Santa Ynez mountains north of Santa Barbara are considerably more challenging than the Oakland-Berkeley hills I usually ride. There are at least two rides in the immediate SB area that take you to elevation of 3900 feet. It's really one loop that takes you up the ridge and along it, but you can do it clockwise or counter. I only did it in clockwise direction, which was a big mistake. The initial climb up San Marcos Rd. is fairly challenging, but nothing leg breaking for the first ~3.5 miles. After the first half mile you enter canyon and ranch country and although there are occasional houses you leave the suburbs very quickly. There are three very steep hairpins, but otherwise, the road averages 6-7%. The bad thing is that it is almost completely exposed and since you ride away from the ocean you get a slight tailwind. Not enough wind to speed you up, but enough of an air current to prevent you from feeling air moving around your head and face, which really heats you up. The road changes name to Painted Cave Rd. at the intersection with Hwy. 154. Up in the mountains road markings are barely existant.
Painted Cave Rd. is also ~ 3.5 miles. The first half mile after the intersection felt like 8-9%, but it relents. There are some switchbacks here and if you're not working too hard have a look around. The views of Santa Barbara and Goleta are spectacular. The grade eases a bit and after a while you enter a forest. In the shade of the trees the temperature seemed 10 degrees cooler. Scenery and the novelty of the road seemed to make the time pass quicker. Most of San Marcos Rd. and Painted Cave (except the bottom of Painted Cave) have crumbling pavement, although I did see road crews and they are repaving significant sections of San Marcos, but not Painted Cave.
Painted Cave Rd. tops out at 2800 ft. at East Camino Cielo Rd. On my first ride I turned right and went along the ridge. Finally I got some breeze and felt a bit cooler. I had drunk 24 oz. of water before reaching the intersection and had just half of large bottle left. The west side of East Camino Cielo is the second worst paved road I've ever ridden. There is a peak in the mountains above Santa Barbara called Gibraltar. East Camino Cielo climbs Gibraltar in a meandering sort of way from the west, then drops down to the intersection with Gibraltar Rd., which goes down down down into town.
If I said the views from Painted Cave were spectacular, views from East Camino Cielo are just mindblowing. You're higher, there's nothing to bstruct views of Santa Barbara to the south, but you also get views of the Santa Ynez mountains to the north, which I found even more impressive.
Unfortunately, East Camino Cielo is popular with shooters. There are a couple of ranges on the ridge and there are people shooting noisily even in the middle of weekdays. And sound carries far there. The other bad thing about this road is it is popular with very large black flies. On many climbs I would get a fly circling me, always counterclockwise, for miles on end. It's not much fun to climb in the heat waving your arms around. As long as I'm complaining, I'll mention road surface again. Descent of eastern side of East Camino Cielo and of Gibraltar Rd. was one the most horrifying experiences I've had on a bike not counting the times I crashed and knew I was about to eat it. The road is quite steep 7+% and is thoroughly potholed. Holes range in size from your typical hand-size divot to something that's 3 by 5 feet. Large sections of the road are like mine fields where you have to dodge between holes while patches bounce you up and down. Ah yes, the patches. The road has many patches. The patches are not flush with the surface but are about 2 inches above it. So either a hole swallows you or a patch bounces you... And so you're dodging and going into holes and over patches -- lots of fun! And because it is so bouncy it is hard to see. And because it is hard to see you ride your brakes. And then your arms get tired from squeezing the levers for ever and ever. The lower I got the worse the surface seemed. Probably because I was getting tired. Then my saddle came loose. I am sure the descent of Gibraltar and East Camino Cielo offers wonderful views too, but I was too freaked out by the road to notice. Finally, you hit residential area about half way down Gibraltar and suddenly pavement changes to newly-lain blacktop. Good road ends where money stops.
Those of you with mountain biking and cross experience may enjoy the descent, but no thanks. For what it's worth I saw lots of people climbing Gibraltar and East Camino Cielo (counterclockwise) and no one going in my direction. This seems to be the saner and safer route.
On the next long ride I climbed San Marcos and Painted Cave again, then, again, climbed East Camino Cielo to the top of Gibraltar peak. There, I turned around and retraced my steps. Descending East Camino Cielo in this direction seemed much easier. I arrived at the intersection of East Camino Cielo and Painted Cave completely out of water, but didn't want to ride down Painted Cave because the surface at the top almost rivals upper Gibraltar. Because I was now out of water, my plan was to continue riding about 3 miles along East Camino Cielo to intersection with Hwy. 154 and take 154 down to San Marcos and descend San Marcos back into town.
(There is no water anywhere on San Marcos, East Camino Cielo (except one spot; see below), or Gibraltar. Two large bottles are a minimum. On my first ride, which was on Sunday, at least a third of the riders I saw wore a Camelback.)
