Ynez Valley on Presidents’ Day Weekend last month – for the opening of The River’s Journey exhibit at the Wildling Art Museum in Solvang.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we are members of the Wildling. The Wildling’s mission “to inspire our community and visitors to enjoy, value, and conserve wildlife and natural areas through art” is near and dear to my heart, and they have certainly inspired me over the years. And not just me; four years prior, another exhibit at the Wildling inspired the six women of Rose Compass to start down a path which culminated in The River’s Journey.

In the winter of 2014, the Wildling presented ‘On Nature’s Terms: Paintings of Thomas Paquette commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.’ Many of the works on display were gouache paintings. These small pieces of art were beautifully layered (a magnifying glass helped bring out the intricate detail) and a joy to view. Oft times when I view photos or paintings of wild places I immediately want to plan a trip and see it for myself. Paquette’s exhibition evoked a different response. Such was the diversity and scope of the wilderness vignettes captured in Paquette’s exquisite depictions, I realized I didn’t need to visit all these locales, just knowing these lands were out there, and protected for future generations, was enough.

Fast forward a couple of years. The six artists of Rose Compass (Connie Connally, Holli Harmon, Libby Smith, Nicole Strasburg, Nina Warner, and Pamela Zwehl-Burke) spent roughly twelve months using the medium of gouache to document and depict the ninety-two mile Santa Ynez River and its surrounding watershed. Many of these paintings made their way into the River’s Journey exhibit. (You can read more about the making of ‘The River’s Journey’ at: )

The River's Journey - Rose Compass
The artists of Rose Compass (Left to Right: Pamela Zwehl-Burke, Connie Connally, Nicole Strasburg, Nina Warner, Holli Harmon, and Libby Smith)

This exhibit became very personal for me last year. I was on the final day of a month-long road trip which included a solar-eclipse and a backpack in Olympic National Park. I decided to make a detour to visit the lovely and gracious Holli Harmon as part of the Santa Barbara Studio Artists Open Studio Tour. While at her place, Holli showed me several gouache paintings under consideration for inclusion in the upcoming Wildling Exhibit. Two paintings caught my eye: ‘Path to Red Rock’ and ‘Fountainhead.’ Initially, I was excited by ‘Path to Red Rock,’ but I couldn’t get ‘Fountainhead’ out of my mind. I found myself reflecting back on ‘Fountainhead’ so often I contacted Holli to see if it was possible to purchase it, understanding the constraints of the upcoming exhibit.

To make a long story short, Ruth received ‘Fountainhead’ as a Valentine’s Day gift and Holli invited us to attend ‘The River’s Journey’ Preview Party as her guests. The exhibit opening was quite an event and there was abundant energy and enthusiasm. All the Rose Compass artists were in attendance, as well as Thomas Paquette, the inspiration behind the show, with two new gouache paintings on display. And ‘Fountainhead’? Ms. Harmon created a larger oil painting of ‘Fountainhead,’ and it is featured in the exhibit. This is an important exhibition, not only due to the quality of art, but because ‘The River’s Journey’ highlights an impacted ecosystem vital to Santa Barbara County.

The River's Journey - Holly Harmon - Fountainhead
Holli Harmon and ‘Fountainhead’

The following morning we returned to the Wildling to view ‘The River’s Journey’ again, this time with far fewer people in attendance. On our second go around we saw details we hadn’t noticed the evening before, and walked away with an even greater appreciation of all the time and artistic energy that went into ‘The River’s Journey.’ If you are in the Solvang area, I strongly encourage you to make the time to see it. I hope to view it again before the exhibit concludes on July 9th.

After we left the Wildling, we headed to Gaviota State Park. Seeing so many fine renditions of nature, we wanted to connect with the natural world ourselves. Reaching the crest of the Yucca Trail, the views open up: Gaviota Peak, the ocean and Channel Islands, mountains to the north, and our return route, the Las Cruces Trail below. A bit of nostalgia crept in: this used to be my favorite ‘after work’ hike; it’s only a ten-minute drive from the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott to the trailhead. Work no longer brings me to this area, but it’s still the place where I hope to reside one day.

We finish our short trek and head for home, happy to stretch our legs, and in the knowledge we will always have a small part of ‘The River’s Journey’ in our lives.


For information about the Wildling Museum check out their website:

Here’s a link to a recent article about the Yucca Trail/Las Cruces Trail Loop:

Gaviota State Park Trail Map: