Santa Barbara – Old San Marcos & Painted Cave Climb – Brutally Steep!

Santa Barbara (Goleta, specifically) is where I grew up and where my parents still live, so I have spent a fair amount of time in the area. While San Marcos Pass Road (State Route 154) is now the preferred automobile route (due to a gentler grade and lack of tight curves), there still exists the old stagecoach route from the 1800s. This stagecoach route is steep, twisty and incredibly scenic (and, paved..quite nicely too!). There is quite a bit of history with the pass – you can read more about its history here and here. This route is known officially as North San Marcos Road and unofficially as Old San Marcos Pass Road. Old San Marcos, on its own, is a sweet, steep, tough and scenic climb absolutely worthy of climbing by any serious cyclist. But, at 3 miles long it is a bit short. You are in luck though. Old San Marcos leads right into Painted Cave Road, adding 2.4 miles of even steeper climbing to an already steep climbing route. 8.3% average grade for almost 5.5 miles. This is definitely one of the steepest sustained climbs around.

The climb up Old San Marcos starts about a half mile after turning inland from Cathedral Oaks Road as you cross the bridge – from here on up you get very few breaks. The starting bridge:

From 2010-05-09 – 1 – Old San Marcos Pass Cycling

As can be seen above, initially you are sheltered by a fair amount of vegetation. This quickly gives way to the standard, less sheltered vegetation of Santa Barbara:

From 2010-05-09 – 1 – Old San Marcos Pass Cycling

Gorgeous still, but don’t expect tons of shade.

From 2010-05-09 – 1 – Old San Marcos Pass Cycling

A few incredible houses perched along the road:

From 2010-05-09 – 1 – Old San Marcos Pass Cycling

Beautiful, green hillsides:

From 2010-05-09 – 1 – Old San Marcos Pass Cycling

Of course, for this sort of green (instead of golden/brown colors) make sure to do this climb in Spring..Summer gives way to the golden hillsides. A bit further along:

From 2010-05-09 – 1 – Old San Marcos Pass Cycling

What a parking spot:

From 2010-05-09 – 1 – Old San Marcos Pass Cycling

Not long after you will come to one of the steepest, toughest switchbacks you have ever ridden up:

From 2010-05-09 – 1 – Old San Marcos Pass Cycling

This will test you – not only is it incredibly steep but the lead-up section is also steep enough that your heart rate will already be high when you start this. This section is fun for masochists. For a high quality panorama of this switchback, click below for the panorama I assembled:

From HQ Panoramas

The above will give you a nice 1600 pixel wide view.

Shortly after this switchback you will encounter one more trying switchback. This one might be slightly easier than the previous one (we are talking relativity here – it is still really hard), but it still commands your attention. Once you complete it the views, as usual for this road, are spectacular:

From HQ Panoramas

Again, the above will give you a beautiful 1600 pixel wide view. This upper section gives you some great views of Goleta, Isla Vista and the Channel Islands:

From 2010-05-09 – 1 – Old San Marcos Pass Cycling

The top of Old San Marcos also affords some decent views:

From 2010-05-09 – 1 – Old San Marcos Pass Cycling

And is not a bad portrait spot:

From 2010-05-09 – 1 – Old San Marcos Pass Cycling


From 2010-05-09 – 1 – Old San Marcos Pass Cycling


Of course, the climb isn’t done yet. You must cross 154 and continue up Painted Cave Road. This road is steep, to put it lightly:

From 2009-07-26 – Santa Barbara – Gibraltar Road Cycling
From 2009-07-26 – Santa Barbara – Gibraltar Road Cycling
From 2009-07-26 – Santa Barbara – Gibraltar Road Cycling

One of the more moderate sections (and a couple of rather nicely situated residences along the way):

From 2009-07-26 – Santa Barbara – Gibraltar Road Cycling

A cool rock that you pass by/under:

From 2010-02-12 – Santa Barbara – Gibraltar Road Cycling

Not long after and you will pass by Painted Cave itself – a cave with Chumash paintings dating to the late 1600s. If you want to view the cave itself, bring a flashlight.

From 2009-07-26 – Santa Barbara – Gibraltar Road Cycling
From 2009-12-25 – Goleta – Christmas – Old San Marcos & Painted Cave Cycling

This section of the road is very forested – and very narrow:

From 2009-07-26 – Santa Barbara – Gibraltar Road Cycling

Finally, you will come to the super steep switchback at the end of the climb:

From 2009-12-25 – Goleta – Christmas – Old San Marcos & Painted Cave Cycling

And finish in the little community of Painted Cave:

From 2009-12-25 – Goleta – Christmas – Old San Marcos & Painted Cave Cycling

The Old San Marcos/Painted Cave combination climb is one of the toughest (and most scenic) climbs in California. Here are some stats on the climb:

Old San Marcos:
Length: 2.97 miles
Elevation Gain: 1144 feet
Average Grade: 7.3%

Painted Cave Rd:
Length: 2.31 miles
Elevation Gain: 1108 feet
Average Grade: 9.1%

Old San Marcos & Painted Cave Combined:
Length: 5.44 miles
Elevation Gain: 2392 feet
Average Grade: 8.3%

8.3% for over 5 miles? Yeah, that qualifies as tough.

