Distance: 22 miles one way
Elevation gain: 3410 ft
A Best of the Best ride
Our Southern California ride list has three rides that are all big, chest-thumping rides up a mighty mountain: Mt. Figueroa, Gibraltar Road, and Glendora Ridge. Of the three, Gibraltar is the hardest, feels the biggest, and has the grandest vistas. Some of my readers call it one of the best rides in California. I prefer Figueroa, but it’s mighty. All three rides are detailed in toughascent.com, and I encourage you to familiarize yourself with his write-ups.
Gibraltar is an iconic ride—a demanding, uninterrupted 9-mile climb up the mountain to a summit, a delightful 2-mile serpentine descent, a 2-mile climb to a lesser summit, and another long descent down the back side. It’s c. 5000 real ft of gain (fewer than Mt. Figueroa but it feels much harder) and one of the toughest climbs I know. That may be because it’s without rest or variety, and, unless you know the route, you can’t see how much climbing lies ahead, so the climb seems eternal. You keep thinking it’s over, and it isn’t. To guard against this, know as you set out that you are going to climb at a moderate-to-challenging pitch for 9 miles, with one short descent near the top that is only a set-up for heartbreak when the climbing comes back. Despite my caution, this ride has spectacular vistas, good surfaces, some crackerjack descending, and a general sense of epic grandeur. When you’re done, you’ll feel like you accomplished something.
A number of readers say they prefer the ride in the opposite direction (clockwise).
(To see an interactive version of the map/elevation profile, click on the ride name, upper left, wait for the new map to load, then click on the “full screen” icon, upper right.)
Begin at the intersection of W. Mountain Drive and Hwy 192. (W. Mountain actually runs on top of 192 briefly, and you want where it splits off at the east end.) Ride north on W. Mountain and ignore side roads until you see Gibraltar Rd. clearly signed at an intersection. Climb through dry, brushy hillsides with a nice, rugged beauty. The vistas of Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Channel, and the Channel Islands below you are immediately good and keep getting better the higher you climb. Keep looking behind you—some of the best views are of the switchbacks you just rode. The climbing averages 8.5% for the next 6.4 miles. You start off at 7%, then here’s a stretch of 5-6% as respite in the middle, and then it ramps up to 8-10% around mile 4, and stays that way for the next 2.4 miles—the hardest part of the ride. This last steep stretch used to be made even harder by some seriously flawed road surface, but the Tour of California peloton rode it in 2016 (again in 2018) and the authorities repaved it for them, so now it’s ideal.
At 6.4 miles, in the middle of nowhere, you reach, of all things, an intersection, with a big sign with lots of road names on it. You’re intersecting East Camino Cielo Rd. to the L and the R. Go R (the obvious “other” road) if you want to do an out-and-back with more climbing and good vistas, in which case, you da man. Our route follows the main road to the L. You’ve got about 3 more miles of climbing still to do, all of it at a significant pitch, but nothing as steep as what you’ve just done. Enjoy the brief ripping descent following the intersection (but don’t get fooled into thinking the work is over) and climb to the summit, at about 9 miles in. And I do mean summit—it’s a true mountain top, covered with radio antennae you can see coming. The views, in all directions, beggar description.
Begin a 2-mile, open, joyous descent down the west side of the mountain. This may be the best descending on the route. Once I met a teenager skate-boarding down it, and to him I say chapeau. Then it’s a 2-mile ascent—same old 6-8%—that can be a complete surprise and will kill your spirit if you don’t know it’s coming.
At about mile 16 you have a choice: you can take Painted Cave Rd. to your L, or you can stay on Camino Cielo. It’s a tough choice. Painted Cave is an often absurdly steep and twisty descent—you don’t ride it, you just survive it. We’re talking clamped brakes, cramping hands, 8 mph down 18% pitches (I estimate—does anybody ride up this thing?)(Apparently yes–see user comments below). The rest of Camino Cielo is a classic, tight serpentine drop on glass down to Hwy 154. So why not opt for that? Because it commits you to a few miles of very unpleasantly trafficked shoulder riding on 154. My advice: do Painted Cave once, for the experience, and never again.
If you’re going the Painted Cave route, be warned: it’s very hard to see the turn-off. It’s almost invisible, it comes when you’re very busy negotiating some fast switchbacks, and it slants back at about 7 o’clock, so watch your mileage. There is a road sign, but it’s oddly situated so it probably won’t help you find it.
Whichever way you go, where Painted Cave crosses Hwy 154 it becomes Old San Marcos Pass Rd. (aka North San Marcos Pass Rd.), which you take. It’s a fun, deserted, twisty road back to town with good views and some turns signed at 5 mph (and they aren’t kidding). Once I met a guy unicycling down the 8% pitch of Old San Marcos Pass. Incredible.
As always, I haven’t included in our ride the connector ride that closes the loop, because it isn’t great riding, but you’ll probably have to do it anyway, so: just ride down Cathedral Oaks Rd., which becomes Foothill Blvd./Hwy 192, to your car, which is 6 miles of not-unpleasant residential rollers on a big two-lane road with good shoulder (not flat—c. 850 ft of gain in those miles). If you know you’re doing the loop, park at our route’s end-point, in lovely Tucker’s Grove County Park, and do the flat(ter) riding first to warm up.
Shortening the route: Forget it—you’re in for the full monty.
Adding miles: You’re a thirty-minute car trip from the Solvang area, discussed under the Mt. Figueroa ride. Santa Barbara has a famous beachfront you can ride along, though it’s probably more fun to rent roller blades and do the skate path along the beach.
Afterthoughts: As with all these Southern California mountain rides, there is no available water on the route (until Painted Cave Road), and it can be very hot in the summer. Plan accordingly.