Gibraltar Road is often near the top of people’s lists of best bike rides in California. Our loop takes in this well-loved favourite as well as three other fabulous roads: East Camino Cielo, Painted Cave Road and North San Marcos Road.
This is a classic, challenging route in the hills above Santa Barbara.
The 14.5 km ascent up Gibraltar Road is at around 7% average gradient (discounting the flat section) on relatively well-paved roads with expansive views of the coastline. There’s then the fabulous East Camino Cielo ridge road that gives you a 4 km descent and a 2.5 km ascent before a fast, steep descent down Painted Cave Road.
Finish this ride, and you’ll walk away with a major sense of accomplishment.
All metrics in this article are approximate.
Gibraltar Road highlights
If you love a consistently tough climb, Gibraltar Road is for you. It’s long and pretty unrelenting, but in return, you get vistas of Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands that are immediately good and get better as you climb.
On top of this, there’s East Camino Cielo, a fabulous ridge road with fantastic views down to the city and sea. We love that the route offers you the feeling of being close to Santa Barbara and yet at the same time feels remote and quiet.
Don’t miss this amazing Santa Barbara bike ride!
1. Tuckers Grove Park via Gibraltar Road to La Cumbre Peak: 0-23.5 km
The ride starts with rolling terrain as you head along the residential streets of Santa Barbara. When you turn onto Mountain Drive, the hardcore climbing begins.
The second half of the climb is even tougher than the first, so don’t push it too hard early on. You pass Flores Flat, one of only two communities in the Santa Ynez Mountains that overlooks Santa Barbara (Painted Cave is the other), and then hit a tortuously steep section. From here it’s just a choice between steep and very steep until you reach the intersection with East Camino Cielo on your right, and you get a brief respite.
The final 2.5 kilometres to the top of La Cumbre Peak are marginally easier, with an average 5.5% gradient and supposedly great views (we managed to pick a foggy day for our ride so we’ll have to rely on what others tell us).
La Cumbre Peak sits at about the 23.5km mark on this ride and is on East Camino Cielo, rather than Gibraltar Road. It’s the highest point in Santa Barbara.
2. La Cumbre Peak via East Camino Cielo to Painted Cave Road: 23.5-35 km
There’s a short downhill and uphill after La Cumbre Peak. Then a joyous 4km descent, before a couple of kilometres back uphill again at around 6-7%.
From here it’s a great 4km downhill to the junction with Painted Cave Road. The scenery along East Camino Cielo is meant to be fantastic. We only caught glimpses due to the fog, but from what we saw and have read, it’s a truly stunning road!
3. Painted Cave Road to North San Marcos Road to Tuckers Grove Park: 35-47 km
Keep your eyes open for the Painted Cave Road turn off as it’s a bit hidden.
You pass a small community near the Fire Station, and there are wonderful views down to Santa Barbara if you have time to look as you fly through the switchbacks. We also loved the forest sections with overhanging trees that lend a mysterious atmosphere. On your right are the caves, which you might want to stop at (we didn’t).
Do take care as the road surface was in poor condition when we rode it, and if you’re not on disc brakes, overheating rims may be an issue as you’ll definitely be on the brakes.
You cross the 154, and you’re onto North San Marcos Road (aka Old San Marcos Road). It’s a fun ride with great views and little traffic. But there are some very steep sections, and you’ll need to brake for the switchbacks and keep an eye out for debris too.
All in all a superb ride that you won’t forget.
Neither Gibraltar Rd or the East Camino Cielo sections of the ride have water available on the route (let alone cafés). You have to wait for the fountain at the intersection of Painted Cave Road and Manzanita Road. Pack accordingly.
We stayed at the Farmhouse at MK Ranch, near Santa Ynez and Los Olivos. It’s an easy 28 mile, 35 minute drive to Tuckers Grove Park in Santa Barbara, the start of this ride. We loved staying in the countryside with so much excellent riding on the doorstep, yet having this fabulous ride and Santa Barbara to explore a stone’s throw away. You could, of course, base yourself in Santa Barbara, but we think our way around gives better opportunities for riding.
You’ll find additional accommodation suggestions in our ultimate guide to Santa Barbara County for cyclists.
If you’re not sure which town you want to stay in the Santa Ynez Valley, take a look at our take on the best towns for cyclists in Santa Ynez Valley.
We’ve started the ride at Tuckers Grove Park which allows a few kilometres of warm up before the climb and means you finish with a great descent. If you want to just get stuck in, you could start at the Santa Barbara Mission and give yourself no warm up and a rolling hills finish.
As described above, Painted Cave Road is very steep, and the surface is not ideal in places. If you want to avoid descending it then, at the intersection with Painted Cave, you could simply continue on East Camino Cielo. The road surface is much better, but the downside is that you then have a few unpleasant kilometres on busy Highway 154. Our preference is to stick with Painted Cave. It’s up to you.
If you’re into panoramas, we’ve heard the following are worthwhile. When we visited, the mountains were smothered in fog, so we didn’t check them out ourselves.
- When you’re on Gibraltar Road, and you get to the intersection with East Camino Cielo, turn right for about 1.5km (it’s uphill but should be much easier than what you’ve just done). You come to a vantage point where you get great inland mountain views. You can then return the way you came and continue up Gibraltar Road.
- When the climb ends on East Camino Cielo, hop the gate and ride up a rough, narrow path, past the radio tower.
Flies can be irritating towards the top in hot weather. Watch out for ice in winter.
If it’s foggy, wrap up as it gets cold in the hills. Even if it’s not, you may want to pack something for the descent towards Santa Barbara.
The ride goes very close to the impressive Mission Santa Barbara, established in 1786 and the tenth of twenty-one missions to be founded by the Spanish Franciscans. If you like history and/or beautiful architecture, the Mission is worth visiting.
Take a look at our tips for cycling in Southern California before you set out.
Click here for our ultimate guide to planning a holiday in the Santa Ynez Valley.
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Don’t miss our other Santa Barbara cycling routes: see the related rides section above.
Check out our ultimate guide to cycling Santa Barbara County and other articles on the region, below.
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