1. From the Fairview Avenue overpass in Goleta drive 26.3 miles north on Highway 101 to the Highway 1 turnoff, one mile beyond the Gaviota Tunnel.
2. Take the offramp, turn right at the stop sign and head back down the frontage road for 0.3 miles to the Gaviota State Park parking area.
3. The cost is $2 for parking in the lot, or you can park farther back along the frontage road for free.
Expectations for Riding the Santa Barbara Area Trails
Country trails are multi-use trails and as such are used by several thousand users each week. If you are riding downhill on these trails, expect to encounter them on your way. Your cooperation will help make everyone's experience a safe and pleasant one.
Ten things every mountain biker who rides the front country trails is expected to do:
Many of the people who visit this area come for the hot springs rather than the peak hike or bike ride, but I don’t mind that; it means I will see fewer people up in the high country. I try to come at least once in the fall and again in the spring to do Gaviota Peak. It is like a rite of passage, though I must admit I do it much more often by foot than by bike.
Recently the state park has started charging for parking in the lot at the bottom of the trail, so you will need to make sure you have a few dollars handy when you get to the trailhead. Or, if you prefer, drive back up the road a way and parks along the chainlink fence.
I suggest you stretch your legs thoroughly before heading up to the peak. The riding is steep right from the start, and there aren’t too many places where it lets up. Fortunately, the scenery is very nice along the fire road. Sycamores and oak trees crowd either side of it, creating the feeling of walking up an old country lane, and it only gets better as you head higher and higher into the hills.
After a few hundred yards a road leads off to the right. This leads over to the Trespass Trail (Ride #2) and is the route you will be coming back on if you decide to loop back down from the top. The turnoff to the hot springs is a quarter-mile further. Beyond the hot springs intersection, the road curves left, continues out across a series of open fields, and then switches back and forth through a lovely hillside filled with gnarly old oak trees.
If you’d like to see what the springs are like or want to take a dip on the way up to the peak, turn right and head up the narrow trail. The springs are not too far.
The next mile of road leads you up along the side of one ridge, then back around to the north side of it. The views are incredible, taking the edge off the steady climbing. I love looking down on the Las Cruces and Hollister ranches. One of the reasons I like coming here in the spring is the ceanothus; it fills the hillsides with its puffy clusters of white blossoms, turning the mountainsides a dusky white.
Once you reach the north side of the ridge, the balance of the ride is along the side of a long watershed. There are several points where you will think you’ve come to the top of the hill only to find another bit of uphill ahead of you. But then, almost magically, you will arrive at a saddle and views to the east across San Onofre Canyon and the distant coast.
The saddle is a crossroads of sorts. Directly ahead of you a path leads down into San Onofre Canyon and recently it has been re-opened, making it possible to go for a bit in this direction, though be sure not to go farther downhill than you are willing to go back up.
The main fire road veers to the left and continues gradually uphill over a long ridge. It is about ten miles to Refugio Pass, though the private property in between will keep you from going all the way. However, you can ride quite a way and still be on Forest Service land.
To reach Gaviota Peak, turn right and climb the final steep hill to the 2,458-foot high point. You’ll need to push this section—and only if you are going to continue on the loop ride. Otherwise, leave your bike in the saddle and walk up to enjoy the peak views and sign the trail register. There is a very nice opening where you can sit back and enjoy the moment, as well as a tin can with journals for you to read or add your own thoughts to.
Most people will return the same way they’ve come up, and this is probably best, but I can’t resist making a loop when it is possible, and I always like to see new places. Unfortunately, the loop back via the Trespass Trail isn’t nearly as easy as the fire road. At first the route leads through a quarter-mile of overgrown chaparral, which is a bit rough on bare legs. Then you will find yourself dropping steeply down a long ridge, heading almost directly toward the ocean. The trail hasn’t been maintained, there are plenty of gullies, and the cows which graze in the area have churned up the soil. Oh well. Keep thinking, “This is an adventure. I like it this way. This is an adventure. I like it this way,” and perhaps you might even convince yourself.
After dropping nearly 1,200 feet in elevation, the trail ends at a saddle and turns into a wider jeep road. It hasn’t been maintained, but it is a very welcome relief after the section you’ve just come down. The next 1.5 miles takes you down a small creek, through some very pretty oak forests, and onto the series of open, grass-covered hillsides which parallel the freeway perhaps five hundred feet below. It is beautiful countryside. At one point you are looking almost directly down on the Gaviota tunnel.
About halfway back to the car, the Trespass Trail drops off the jeep road. The trail follows the same basic route back to the main fire road as the jeepway, but lower down along the foothills. It is another three-fourths mile back to the trailhead from here.