Santa Barbara County is truly a cycling paradise. The ocean keeps the climate mild all year long, so it’s ideal for long rides and pushing limits. The terrain is varied, offering everything from foothill rollers and steep switchback climbs to long, flat miles along the coast. It’s called the “corridor” and it runs from Goleta in the north, through Santa Barbara, to Carpinteria in the south. The itch to ride outside this bubble of perfection—“beyond the corridor” as the locals say—hit us as we spied the backcountry from the summit of Gibraltar Road laid out like a fresh canvas for our tires.
As a cool mist burns off in town, we load our bikes onto our Küat Sherpa 2.0 and drive over San Marcos Pass to Red Rock. Red Rock is a swimming hole at the end of Paradise Road in Los Padres National Forest, but the name has come to mean the entire area of swimming holes, picnic areas and hiking trails connected by the Santa Ynez River. Love or hate the Adventure Pass, it means more crowds in places like Red Rock as roads and parking lots extend deeper into the Los Padres National Forest. It also means a bike is the best way to leave those crowds behind.
We find some shade at the side of Paradise Road and unload our bikes from the Küat. This road is a beautiful stretch of tarmac rolling past golden fields of dry grass dotted with deep green coastal oaks—like white clouds in a blue sky. We head east, deeper into the backcountry, through dry-water crossing after dry-water crossing. The canyon narrows, the oaks now replaced by the scrub brush of Los Padres chaparral. The farther we ride, the fewer people we see, truly appreciating the bike’s ability to change both surroundings and states of mind.
Despite the record drought in California, the Santa Ynez river has some reliable swimming holes, the best accessible by bike or a very long hike. With the cool ocean breeze of yesterday a distant memory, we can’t resist a quick stop. A few steps from the road a pool of water is nestled between a rock wall and a small gravel beach. The water is too inviting to ignore and we heed its call. We unclip, pop off our shoes and peel off our socks. Slow movement and a long summer under the California sun have left the water the perfect temperature to take the edge off—cool but not cold.
But we came to ride…. We head back along Paradise Road to the west. Just before the road hits Highway 154, which is full of cars and buses headed to wine tastings in Santa Ynez or gambling at the tragically sad Chumash Casino, we turn left onto Stagecoach Road. Before the highway and its impressive Cold Spring Canyon Bridge were built, Stage Coach connected Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez as it had done since the namesake stagecoaches were hauled up its winding route.
We appreciate the oaks that offer shade for much of the climb’s distance, but can’t help but think of those horses, coaxed by the whip, dragging their stagecoaches up the mountain pass. We raise our tempo, knowing we have only 15-pound carriages to pull. One wheel gains a few inches, the other wheel responds by pulling ahead a few inches…and on and on. In a few moments, conversation stops, breathing deepens and we are riding at our limits. The unspoken competition drives us up the climb, our bar tape slick from the dripping sweat.
We catch our breath at the summit. On stopping to admire Cold Spring Canyon Bridge—California’s highest arch bridge—we look at each other and, in the way only shared experiences can do, we know each other’s thoughts. We turn around, back down Stage Coach, not just to ride it again, but also to stop at the Cold Spring Tavern. It’s been a common stop for bikers in the area for many years and while that crowd may not always welcome the tourists who find their way here, they seem to respect us as two-wheeled brethren. We sip a pint knowing what is still in store. Our backcountry adventure is far from done. We aim for East Camino Cielo, the ridge and the Angostura climb to get our tires dirty before the sun sets on our day’s escape.
Words: Ben Edwards || Images: Jordan Clark Haggard