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 the Discovery pro cycling team and a certain Texan, 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.
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.