Distance: 40-mile loop
Elevation gain: 3990
(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, Figueroa is the prettiest, by a long shot. All three are detailed in toughascent.com, and I encourage you to familiarize yourself with his write-ups. I find it’s helpful on big climbs like these to know exactly what lies ahead, so I’ve tried to be unusually detailed about mileages and pitches.
Since there is no reason to drive this road in a car except to gawk at the scenery, and it’s a tough drive, you should be pretty much alone. When I rode it on a Monday in January, I saw 4 cars and no bicycles once I was on the mountain (c. 20 miles). It’s nice to have the road to yourself, but you also can’t expect to be rescued, so take everything you might need.
Figueroa is a ride through farm country, then a ranching valley, a climb up the mountain, a ride across the ridgetop, a drop down the back side, and a ride through another valley. The climb was made famous as a favorite training ride for Lance Armstrong and the Discovery pro cycling team, when the team did an annual spring training camp in the Solvang area. It’s a substantial ride—my computer recorded 5080 ft of gain in 40 miles, which is not to be sneezed at, and there’s a lot of 8-10% stuff—but it’s never leg-breaker hard and if you pace yourself it’s very doable. It’s all seriously gorgeous, in its way as pretty a ride mile by mile as any in Bestrides.
Several readers complain about the road surface in the miles before the climbing starts. Apparently it’s pretty horrible now. Caveat emptor.
There is a serious question about which direction to ride the loop in. Locals tend to go clockwise. I have only ridden it counterclockwise, and that’s how I’ve mapped it. But see Nibbles’ comment below for a compelling argument for clockwise. The main drawback to that is that the west side of the mountain is distinctly steeper than the southeast side. One could also make an argument for riding the mountain as an out and back, up and down the east side. If you do that, be sure to continue 2-3 miles past the summit, because the ridge riding is really special.
In warm weather, people ride Figueroa as early in the morning as possible, because the top of the mountain can be windy—very, very windy—later in the day, and you ride on the spine of some razor-edge saddles where there’s a Venturi effect from one side to the other. I rode through there once at about 11 AM, and the wind was already a handful.
(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 in Los Olivos, a charming little tourist town where almost every shop on the main street is a wine shop or antique store. Ride out of town heading south on Grand Ave., the main street, soon go L on Roblar Ave., stay on Roblar through postcard-pretty farmland as it crosses Hwy 154 and makes a ninety-degree turn to the R, at which point its name changes to Mora Ave. Mora dead-ends at Baseline Ave. Go L on Baseline, which runs into Happy Canyon Rd at a signed T intersection. Go L on Happy Canyon and essentially stay on it for the rest of the ride.
Happy Canyon rolls gently and deliciously upward through stupidly beautiful ranchland. You can see the valley becoming narrower, and soon it dwindles to nothing and the climbing begins at mile 14. If you’re having an easy, non-climbing day, just riding the length of Happy Canyon out and back would be charming (though two commenters say Happy Canyon’s road surface is currently awful).
Climb for exactly 10 miles to an obvious summit, all through very pretty country. It’s comforting to keep the mileage total in mind so it doesn’t seem endless. The climb starts steep out of the gate, and keeps it up for about 2 miles. Don’t worry—it’s never worse than this. Don’t get so involved with your heart rate monitor and odometer that you forget to look around—you’ll get much higher, but this leg has some of the prettiest climbing vistas on the ride.
Two miles into the 10-mile climb you hit a stretch of dirt road that’s exactly 1 mile long (it’s comforting to know that too), but it’s hard, fairly smooth dirt with firm rocks—no loose gravel—and you don’t need big tires or anything like that. It’s actually a refreshing mental change from the pavement. I did this ride after a light rain, and the dirt was fine, because the entire dirt leg is in the sun and dries quickly, but I’d think twice about doing it after serious rain, or do the ride in the other direction so you’re descending the mud. Going our way, the dirt has two very short stretches of significant pitch, which you might end up walking if it’s mucky.
After the dirt, you get an unexpected and sweet .8-mile descent, then have it easy for a while. But the 8-10% stuff comes back, and you have the hardest part of the ride, a long, tedious, steep pitch up an uninteresting shrubby draw—the only part of the ride that isn’t particularly scenic. Someone has tried to be helpful by writing the remaining mileage to the saddle (see below) in tenths of a mile on the pavement, but they got the decimal in the wrong place, so you’re told you have .04 miles to go, .03 miles to go, etc.
