San Marcos - Painted Cave Bike Climb - PJAMM Cycling

9 mi
3,426 ft
7.2 %



Wow – this is a “must do” climb for anyone in the Santa Barbara area. Beginning near sea level, we climb out of the city of Goleta, California (seven miles north of Santa Barbara) into very rural and remote terrain. Almost immediately we have excellent views of the Santa Barbara Coast and Pacific Ocean.

"This is a very difficult and scenic climb up into the coast mountains north of Santa Barbara. After three stout miles on San Marcos go straight at the stop sign (intersection with busy Route 154) to Painted Cave Road. This road has big switchbacks with double digit grade, dark, single lane sections and a short stretch of 20% near the top. This is a classic west coast climb." (This quote is presented with the approval of John Summerson, from his book, The Complete Guide to Climbing (by Bike) in California, pg. 184.)
This is a brute of a climb at 7.2% for nine miles.  An impressive 60% (5.3 miles) of the climb are between 5-10%, while 18% (1.6 miles) are at 18% and a sliver (0.8% / 0.1 miles) are between 15-20%.  The steepest quarter-mile is 11.4% and steepest continuous mile is 10.7%.

See more details and tools regarding this climb's grade via the “Profile Tool” button.
Roadway:  The roadway surface is fantastic throughout the climb.  The last six miles of the climb after crossing Highway 154 onto Painted Cave Road are very narrow with no center stripe but is just plain a real fun stretch of road.

Traffic:  Mild throughout - and zero to almost none for the last couple of miles after passing through Laurel Springs at mile 5.2.

Parking:  On the street just before the start of the climb - MapStreet View
Provisions:  None along the climb.  
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The finish of Gibraltar Road about four miles from the finish of San Marcos-Painted Cave.  A nice out and back is riding from Santa Barbara, up Gibraltar Road, along East Camino Cielo down to the start of San Marcos-Painted Cave and back - this is a 47 mile 8,500' out-and-back (Map). 

Santa Barbara is a beautiful vacation destination, with amazing beachfront hotel options, or if you prefer to feel like a local, you could always stay in a gorgeous rental home.



Difficulty: Strenuous



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Jan 19, 2023
difficulty: Strenuous
scenery: 4
traffic: 5
road: 2
Jan 19, 2023
scenery: 4
traffic: 5
road: 2
Painted Cave is a very good climb but not a pleasurable descent as has been said. The storms of January’s 2023 has caused a lot of mud slides and some road collapse. The road is closed for the time being but you can still get away with cycling it, just be wary of flats. The climb kicks way harder than Gibraltar but I peffer the views, finish, and descent of Gibraltar a lot more. I would not recommend doing this climb by itself and not doing a whole loop but it really is worth doing once as the Painted Cave section is very serene and a unique climb.
May 25, 2022
difficulty: Strenuous
scenery: 5
traffic: 4
road: 4
May 25, 2022
scenery: 5
traffic: 4
road: 4
A better climb than Gibraltar in my opinion. There are better views on Painted Caves than you get on Gibraltar and the variety of gradients and changes in scenery keep it interesting. Painted Caves is quite narrow (watch for cars) and the 154 crossing needs to be taken with caution. As the other commenter recommended, you should turn right on Camino Cielo at the top and descend Gibraltar. The pavement on Painted caves is not that bad but anything other than optimal pavement with those hairpins makes for a scary experience. The four massive hairpins on OSM are quite dangerous on the way down because cars can't see you. By comparison, Gibraltar is smoother than almost any road I've ever ridden and there are no highway crossings or blind 20% hairpins
Jun 6, 2021
difficulty: Extreme
scenery: 5
traffic: 5
road: 3
Jun 6, 2021
scenery: 5
traffic: 5
road: 3
If you do this climb continue straight past the top and descend Gibraltar Rd for an A+++ ridge ride. Spectacular views of back country mountains to your left and ocean, island views to your right. A 30 mile loop. Best in the west.
Route Data
S.G. (%)
Segment Data

Climb Profile Not Found

Cycling San Marcos-Painted Cave Roads aerial drone photo of the finish 

Cycling San Marcos-Painted Cave

Ride 9 miles gaining 3,420’ at 7.2% average grade.

Climb summary by PJAMM’s John Johnson.

