East Camino Cielo runs along the ridge of the Santa Ynez Mountains like a spine connecting Santa Barbara to the backcountry, with its nervous system of asphalt, fire road and single track providing riders with endless opportunities to explore. Of course, the big question inevitably becomes: “Do we drop into the backcountry, guaranteeing ourselves a huge climb out, or rip down an asphalt descent like Painted Cave or Gibraltar, for an easy ride home?” We have a few miles to decide.
At the end of Stagecoach Road we cross over Highway 154 at the summit of San Marcos Pass. It’s one of the few times we’ve seen traffic all day—commuters heading home from work in Santa Barbara to Santa Ynez, Solvang or sleepy Buellton—and after a game of high-stakes Frogger we reach East Camino Cielo.
While the ridge is not really thought of as a climb, the first 2 miles are torture. Switchback’s pitch up close to 20 percent—but every foot of elevation is worth it. East Camino Cielo winds left and right, twisting and turning in Jeremy “Top Gear” Clarkson-esque glory. The views alternate between stunning and astonishing. To the south, Santa Barbara and her Channel Islands appear to be directly below you, a graphic depiction of just how steep the climbing in the area is. To the east are Ventura, Oxnard and even a glimpse of the coast turning toward Malibu. Then turn a corner and suddenly that view is swallowed up by a hillside and the northeast is exposed, the yawning backcountry stretching on in unexplored abandon, reminding us of where we have been and where we want to go. Occasionally the hillside falls away on both sides and the road is exposed like a balance beam, your head swimming from the views.
The sun begins to dip behind us, but we have summer on our side and a couple more hours to ride. As we pass the 4,000-foot La Cumbre Peak, it’s decision time. Angostura is waiting. Officially it’s Gibraltar Road, continuing from Angostura Summit into the backcountry from its climb out of Santa Barbara, but to those who have ridden it, it’s just Angostura. At its summit we contemplate dropping down, knowing that the views only get more inspiring. It is just 5.8 miles long and only 6-percent grade, but it is dirt and our legs are tired.
The desire to explore wins and we roll onto the dirt and hop the gate. Thin road tires can handle much more than most riders realize and we make our way down. Avoiding the larger rocks that have fallen from the hillside and the loose, silty dirt from a long dry summer, we find traction easily enough. After descending for a mile, we look at the sun, knowing it waits for no ride. We won’t make it to the bottom of Angostura today, the climb out will take too long, but we get far enough to enjoy a glimpse of the Gibraltar Reservoir, which the lower slopes of the climb skirts.
As the light begins its shifts to amber, we know it’s time to climb out and back to East Camino Cielo. With aching quads and loose dirt, our decision to climb home was the right one. In late summer, the sun doesn’t set into the Pacific Ocean when seen from the ridge, it drops into the Santa Ynez Mountains. Knowing we are the only riders on the ridge it feels as if it’s putting on a show just for us, its golden beams illuminating our bikes as we put them back on our Küat Sherpa 2.0. This marks the end of our weekend escape, but we’ll be back with the knowledge that despite all we have seen, we have sampled but a fraction of the riding Santa Barbara has to offer.