Here are some mapmyride maps for these climbs (click ‘View Elevation’ to familiarize yourself with how steep the climbs are):

Old San Marcos:

Painted Cave:

Old San Marcos & Painted Cave:

So yeah, go ride this. It really is that good.

The Discussion

see what everyone is saying

  • Carmen May 14th, 2010 at 9:30 pm #1

    I agree – it is a great ride if you want a challenging climb, and some super scenic views. And the descent is pretty sweet too!

  • Andreas May 17th, 2010 at 12:54 pm #2

    Hello. I have a quick question for you regarding this ride and more specifically the ride from Goleta to Lake Cachuma using the san marcos pass rd 154. I’m thinking of taking that route for a short bike touring trip and i’m looking for some inside info to see if i’m picking the correct route. I’m not looking for a crazy climb, i’m just trying to get from the train station in Goleta to the lake for some camping. I’ll probably have about 25 pounds or so of gear on my bike for some lightweight touring. My bike is a vintage 80s ten speed that i’ve tuned up quite well but it’s definitely not a new school touring bike with 24 gears, etc. What are your thoughts on taking this road. I’m in pretty good shape, 35 yrs old. It’s been hard to find good info on this route. I would love your advice on the route, thanks so much for your time.

  • rallison May 17th, 2010 at 2:43 pm #3

    154 can definitely be ridden, but it won’t be the most pleasant ride as there is a lot of high speed traffic. That said, people do ride this road. Note that the shoulders vary from good to non-existent. Take a look at Google street view for an idea of how the road looks. Traffic speeds will be from 40-60mph. The grade will be much easier than Old San Marcos Pass (of course, this also means your climb is more miles).

  • Andreas May 18th, 2010 at 3:42 pm #4

    Thank you!

  • ??????? June 25th, 2010 at 11:18 pm #5

    I’ve done it recently twice, from 101 to the pass takes about one hour and then down to the lake is a breeze. On the way up road shoulders are pretty narrow or nonexistent in some sections and then down towards the lake a bridge crossing I find a little scary. I’m 49 and started biking a mount ago so for an younger and more experienced person should be an easy ride.

  • […] as high as those in the LA area (6-8k+ for some), they do provide for some very stout climbing. Old San Marcos/Painted Cave, Gibraltar and Figueroa Mountain are three of the toughest, most scenic climbs around. Refugio Road […]

  • the turtle July 4th, 2010 at 1:10 pm #7

    Rallison. You ROCK for posting this info. I am new to the climb but am becoming enthusiastic quickly. I have a vey low end bike, flat pedals, wear gym shorts and tennis shoes i.e., I am not looking too good out there compared to the rest. But that’s ok with me. Anyway, your posting of this info has made my intro to the climbs more fun and infomed. Thanks

  • rallison July 7th, 2010 at 12:32 am #8

    Thanks! Glad you found it useful! Let me warn you though, climbing can get addictive. I speak from experience! Don’t worry about looking the part – as long as you are out there riding (and enjoying the riding!), that is what matters. I will say, however, that if you start doing a lot of longer rides, you may want to look into cycling shorts and jerseys. They really make cycling more comfortable.

    Hope you get a chance to try out some more rides from my blog. If you do, please check back in and post your impressions of the ride! Or, if you have any questions about a ride, ask away!

  • Mark Wilson July 26th, 2010 at 10:44 am #9

    Did this climb too in March. Went up Gibralter first then back down to Foothills Road then up San Marcos and Painted Cave and then down PC to 154, jumping out on that. Would not take 154 again. Great reports and images.

  • rallison July 27th, 2010 at 8:34 pm #10

    154 is not really the most fun road to ride. I don’t mind it for connecting to Old San Marcos when descending from Camino Cielo (only a couple of miles), but I would skip it for most everything else. Too bad you didn’t descend Old San Marcos as that is one of the best descents around – perfect road surface (although a slight bit of rock debris on occasion), fun curves and relatively steep. It is a fast, fun and somewhat technical descent. Despite the tight switchbacks at the top and a few tighter curves, it is definitely possible to average over 30 mph over the whole descent and top out at above 40 mph. So yeah, if you do this again, skip 154 and stick to Gibraltar/PC/OSM.

  • Andreas July 30th, 2010 at 10:40 am #11

    Just thought i would drop an update on how my ride went since i was asking about it. Suffice to say, it kicked my ass!! But in a good way. Keep in mind i was packed with about 30 pounds of gear and i was on a early 80s ten speed, a schwinn le tour tourist. Good for light weight touring but not good for climbing that pass. It took me a while, lots of starting and stopping. I didn’t the old road, just the main 154 road from Santa Barbara and up and over to Lake Cachuma. My low gear was dropping out every time i stood up to peddle too so i had to stay seated. The joy of reaching the top was amazing though. I highly suggest the challenge but if you’re looking for something more mellow this might not be the ride especially if you don’t have a decent amount of riding experience. If you’re not touring and packing gear and/or on a newer bike i’m sure it’s quite the nice ride. Thanks again for the info guys.

