The Divide Peak route leads across the far eastern part of Camino Cielo, with spectacular views out over the Carpinteria Valley and the upper Santa Ynez River drainage. The route involves some steep uphills, but they are worth it. If you are adventurous you can take the Franklin Trail down to Jameson Reservoir for a long day’s loop.
To reach the Divide Peak turnout, follow Gibraltar Road 6.5 miles to East Camino Cielo, then turn right. After 5.8 miles of pavement, the road turns to dirt just beyond Romero Saddle. The turnout, a large parking area set aside for motorcyclists, is approximately 1.2 miles down from the saddle.
This route has always been one of my favorite crest rides, offering a great day’s ride though accompanied by an occasional push. The ridge is sharp, steeply tilted upward, forming the highest part of the fifty-mile length of the Santa Ynez Mountains, rising almost a mile above the coastline. The views are equally sharp, and most of what is on display is above the Santa Barbara haze (some would call it smog). For both island views and back country panoramas, the Divide Peak Jeep Trail is in a class by itself.
It is frustrating as well, somewhat spoiled by the occasional ORV driver you may see and by the damage OVRs have done to the roadway. While many of the drivers are polite, some roar by at full speed and volume, shattering the peaceful nature of this part of the mountain wall. It is hard to understand that this type of use should be tolerated, but then hikers often feel the same thing about mountain bikers. If you ride this route on a weekday, most likely you’ll be spared this frustration.
The first three miles of riding meander gently uphill around the upper end of a small watershed to Toro Saddle, allowing ample time to stretch leg and arm muscles. The climb to the upper end of the saddle is the first of many steep sections but is well worth the effort. The saddle provides the first of many view spots, and is a great place to stop if you’re interested only in a short day’s ride.
Thereafter, the road turns left and begins working its way up over the first of two tall ridges. For the next five miles the road, now a four-wheel route, undulates over a series of knolls, which means short, gnarly uphills (on which you may have to push) and exhilarating downhills.
Approximately three miles east of Toro Saddle, after dropping down from the top of the second big ridge, the Franklin Trail crosses over the crest. This trail isn’t signed and may have only a few small stones marking it, so it is difficult to find. As you drop down from this ridgetop you will come to a small saddle. Just beyond the saddle, the jeepway turns slightly to the right and steeply up, then to the left. Several rock ledges cut across the jeepway, making it almost impossible to ride up the road. Don’t.
Instead, look for the trail right in the saddle. It leads at an angle back to the left and directly under a powerline tower, which should be pretty easy to spot. Hopefully this will help you find the trail. Better yet, bring the topos along.
Because the Franklin Trail is rarely maintained, it is somewhat overgrown, especially near the top. It also contains many switchbacks, but the slowness this produces provides more time to enjoy the canyon beauty. This area has the feel of real wildness (which you’ll also find to be the case if you have a problem).
A mile down the trail you’ll find a delightful overnight spot, Alder Campground. It is amazing how quickly you can go, in the space of a few moments, from views of heavily traveled Highway 101 and tract homes to a place like Alder Campground, where you’ll feel like you are in the middle of nowhere. In reality, however, you aren’t that isolated. A mile farther the trail ends at Jameson Reservoir, Montecito’s water supply, where you can get help if needed.
From there the ride continues three miles downhill to what was once Juncal Campground, then four miles back up to your starting point. Be sure to turn left and go back up Pendola Road toward Romero Saddle. A number of riders have accidentally turned right and made it over the ridge to the Agua Caliente drainage before discovering their error. One other note: The gain back to your car from the Juncal intersection is about 950 feet, so leave yourself a bit of reserve for the climb.
If you are planning to continue along the crest rather than drop down the Franklin Trail, the riding is spectacular, but you will have a lot of uphill on the return trip. It is five miles to Divide Peak, with the route getting increasingly rocky and difficult to negotiate. Just beyond the Franklin Trail intersection, the crest road heads up a steep hill you will most likely have to walk. Then you’ll have a mile of downhill in which you’ll lose 400 feet. This is a great section of trail, with several vernal pools along the way and a unique series of upturned ledges forming beautiful sandstone sculptures.
What I’ve done, which I find a much preferable option, is to ride out to the Franklin Trail and then hike from there as far as I feel like. When I do this I carry a pair of tennies in my daypack and switch for the walking section. It is a great hike down through the ledges to the saddle and won’t take more than an hour or so.
Once you are beyond the saddle the climbing is steady, with 600 feet of gain to Noon Peak and an additional 600 feet to the top of Divide Peak. Once upon a time it was possible to make your way down from Divide Peak to Murrieta Divide, but the brush has grown in and now this is difficult. I wouldn’t plan on being able to make it. If you’ve made it this far, returning via the route you’ve come in on will be a tough challenge in itself.