[The following is in present tense for emphasis]
So, now I am traveling west along East Camino Cielo and it is descending toward 154, which goes over a saddle in the mountains. Except for one very nasty spot, the surface is OK. I am descending and descending and I see a fireman walking along the road. That's odd, but I don't really think about it until after a quarter mile later I see a fire station. Eureka! Water! I fill two bottles. One fireman asks me where I was going and I tell him I don't really know where I am. He says, "you're at highway 154." And sure enough, 154 is just 50 yards below. I thank them and now that I have water I'm ready to explore a bit.
I cross 154 and come to a T intersection. None of the roads is marked. The road I came on, the road to the left, and the road to the right -- none marked. I decide to go right. I see signs saying this is an old stagecoach route. The road climbs gently for about 1/4 mile then starts to descend. The road keeps descending and descending into a shady canyon. I am getting an idea that this roughly parallels 154. The road is pleasant, relatively cool and WELL PAVED. It's about 1:00 and I need to be back by 2:30, so time is getting kinda dodgy. After about two miles of descending I see signs saying "Old Town Tavern." I'm thinking, "what the hell?" I hadn't seen a commercial establishment for three hours and am not expecting one in the middle of nowhere. Sure enough, Old Town Tavern. Looks like a shack. At least 8 cars parked in front. I'm thinking, "what the hell?" It's lunch time. So I go in and they seat me. It's dark; deer heads on the walls. A few empty tables, but kinda busy, touristy. They ignore me for 10 minutes. I get up, go to the bar, get my own water from the pitcher. A party of 10 comes in, they tell them to wait outside. Finally, a waiter shows up at around the time I figured I would have been eating. I order a chicken ceasar, figuring that it can't take more than 3 minutes to throw that together. Another 10 minutes go by, I get up and leave. Don't quite feel like climbing out of the canyon. So I go down again. Keep going down. The road just keeps going down, down, down. Very pleasant, about 5-7%. I come to a stop sign at an intersection. Street signs!!! Not sure where I am. Decide to turn around. The climb, as the descent, is very pleasant, cool. You can go 9mph without working too hard. Two miles up the climb I pass the tavern. The party of 10 is still waiting outside. Two miles later I get to the top and swing onto 154.
Descending 154 is something else. You coast at 35-40 mph. There isn't much shoulder on either side and cars whizz by at 65. Cars notwithstanding it was fun to just let it all out on a downhill. You can take 154 almost all the way into SB -- maybe even all the way, I just don't know if it's bike legal in town, but I turned off onto San Marcos and descending it wasn't bad.
Two years later, in 2007, I went back over the ridge, down Stagegoach and went straight past the intersection. At first I thought I'd explore some more, but I kept going and going, still roughly parallel to 154. For a while I had to get on 154, but traffic there was slower. It was still fast and pretty busy, but it felt like I was on a highway rather than a freeway. It was windy. I was riding through typical summer California scenery -- brown hillsides and vineyards. After about 40 miles I realized that my options were either to turn around and retrace my steps and go on roads where I couldn't find any food or water except water at the fire station or go on to Highway 246 toward Solvang, get supplies there, but I'd have to take 101 freeway to get back to Santa Barbara. Since it was already after noon and I was hungry and low on water I chose the former.
I rode on to Solvang where I had a burger at a civilized sidewalk restaurant (hell, everything in Solvang looks civilized), stopped at a gas station in Buellton for Gatorade and, with much trepidation, turned left onto 101 on ramp.
By my calculations and helpful road signs Santa Barbara was 35 miles away. It was 1:15 and I had to be back by 3:30. Doable.
Shoulder of 101 is not a fun place to be. Cars and trucks speed by at 70+ mph, lots of gravel, debris, weeds, heat. About 10 miles south of Buellton there's a 3/4-mile long hill that does not look particularly steep, but feels steep to a tired rider. It took much longer to climb than it should have, but finally I was over it. The descent was a wind-blown three-mile long speed-fest all the way to Pacific coast and it was well worth the uphill slog.
Call me spoiled, I've ridden along the coast a number of times, but after a while I find it boring. The ocean is bluish-gray and always looks about the same. So, on one side the scenery is always the same. The other side is usually a greenish-brown hillside. And the last 20 miles to Santa Barbara are essentially flat. And while that's better than 20 miles uphill, it's rather more boring than it should be and than one would expect. All the while there is a steady stream of fast vehicle traffic blowing past. I appreciated the tail wind, though.
Since my goal was UCSB in Goleta, rather than Santa Barbara itself, I arrived at my freeway exit good 25 minutes sooner than expected. This was the best part of the freeway journey. And I got back in time.