  • rallison July 30th, 2010 at 11:48 pm #12

    Hi Andreas,

    Thanks for checking back in after doing the ride! Glad to hear you made it up and over the pass. The views are pretty incredible along there, aren’t they? Hope you enjoyed your time at Cachuma!


  • chrisp December 30th, 2010 at 11:16 am #13

    greetings and thank you for the post.
    Can you please estimate the total time to reach town of Painted Cave ? Some friends and I are planning to make Buellton from Carp by late afternoon leaving around 10am. We’ve been climbing Mt. Baldy and love the idea of adding a car-less killer climb to the trip but want to make the Hitching Post for a cocktail and steak at a reasonable hour. Thanks much.

  • rallison January 4th, 2011 at 2:53 pm #14

    Don’t know if you’ve already done your trip. If not, here is some timing info..

    If you are reasonably fit, the section from the bottom of Old San Marcos to 154 takes between 20-30 minutes. The time from there to Painted Cave is similar. So, plan on 40 minutes to an hour to get to Painted Cave. Subtract 5-10 minutes if you are especially fast.

    If I understand you correctly, you are cycling from Carpinteria to Buellton. If so, this climb doesn’t add much in the way of time since you would be climbing up and over 154 anyway.


  • superduper March 6th, 2011 at 1:02 am #15

    Yeah, as rallison said, climbing gets addicting. i do it about three times a week, and average about 29-34 minutes to get to 154 Riding a 2009 Trek 2.1 w/out clips, I do ok. It’s all worth it for the downhill, and the prospect of reaching the top. the switchbacks are ridiculous though.

  • rallison March 8th, 2011 at 1:10 am #16

    OSM is one of the best downhill sections of road that I have ever ridden. That relatively fresh pavement, those curves, that grade…amazing.

  • Santa Barbara – Gibraltar Road Climb April 12th, 2011 at 2:18 am #17

    […] Map « Santa Barbara – Old San Marcos & Painted Cave Climb – Brutally Steep! Santa Monica Mountains Leg Burner – Tuna Canyon, Fernwood & Corral Canyon […]

  • Santa Barbara StainingVsit April 14th, 2012 at 2:35 pm #18

    Santa Barbara StainingVsit…

    […]Santa Barbara – Old San Marcos & Painted Cave Climb – Brutally Steep![…]…

  • Jason July 7th, 2012 at 7:24 pm #19

    Just did this today along with CC and down Gibraltar. Kicked my a** a lot more than I thought it would. Nice ride. Will try the other way around tomorrow if I can get away. Coming down pavement on Gibraltar is sucky.

  • mike heit December 22nd, 2014 at 6:24 pm #20

    Just wondering what gears folk have. I have 53/39 chain ring and 12/29 cassette. m I right in thinking a compact chain ring (50/34) is the more common gearing? Also, how heavy (read scary) IS THE CAR TRAFFIC?

  • Andie Bridges March 3rd, 2016 at 9:43 pm #21


    I write for the Santa Barbara Independent’s biking column. I am working on an article about local rides and would like to know if we can use a couple of your photographs of San Marcos Pass, with appropriate credit to you.

    Please let me know if this is okay.

    Andie Bridges

  • james Badham July 8th, 2019 at 12:49 pm #22

    Most of these comments and questions are pretty old. But a couple of things to add. This ride is on Strava, although I’ve often had trouble with the app up there, possibly because of poor reception. If you ride up to Painted Cave proper (the little town on a private road behind the sign shown in one of the photos above), don’t stop at the sign. About a hundred yards later is a water faucet on the street, as well as a few chairs and a wicker love seat that the residents have out in front for cyclists. It’s a great stop, especially to rewater if you are continuing up to East Camino Cielo and the east to ride down Gibraltar. Paving update: Gibraltar was repaved for the Amgen tour a year ago, so descending it is great. But you need to watch for cars coming up (who often cut corners) and stay close to the road edge on blind right-handers. Also, the area is subject to erosion, so watch for gravel on turns. A missed turn at speed in some places could be really heavy. Also, the road from La Cumbre Peak (high point as you head east on Camino Cielo) down to the east has been repaved in the past 8 months. It used to be potholed and horrible. Now you can move. Finally, regarding riding on 154. I rode up OSM once and thought I’d try descending 154. Never again. Nearly got hit. Cars fly by at 60 and in places, as mentioned, there is zero shoulder. Also, this road connects Santa Barbara with the wine country and is notorious for accidents — how many by drivers inebriated at the tasting rooms, I don’t know. The wine country side, too, is fairly narrow and you get a lot of big RVs back there. I’m sure there are people who have ridden it many times without incident, but it’s dangerous. I cycle every day in traffic and often ride OSM, Painted Cave and Gibraltar, and I would not ride to the valley on 154.


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