Wow – this is a “must do” climb for anyone living in, or travelling to, the Santa Barbara, California area.  Beginning near sea level, we climb out of the city of Goleta, California  (seven miles north of Santa Barbara) into very rural and remote terrain.  Almost immediately we have excellent views of the Santa Barbara Coast and Pacific Ocean.

The climb is made up of three distinct segments:  

1.   The initial climb (3 miles, 1,235’ gained at 7.7% average grade):  This portion of the climb gives us nice views of the coast and surrounding Santa Ynez Mountain Range, (part of the Pacific Coast Ranges).  There is a very steep set of sharp switchbacks (marked with 5 MPH traffic signs, if that tells us anything!) from miles 2.3 to 2.65 with an average grade on that stretch of 11.0%.

Road bike climb San Marcos-Painted Cave Roads - start of climb - road and sign 


2.    Segment 2 is a monster -- beginning just after crossing Highway 154 (where North San Marcos Road becomes Painted Cave Road), we travel 2.4 miles, climb 1,220’ at 9.8% average grade. Along this portion of the climb, we ride along a very narrow (effectively one lane) road that for a very unique approximate ½ mile includes  Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park with a canopy of trees that cover the road and surround us as we climb.  

A Note on the Cave: Established in 1976, Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park is a small cave carved out of the surrounding huge sandstone boulders.  This cave contains some of the “finest remaining rock art created by the Chumash Native Americans,” estimated by Anthropologists to date back to the 1600’s and earlier (California State Parks).  Though the meaning of these enigmatic images is no longer known, the paintings, created with mineral pigments, appear to depict some sort of Chumash cosmological beliefs (see Wikipedia page for more details).  The cave entrance is located at the end of a steep path, and is protected by heavy iron grillwork.  The park is open from dawn until dusk daily.

Climbing by bike San Marcos-Painted Cave Roads - cyclist crossing hwy  

Mile 3.1 -- cross Highway 154 onto Painted Cave Road.

    Cycling San Marcos-Painted Cave Roads - cyclist riding between rocks on road

3.   The third segment begins in the community of Painted Cave and travels 3.5 miles to an unmarked end at the top of the climb.  The final couple miles are along a ridge which offers vistas to the west of the Pacific Ocean and Santa Barbara/Goleta area, and to the east are views of the rugged Santa Ynez Mountains.  There are several “land bridges” with steep drop-offs on each side, affording great and unobstructed views from either side of the road.  This final stretch is tame by comparison to the first two -- 3.5 miles / 920’ / 5%.  

Of interest in this portion of the ride is Laurel Springs Ranch, located just past the Painted Cave community.  Now called Laurel Springs Retreat and used for group and individual rentals catering toward conscious ways of living (Laurel Springs Retreat), this property was initially developed in 1902.  Laurel Springs Inn opened on the property in 1905.  Some seventy years and a few different owners later, the property was purchased by Jane Fonda and her husband in 1977, and she later operated a workout studio and spa, as well as a summer camp for disadvantaged children on the site until the early 1990s when it was purchased by the current owners (Laurel Springs Ranch).

Painted Cave at mile 5.1

Historical cave

The Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park is home to a small sandstone cave adorned with rock art attributed to the Native American Chumash people.

Right off Painted Cave onto East Camino Cielo at mile 6.3

2 Miles at 5.5% remaining.

View south to Pacific Ocean.

Amazing views as we climb along the E. Camino Cielo ridgeline.


View north of Santa Ynez Mountains.

Finish at the gate to the radio tower.

  1. Ultra Climbing Option:  As a bonus, a route that includes both Gibraltar and Old San Marcos-Painted Cave Road-E. Camino Cielo is an option for those not satisfied with only one challenging and exceptional climb for the day.   East Camino Cielo is actually the finish for both the Gibraltar (#58 Top US Climb) and Painted Cave climbs, although there are 4.1 miles between the finish of each (488' of climbing and 835 feet of descent from the Gibraltar to Painted Cave finishes).  If your legs can bear it, the out-and-back is well worth fitting in these two spectacular and beautiful climbs, each exceptional in its own special way:  46.7 miles of riding and 8,464’ of climbing (map).

Roadway surface and traffic:  The roadway is excellent for the entire climb.  Traffic is light and, while the roadway is close to a one-laner after merging onto Painted Cave Road, this felt to be a safe route when we climbed it in May 2015.



We stayed at the Best Western Pepper Tree Inn on our Santa Barbara trip

This was 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.