Cycling Refugio Pass in Santa Barbara:
Excellent Pacific Ocean views at the top.
Ride 10 miles gaining 3,820’ to elevation 4,141 at 7.1% average grade.
Refugio Road is one of two Top 100 Climb in the Santa Barbara, CA area (#59 Gibraltar Rd is just 25 miles east in Santa Barbara). Both climbs are beautiful and challenging, making a trip to experience both well worth it. If you are local to Southern California -- or just willing to travel for a climb -- then be sure to visit the Refugio Road and Gibraltar Road climbs. The climb begins just off Highway 101, 25 miles north of the Santa Barbara city limits, and climbs 10 miles into the Santa Ynez Mountains which run parallel to the Pacific Ocean. The road is for the most part one lane and very rough for the first five miles, although it does improve at the five mile mark when we turn onto Camino Cielo (Spanish for "Road to the Sky").
We started our May 2015 climb in the morning and were greeted by birds chirping and roosters crowing. We pass by an avocado orchard and the Circle Bar B Ranch (horseback riding available) in the first mile and are then virtually alone for the next nine or ten miles, initially travelling through a lower wooded area which yields to chaparral, coastal sage scrub, and grasslands as we climb higher into the Santa Ynez Mountains.
Start of an exceptional climbing experience.
Circle Bar B Ranch, ½ mile up the road from the ride’s start.
Surrounded by oak trees lower part of climb.
Refugio Pass is at Mile 5.1, with an 8.2% gradient to this point, ascending 2,040'.
Turn right at Refugio pass, Mile 5.1.
After the first few lower miles we are treated to exceptional views of the Pacific Ocean to the west. The road ends at a radio tower and what appears to be an abandoned (or very dated at the least) observatory which was apparently formerly used to track rocket launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base 45 miles to the northwest.
View towards Pacific Ocean from W. Camino Cielo.
Last 100 yards.
Looking down from the top.
Drone photo of West Camino Cielo leading to the finish, Lake Cachuma can be seen to the northeast.
Drone view west of W. Camino Cielo and the the terrain just climbed.
Steepest ¼ mile is the last ¼ mile (12.6%); steepest mile begins at mile 1.6 (11.1%)
Alternate Route Option:
The alternate route is to stay right at mile 9.8 where the road forks (go left to continue up the remaining 0.2 mile to the Observatory); the most popular Strava segment stops at the gate with a 7.71 FIETS Index, or continue 1/3 mile and 133 more feet of climbing to Santa Ynez Peak (this actually has a higher FIETS Rating at 8.80, but for some reason is much less popular than the route we charted - Map). Thanks much to Michael Foster of Goleta, CA for his input on this climb.
Of historic note, Ronald and Nancy Reagan once owned Rancho del Cielo, a 688 acre ranch adjacent to Refugio Pass, known as the Western White House (located at the five mile mark of the climb). President Reagan was quoted saying, "from the first day we saw it, Rancho del Cielo cast a spell over us. No place before or since has ever given Nancy and me the joy and serenity it does."
1992 photo of Ronald and Nancy Reagan (Associated Press).
Roadway/Traffic: The roadway is one lane for the majority of the climb, but there is minimal traffic and this is a safe and private climb. Caution on the descent is advised due to rough roadway conditions (particularly the bottom five miles) which includes potholes and loose gravel. The website Santa Barbara Outdoors explains that the area of Refugio Canyon received much attention and traffic in the past because of its link to the Reagan family, but today this area is relatively untravelled. The minimal elevation gain makes the first four miles of this ride a great option for cycling with younger/newer riders. The website also notes that, “the narrows leading to the Circle Bar-B Ranch are very picturesque, with the creek crossing the road several times along the way. This is Santa Barbara County's most vertical pavement ride” (Santa Barbara Outdoors).
Where should you to stay?
 We do not benefit at all from this endorsement and have no connection or affiliation with the hotel.