As you approach mile 20.5 you’ll see you’re approaching a saddle. At the saddle there’s an intersection. A large sign reads “Sunset Valley Rd.,” with an arrow straight ahead signed “NIRA Campground,” an arrow L signed “Figueroa Mt. Rd.,” and an arrow R signed “Cachuma Mt. Rd.” Go L; you’ll stay on Figueroa Mt. Rd. all the way to Los Olivos. You have 3.5 miles still to climb to the summit, and some of it is more 8-10% stuff, but it’s much more pleasant than what you’ve just done, because the pitch varies constantly (so you get a lot of respites), and the vistas are constantly stunning. You’re now riding with a sheer dropoff on your L, and the views of the canyon you just climbed up will take your mind off your labor.
Past the obvious summit, ride a long, rolling ridge with great views to either side, then drop, often quite steeply. You face about 3 more significant short climbs, but in the main the work is done. At mile 28 you pass a Ranger Station that probably can give you water in a pinch.
I confess I don’t like the descent. Oh, it has wonderful moments, and the scenery is consistently great, but from about mile 27 to the valley at mile 34, you’re looking at 7 miles that are mostly too steep, too curvy, and too rough to be fun. I did a lot of it at 10-12 mph, squeezing the brakes hard the entire time.
When you cross a cute little bridge, you’re suddenly back on the valley floor, and this valley is just a tad less gorgeous than Happy Canyon. Ride along the valley’s edge back to Los Olivos and your car. Midway through the valley you pass Neverland Ranch, Michael Jackson’s old estate/zoo, on your R—it’s just a moderately pretentious, generic gate, but you can tell your friends.
Shortening the route: You can ride up from either the west or the south entrance, ride as far as you like, and turn around. Locals mostly seem to do this on the west side, but it’s a harder climb. You can shave a few miles by driving to the start of the climb, on either route. Happy Canyon Rd. would be a lovely out and back if the road surface was tolerable.
Adding miles: Solvang is a famous riders’ destination, because the weather is balmy, the scenery is bucolic, and the hills roll sweetly. The Solvang Century introduces you to the riding in the area, though I think a lot of the route is only so-so. Pretty much any road in the area that isn’t too trafficky is good riding. Ballard Canyon Rd., one end of which is a stone’s throw from Los Olivos (and part of the century route), is the second-best ride in the area, a short but ridiculously fun and picturesque rolling ride celebrated for being part of the course for the Tour of California time trial when it was held in Solvang in the early years of the race. I bet it’s even more fun at 35 miles an hour, but I’ll never know. A very nice ride (and also part of the century route) is Santa Rosa Rd., along the edge of a beautiful little pocket valley just south of Buellton. It’s a wind tunnel, so it can be frightfully windy, normally out of the west. At its western end you’re a stone’s throw on Hwy 1 from the Jalama Road ride. One of the most popular rides is Foxen Canyon Rd., but I found it less wonderful than the other riding in the area (too straight). Maybe if it were somewhere else I’d love it. If you do ride Foxen, at the northern end you pass the turn-off to our Tepusquet Rd. ride, which is much better.
Afterthoughts: There is no water source on this ride, with the possible exception of the Ranger Station. Plan accordingly.
Solvang itself is a precious, touristy re-creation of a Scandinavian village—a fun place to hang out in for a while, with many great bakeries, but I prefer to lodge in Buellton, just down the road, where the motel chains are good old Amurrican and the prices much lower. Solvang has a bike shop where you can buy a Mt. Figueroa jersey if you want to commemorate your achievement.
I can confirm that the rangers are very friendly and have plenty of water for thirsty riders.
Jay: love your site but have to disagree on this one. Rode Mount Fig with my husband this morning (12/31/2019) and it was roughly as comfortable as riding on the surface of the moon (or some other alien planet whose native residents exist only to dig craters and scatter rocks to make cycling as unpleasant as possible). Side note: Tejay van Garderen was also out there today and seemed to be completely unperturbed by the road conditions, but for us mere humans, it is rough!!
I agree with Courtney! I rode this route midweek in February. The road was in terrible condition and there was SO much traffic. I was envisioning peaceful but people were speeding past me on these farm roads. I was scared of a drunken tourist and bailed. Would choose Gibraltar over this.
Pavement on Happy Canyon Rd. is wretched, indeed! I did this clockwise (tough, tough climb, but wicked, epic descent!) and the pavement is never an issue until you cross the last cattle gate before Happy Valley proper. Then it just goes to hell. Especially after the high drama of that stupendous (and sometimes scary) descent, the rough road does take a lot out of you. Thankfully the road is straight, so it’s not dangerous, just tedious. But scant price to pay for an otherwise marvelous ride, a true Best of the Best!
