San Marcos - Painted Cave Bike Climb - PJAMM Cycling

San Marcos - Painted Cave


A "must-do" Santa Barbara County climb.

Explore this Climb

PJAMM Cycling LogoDark Sky logo



If you love climbing by bike and would like more detailed information on the world’s top bike climbs, join our PJAMM Cycling group and receive our Special Edition Climb Report.
  • Receive a monthly report.
  • Get detailed and entertaining information on the greatest bike climbs and climbing areas throughout the world.
  • Discover beautiful landscapes with drone video and professional photos of remote and exotic places.
  • Gain insider knowledge on where to stay and how to conquer some of the most difficult climbs.

Climb Summary

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.

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.