Refugio Road Bike Climb - PJAMM Cycling

10 mi
3,777 ft
7.1 %



"Refugio Road is a stunning climb into the coast mountains west of Santa Barbara. A very narrow, twisty and variable grade road takes you up the hill, often under a tunnel of trees near the bottom. A steep switchback to the left...several miles in will get your attention as the trees begin to thin. Continuing over a variable grade, at mile 5.2 you reach a junction. From here (turn right...) the road is a true single lane and hugs the cliffside in places. Continuing over a narrow road and a variable grade, the route is exposed for the majority of the 2nd half of the ascent. The steepest climbing is at the very end as there is a double digit grade ramp just before the road dead ends at a cell tower facility." (Quote presented with the approval of John Summerson from The Complete Guide to Climbing (by Bike) in California, pg. 182.)
Average grade is 7.1% (7.5% climb only).  54% of the climb is at 5-10% and 19% is at 10-15%. The steepest quarter-mile is 12.7% and steepest mile 11.1%. 

See more details and tools regarding this climb's grade via the “Profile Tool” button.

Roadway:  Very narrow and rough in many sections as of 2019. 

Traffic:  Minimal.

Parking: The road is narrow from beginning to end, but there are some spots to pull over and park your vehicle - one such spot is at the start of the climb - Map;  Street View.
There are no provisions on this route.  The closest food and beverages are in Goleta 13 miles west (map).

Santa Barbara has a mild climate, but be sure to consult the PJAMM "Full Forecast" feature for the time you expect to arrive at the finish to assess what clothing to bring on your ride.
Before heading out on any cycling adventure check out our Things to Bring on a Cycling Trip and use our interactive check list to ensure you don't forget anything.
We have enjoyed riding the climbs out of Solvang and Santa Barbara when we have travelled to this area for cycling trips.  Solvang is a very cool Danish town in the area to visit.  There are vacation rental options in the area.

See the “Routes in Area” button in the menu above to see what other climbs are in the area.  



Difficulty: Extreme



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May 24, 2022
difficulty: Strenuous
scenery: 4
traffic: 5
road: 2
May 24, 2022
scenery: 4
traffic: 5
road: 2
Tough climb with a great sense of adventure. Continue on to West Camino Cielo for the best views. It was recently burned by the Alisal fire so it's not as lush as it once was but the road itself was not affected and it's still amazing. The descent is very rough due to the pavement quality and cattle grids-one of those where you thank the heavens it's over rather than enjoying the thrill of the downhill
Jun 5, 2021
difficulty: Extreme
scenery: 4
traffic: 5
road: 2
Jun 5, 2021
scenery: 4
traffic: 5
road: 2
I find this to be the toughest climb in Santa Barbara area, Very tough first few miles which saps the legs. Stay away from this one on a hot day. Road is pretty bumpy in some places and fine in others, Water crossings can be tricky if raining. Views of ocean and back country are well worth it. Virtually no traffic.
Apr 5, 2021
difficulty: Extreme
scenery: 4
traffic: 5
road: 3
Apr 5, 2021
scenery: 4
traffic: 5
road: 3
It was freezing on descent, but that is typical for Santa Barbara climbs. Great climb!
Mar 27, 2021
difficulty: Strenuous
scenery: 3
traffic: 5
road: 2
Mar 27, 2021
scenery: 3
traffic: 5
road: 2
A big climb, Refugio Road is a classic ascent. Don't let the usually poor pavement discourage you, I think this only adds to its charm. It contains steep grades, tight turns and little traffic along its route along with big views closer to the summit. A must do hill.

Climb Profile Not Found

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. 

Climb summary by PJAMM’s John Johnson.

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.

Before heading out to cycle Refugio Road, be sure to rely on our list of Things to Bring on a Cycling Trip, and use our interactive checklist to ensure you don't forget anything.

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.

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