Refugio Road Bike Climb - PJAMM Cycling

Refugio Road


Ride into the Santa Ynez Mountains past the beloved Rancho del Cielo of Ronald and Nancy Regan.

Explore this Climb

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Climb Summary

Cycling Refugio Road - aerial drone photo of clouds and hillside

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").

Climbing Refugio Road by bike - road and bicycle sign 


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.

Bike climb Refugio Road - pjamm cyclist on bike riding on road under oak tree overhang

Start of an exceptional climbing experience.

   Bicycle climb Refugio Road - Circle Bar B Ranch sign

Circle Bar B Ranch, ½ mile up the road from the ride’s start.

Climbing Refugio Road by bike - pjamm cyclist on bike riding on road under tree cover

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'.  

Bicycle ride Refugio Road - pjamm cyclist riding past road sign 

Turn right at Refugio pass, Mile 5.1.

Riding bike up Refugio Road - pano of Refugio Pass and road sign

Refugio Pass.

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.  

Cycling Refugio Bike Climb - W. Camino Cielo - views from ridge on Camino Cielo - Pacific Ocean 

View towards Pacific Ocean from W. Camino Cielo.

Climbing to top of Refugio Bike Climb - W. Camino Cielo - finish

Last 100 yards.


   biking Refugio Bike Climb - W. Camino Cielo - observatory at top of climb


Bicycle climb to top of Refugio Bike Climb - W. Camino Cielo - looking down at road from top of climb

Looking down from the top.

Bike climb Refugio Road Climb - W. Camino Cielo - aerial drone photo of roadway, mountains, finish

Drone photo of West Camino Cielo leading to the finish, Lake Cachuma can be seen to the northeast.

Aerial drone photo of Refugio Road Climb - W. Camino Cielo

W. Camino Cielo.

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."  

Aerial drone photo of Refugio Road Climb - W. Camino Cielo

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 stayed at the Best Western Pepper Tree Inn on our Santa Barbara trip, a very nice and centrally located hotel with a restaurant and bar next door.  We recommend this hotel.[1]


[1] We do not benefit at all from this endorsement and have no connection or affiliation with the hotel.