Did this today counter-clockwise and I’ll argue that both the climb and descent are tougher this way. Clockwise, on the climb you start out steep but have plenty of breaks and variety in the pitch. CCW it’s basically 10 miles of climbing with only that 1 mile of downhill in the first half. The last 6 miles of the climb are tough work.
The descent going clockwise has much better pavement, wider bends, better sightlines, and the most epic views, with vistas all the way to the ocean. In fact, the descent keeps getting better the further you go: e.g. the part beneath the saddle, which is a grind CCW, becomes CW a very fast and flowing slalom.
Also, I always seem to encounter traffic on the west side of the summit, which poses a much bigger challenge when descending fast with poor sightlines.
The arguments for going CCW are: the east side is prettier, so it’s rewarding to do it slowly, and the ridge riding going CCW is much more exhilarating. But, all in all, I think clockwise is the way to go.
I’m convinced—clockwise it is.
Another possibility: Since it seems like the east side has benefits going up and down, one might logically conclude that one should ride the route as an out-and-back, climbing the east side, turning around after the ridge, and descending the east side.
Looking at the elevation profile, I’d say the two directions are roughly similar in climbing difficulty—14 miles of ascent from the south, 16 miles of ascent from the west, with the same elevation gain (obviously).
With all respect, Nibbles, I have to vehemently disagree re: direction. A quick peek at the map reveals a vastly steeper average grade CW; I live here and ride this a lot, and to my mind, the “respites” are neither long enough nor shallow enough to make up for the steepness. To your other point: I 100% agree that descending clockwise is much more enjoyable. However, it’s pretty tough to take in the view while engaging with the “fast, flowy slalom”: I don’t recall ever taking my eyes off the road when descending that way at 35 mph. You are correct in noting that there is generally more traffic from the west.
Re: road conditions: I rode this today (11/28/21) and Happy Canyon still really, really sucks. It’s on par with Santa Rosa Road (another local classic with terrible pavement), and that’s saying something. After that, the dirt section is fine—it never rains here anymore—and the only noticeably rough section is at the very end (when riding CCW).
Finally, not to sound like your mother(s), but be very cautious up there—the lack of traffic seems to encourage some drivers to go way too fast, straighten out corners, and disregard common sense.
Be well and ride often!
I recently rode Figueroa counterclockwise and then a few days later clockwise. Despite the stretches of truly horrible pavement, it really is a spectacular ride.
While I agree with most of Nibbles’s points, I found the CW ascent to be slightly harder. In broad strokes, on the CW direction I found the 12+% pitches, followed by a flattish section, followed by another 12+% pitch, ad nauseum, to be harder than the continuous 7-9% of the CCW loop.
One further advantage of the CCW loop is the finish into Los Olivos is wonderful — a gentle 1% (or less) descent that is an easy finish to a tough ride. The CW loop finishes on a punishingly bad section of road (Happy Valley Rd) that took the smile off my face. (This would also be a point against doing it as an out and back up the east side.)
So I’d recommend CCW, but this ride will reward you in either direction.
This ride is made for the gravel bike. My 43mm tires gave me the cush I needed to really enjoy the descending without getting beat up. Bad roads on both the ascent and descent. I rode this CCR. That was nice because the prevailing winds (not heavy on 5/2/2022) pushed me up Happy Canyon Rd. Such a beautiful ride. The wild flowers at the peak of Mt. Figueroa filled the air with sweet fragrance. In the category of be careful what you wish for…….I was wondering how to make my ride a 50 miler. I missed the left turn from Happy Canyon on to Mt. Figueroa Rd and went straight at the saddle. 4 miles and 1000 vertical (down) later I decided to look at a map at Davy Brown Camprgound. Woops. Back up I went. The ride ended up being 55 miles and 5669 vertical. Truly epic. I’ve never ridden the Central Coast before but got 3 rides in on this trip; Perfumo Canyon / See Canyon, Huasna, and Mt Figueroa! Cheers!
Rode it today clockwise and I wish I had gone up from the East side. The overall grade coming down was much more gradual then the grade on the west side. Constant pitches up to 12% or more time and time again. At my fitness level it was almost more that I could handle. As for coming down, I hate riding my brakes and I was able to come down the east side at a pretty good clip. Only a couple times that I almost overcooked a corner. The road surface isn’t ideal but there are a number of places that I let the bike just run. I had to take it pretty easy on the gravel section. Had I gone down the west side there was no way I could have descended as fast. The westside road surface (no pot holes) isn’t bad but there are a lot of rocks, gravel, leaves, and such that makes it tough to descend fast. Plus the road is narrow and much steeper than the east side.
I don’t like to do out and backs but that may be the best way to do it. Ride out CCW and come back the same way.