The Mt Figueroa loop is one of the best-known rides in the region – and it’s a beast.
With an average gradient at around 8% for 16 km, it’s one of the toughest Southern California cycling climbs. It’s also one of the prettiest. Climbing it by bike is a serious endeavour, but conquer it and you’ll be rewarded with epic views across the Los Padres National Forest and the San Rafael Mountains.
All metrics in this article are approximate.
The unsurpassed highlight of this ride is the views from Mount Figueroa over the rippling spines and ridges of the San Rafael Wilderness. They roll on as far as the eye can see and their sheer volume is impressive.
We also loved the splendid sense of isolation as you leave the Santa Ynez valley behind and climb up. You feel a long way from civilisation and very much alone. Whether that’s a good thing is a matter of personal taste, but in our hectic, busy world, it’s certainly memorable.
1. Santa Ynez to top of the first ridge: 0-21.5 km
The approach to Mount Figueroa is along lovely Armour Ranch Road and Happy Canyon Road, straight roads that roll gently upwards and disappear into the distance. There are fields, vineyard and ranchland to each side and mountains encircle your vision.
The climb begins in earnest at around 17 km, and the gradients kick in steeply from the start. It’s 5km to the top of the first ridge with an average 7.7% gradient. Not leg-breaker hard, but tough all the same, particularly due to the unpaved 1.6km (1 mile) section. When we rode the dirt section, it was hot and hadn’t rained so was hard packed and very doable on a ride bike. It might be different after significant rain.
When you reach the ridge, vast sweeping rugged views open up to the right.
2. Top of the first ridge to summit: 21.5-32.5 km
From the ridge, there’s a nice treat: a 1.3km descent as you drop down into a narrow valley and travel along the valley road next to a creek. You cross over the creek, and the 8-10% pitches return. What follows is the hardest section of the ride: around 4km of steep climbing as the road winds along the canyon. You lose the expansive views, but the canyon has a rugged charm.
As you approach the saddle, you see an intersection of roads. Turn left and take “Figueroa Mt Rd” for roughly 5 km to the top. The narrow road is cut into the forested mountainside, and you’ll need to watch out for patchy asphalt and debris on the road. The gradients vary constantly and keep you on your toes. There are stunning views on your left, and you’ll see down over the canyon you just climbed and rippling mountain ranges.
Make the most of them as after a final, short, sharp climb you reach the unremarkable, no-view, forested summit.
3. Summit to Santa Ynez: 32.5-68 km
The 15km descent takes you through forest for a few kilometres before the scenery opens up again, with views of mountain ridges, Lake Cachuma and the flat valley bottom stretching for miles.
The road twists and roller-coasters down the hillside, many sections are very steep, curvy and a bit rough so take care. Also, beware the cattle grids. There are a few minor climbs within the overall descent, but nothing unduly onerous.
The final run home is along the pretty valley road before heading back to Los Olivos and Santa Ynez. If you’re there in Spring, you should see a riot of orange poppies and purple lupine.
After you’ve left Santa Ynez, there is no water source until you’re back to Los Olivos. There is a Ranger Station on Figueroa Mountain Road, but you certainly can’t rely on that. Pack accordingly.
We rode from the Farmhouse at MK Ranch. It occupies a pleasant 20-acre plot between Santa Ynez and Los Olivos. We loved our stay and would certainly recommend it to friends.
For other choices, take a look at the accommodation suggestions in our ultimate guide to Santa Barbara County for cyclists.
Our best towns for cyclists in Santa Ynez valley article might also help.
The ride could be done in reverse, but we think this way is better as you climb on the dirt road, which is safer. You also avoid ascending some of the more ridiculously steep sections on the west side.
When it’s warm, people ride Mt Figueroa very early in the morning because the summit gets very windy later in the day. Take note. Another good reason to ride early is if you’re keen to avoid seeing anyone. We can’t imagine the road ever gets particularly busy, but the feeling of being quite alone is an amazing one to experience (just make sure you’ve packed everything you need).
We noticed some unusual instantaneous changes of temperature as we moved up the mountain. The temperature dropped significantly within a few metres of riding, but then might go back up again just as quickly. It’s not something we’ve experienced before – let us know if you’ve experienced the same.
If 68km and nearly 1,500m of climbing aren’t enough, how about cycling the Figueroa Mountain Gran Fondo route? The 96 mile (155km) route incorporates (pretty much) the circuit here plus adds on an additional loop of Foxen Canyon, Cat Canyon and Alisos Canyon (check out the Related Rides section above for more detail on those roads).
Some other considerations include:
- Take lots of water and enough spare tubes (the dirt section is a particular risk).
- If you can ride with a friend all the better. Help is a long way away if anything goes wrong and we had very limited phone reception.
- You’re on quiet, little-used roads and the road surface reflects this.
- There’s the dirt section on the way up and cattle grids on the descent, plus watch out for debris, rocks and broken asphalt.
- We are told that on your way back down Figueroa Mountain Road, you pass Neverland Ranch, Michael Jackson’s old estate/zoo, on your right. We failed to spot it – see if you do better!
- Dr J’s bike shop in Solvang sells a Mount Figueroa jersey. If you love the ride, perhaps one to buy as a memento.
Read our tips for cycling in Southern California before you set out.
Click here for our complete guide to planning a holiday in Santa Barbara County/Santa Ynez Valley.
Found this guide useful?
We’d love to hear from you – comment below or drop us a line.
Don’t miss our other ride guides on Santa Barbara County: 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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