Santa Barbara – Refugio Rd to West Camino Cielo to Santa Ynez Peak Climb
Posted: July 1, 2010 at 5:10 am | Tags: Camino Cielo, El Capitan, Refugio, Refugio Rd, Santa Ynez Peak
Santa Barbara – the epicenter of tough hill climbing in southern California? Quite possibly. While the mountain roads ringing Santa Barbara do not climb 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 ranks right up there with these climbs. This is a steep and scenic climb about 20 miles north of Santa Barbara just off the 101. Given the slightly more remote location and the fact that it is not a through road (unless you are willing to descend down a rough dirt road on the other side), Refugio gets very little car traffic. It gets significantly less traffic than Old San Marcos or Gibraltar – and those climbs don’t get all that much traffic.
Refugio has one more thing going for it that rarely gets mentioned – you can (and should) connect with West Camino Cielo at the top of the Refugio climb. The Camino Cielo section is much more mellow (aside from the last mile or so), but offers one of the most beautiful and scenic stretches of climbing in southern California. Taken together, this ride has it all – super steep stretches, great scenery and sustained climbing (you start at almost sea level and hit ~4000 ft in elevation).
Main climb: 8.6% for 3.7 miles
Steepest section: 10.0% for 2.4 miles
First ~0.5 miles of climbing: Just under 15%!
Refugio Rd Section:
W Camino Cielo Section:
5.8% for 5.7 miles (1740 ft gained)
4,000 ft elevation summit point
~9% for last mile steep push
8%+ steeper mile-long section early on
Aside from the two steep sections above, Camino Cielo is very mellow
Small descent just past the 3 mile point
Anyway, this last weekend I got to ride this with my mom. Since it has been about a year since I last rode this, I was definitely looking forward to it. We parked just off the 101 along Refugio Rd – one of the few spots you can park for free in the area. Being right near the ocean, this spot was covered in fog:
The fog was actually welcome – on a climbing ride fog is very pleasant to have. Unfortunately, the fog quickly disappeared:
On the other hand, this meant the views would be nice. After a couple of miles of cycling through orchards, we start hitting some more forested sections:
Soon, we hit the gorgeous Circle Bar B Guest Ranch:
Most traffic you encounter will be going no further than here. After passing by Circle Bar B, the climbing starts in earnest (and with some great color!):
Of course, the shade disappears just as you really start climbing:
The next 2+ miles average over 10%. These are 2 tough miles. What a road to climb up though:
Some of the boulders above the road just don’t look very stable..
The climbing continues!
The views back down the valley (and of the road just ascended) start getting impressive:
You’d be happy climbing through this scenery too:
The start of the last really steep climbing section:
A bit farther and you get a glimpse of one impressive house (and more than a glimpse of some more steep tarmac):
The views open up even more as you near the end of the Refugio climb:
And, finally, one cool forested section before the end of the climb:
And, success! The top of Refugio!
At this point, we have gone from just above sea level to just over 2200 feet in elevation. Additionally, we have conquered the really tough part. The rest of the climb is cake in comparison. Speaking of which (the climb, not cake!), the rest of the ride continues climbing up along West Camino Cielo to about 4000 feet in elevation.
Camino Cielo is marked as not maintained by the county:
Oddly enough, this “not maintained” stretch had the best asphalt of the whole ride.
The climbing along Camino Cielo gets beautiful very quickly:
We saw one other rider during our whole ride:
After a couple of miles, you get some views of the Santa Ynez valley (you are basically climbing along a ridgeline along Camino Cielo):
The scenery is amazing:
Amazingly, there were still a lot of flowers in bloom (late June in southern California!):
The panoramas really open up along this road:
Climbing to the sky:
Click on those for larger, much more awesome panoramas. From the picasa site, you can download the full size versions of those photos.
Amazing valley views:
And this was the oddest site to stumble upon:
A little pool/reservoir perched up along the ridge. I have no idea if this is natural or man-made, but I can say that this was a very surprising sight along this climb.
The last stretch of Camino Cielo gets ridiculously scenic:
The last 9% push to the end:
And, finally, the last paved portion (and the end of the climb!):
Take a little jaunt up the paved portion on the left to hit 4000 feet in elevation.
And, be happy that you conquered this amazing climb:
Sweet views. And the views along the descent are simply stunning:
The descent along Camino Cielo is very pleasant – generally good road surface and minimal rock debris. With that said, you still have to slow down for the blind corners (this is basically a one lane road, after all). The descent down Refugio, however, is one of the worst descents I have ever suffered down. The patchwork that is the tarmac is extremely rough and bumpy. The road seems to constantly want to pry your handlebars from your control. The grade also quickly gets you up to speeds that are too fast for the road surface quality. This is a demanding descent that is heavy on the brakes.
Since you will be going slow down Refugio, you might as well appreciate the crazy switchbacks and climbing that you conquered earlier in the day:
Click on that last image for a much higher quality version of that truly insane switchback. And proof that I can climb said insane switchback:
And descending down the last steep section:
That switchback – at the very beginning of the climb – is what lets you know that Refugio is a rather stiff climb. Crazy, quite definitely.
Finally, after all that descending, you get some gentle road riding back to the coast:
Head on down below the parking area and check out Refugio State Beach:
This gorgeous beach is quite popular in the summer for both day use and camping. If you’ve got a family, this is a perfect set up. You and the family park at Refugio. The family enjoys a nice day at the beach. You enjoy a nice climb up Refugio/Camino Cielo. You reconvene with the family at the beach and take a soak in the ocean to cool down after the ride. Even better, you then have a picnic/bbq at this point. Sounds like a good plan, no?
Ok, there is one last part to this ride report. Yeah, I know. It is long enough already! True. However, this report would not be complete without mention of Aniso Trail:
This bike path connects Refugio Beach State Park with El Capitan Beach State Park (about 3 miles away). This path is technically closed (and the people working at the beaches will tell you that it is impassable) due to erosion. This, however, is not entirely true. The entire stretch can be traversed – you just have to skirt two closure fences (as many hikers/walkers do). Normally, this would not be worth the trouble. However, in the case of this bike path, it is definitely worth it. The scenery is spectacular (like you need more spectacular scenery after climbing Refugio/Camino Cielo!):
One of the closure gates:
Just hop around it to the left. Yes, you will have to dismount.
Not bad for some final scenery, in my opinion.
Here is the full ride in mapmyride format:
Here is the full climb from the start of the climbing section on Refugio Rd to Santa Ynez Peak:
The Refugio Rd climbing section:
The steep part of the Refugio Rd climbing section (click on View Elevation for this one!):
And, the West Camino Cielo section:
My Garmin Connect page for the ride:
Refugio is an under-appreciated climb in the Santa Barbara region. It really has everything you could want – steepness, scenery, length (if you include the Camino Cielo section, as you should) and low traffic. Yeah, the tarmac sucks, but that is a small price to pay for everything else that the climb has to offer. Get up there soon while the hills are still green and the flowers are still colorful.