West Camino Cielo
In actuality, Camino Cielo is not a single continuous route but is composed of two distinct sections: East and West Camino Cielo. West Camino Cielo begins a half-mile below the crest of San Marcos Pass. Leading across the rugged and extremely remote western portion of the Santa Ynez Mountains, it snakes its way across a series of bony spines and high prominences for seventeen miles to Refugio Pass, where it ends. For five miles the road is paved and the going is easy, but just beyond the entrance to a private gun club, the road abruptly turns to dirt and begins a series of sharp downhill switchbacks that seem to lead backward in time to the frontier era.
While there aren’t a lot of different mountain bike routes in this area (only the Tequepis Trail leads off the crest), the ride along the crest is spectacular. Beyond Lizard’s Mouth, where the road turns to dirt, you will rarely encounter automobile traffic. As you ride, you not only have views in either direction but a remote and very primitive feeling the entire distance to Refugio Pass, if you choose to go that far. With a shuttle car in place you need not return the same way you’ve come.
San Marcos Pass to Refugio Pass
0.0 San Marcos Pass
0.2 Kinevan Road. This leads down the upper end of San Jose Creek through a beautiful narrow canyon to West Camino Cielo Road.
1.0 West Camino Cielo. The turn is sharply to the right and up out of the canyon.
3.6 Trail to the Playground. You won’t find the trail marked, nor exact directions as to how to get there, but if you find the Playground you’ll be glad you took the time.
4.8 Lizard’s Mouth. A beautiful field of boulders just a quarter-mile off the road. You will find the trailhead just before the Winchester Gun Club.
5.0 Winchester Saddle. Road turns to dirt and drops down 500 feet to a saddle which marks the beginning of the main dirt section of West Camino Cielo.
5.7 Bottom of the switchbacks.
9.6 The Pinery. Great place to have lunch and explore the pine forest or the trail leading south toward Condor Point.
12.0 Tequepis Trail turnoff, just before Broadcast Peak. The trail leads down to Lake Cachuma.
17.0 Refugio Pass.
24.2 If you containue on to Refugio Beach State Park or
24.0 If you turn right and head down to Santa Ynez High School.
East Camino Cielo
The thin, winding middle portion of Camino Cielo also seems remote, though not nearly so much as West Camino Cielo. It is paved across the entire ten-mile distance from San Marcos Pass to Gibraltar Road, and you’re more than likely to see a lot more people along the way.
Nevertheless, East Camino Cielo still provides a sense of adventure and a feeling of exhilaration on the drive or bike ride across. In addition there are plenty of places to stop and explore, have a picnic, or enjoy either the coastal or inland views.
Along the way you’ll find three routes down into the Santa Ynez Valley: the Snyder Trail, Arroyo Burro Road, and Angostura Pass Road, each providing marvelous mountain-bike riding and numerous loop or shuttle possibilities. Along the crest there are many other sights as well: out-and-back rides on the Fremont Trail, to Painted Cave, to the ruins at Knapp’s Castle, or to the top of La Cumbre Peak.
A great adventure that you will remember for a long time is provided by riding the entire ten-mile section of East Camino Cielo to Gibraltar Road, and then continuing on Gibraltar Road down into town, an additional seven miles of intense downhill. While hardcore riders will turn up their noses if you start this ride from Cielo Store (you’ll need a shuttle for this, or a friend to drive you to the top of San Marcos Pass), I just can’t recommend the ride up Highway 154. Besides, this way you can take more time at stops along the way and really enjoy your trip.
San Marcos Pass to Gibraltar Road
0.0 San Marcos Pass.
1.95 The Pines. Look for an open parking area on the left with a large pine tree in the center of it. A short hike up to the top of a small saddle to the west leads to a picturesque forest of pines and a series of wind-sculpted caves. This is an excellent short hike, a great place for kids to scramble on the rocks, and a nice picnic area.
2.2 Fremont Ridge Road. You can ride along this road approximately one mile before it drops steeply into the Santa Ynez Valley. The ridge is relatively level, with rolling knolls and beautiful views over the valley. Please don’t go below the dropoff point—beyond this is private property.
2.7 Painted Cave Road. Painted Cave is approximately a mile down this narrow road, which winds past Laurel Springs Ranch and the Painted Cave community, eventually leading back down to Highway 154. An excellent small book, Guide to Painted Cave by Travis Hudson, who was curator of anthropology at the Museum of Natural History before his untimely death several years ago, can be purchased at most bookstores. You will also find a trail leading from the intersection up to a small but very nice picnic area.
3.9 Knapp’s Castle turnoff. Snyder Trail leads down to Paradise Road.
6.2 Arroyo Burro Road. A shooting area is just to the north of the road where Arroyo Burro intersects with Camino Cielo, so be extremely careful should you decide to explore anywhere in this area. The historic Arroyo Burro Trail crosses here.
8.2 La Cumbre Peak. At the 3,985-foot peak you’ll not only have the best views in town, but there are picnic tables for a pleasant afternoon’s feast, and plenty of rocks for the kids (or you) to explore on the coast side of the crest. For those with a real sense of adventure, it is possible to work your way down the frontside of the mountain, across a saddle, and up to the top of a lesser mountain called Cathedral Peak, a 300-foot spire that has a small trail register nestled in a mound of rocks.
9.2 Angostura Pass. From the pass, a dirt road leads six miles down to Gibraltar Dam. Two miles down the trail is the beginning of the Matias Potrero Trail, which leads across the backside of the mountains to Arroyo Burro Road. On the south side of the pass, Tunnel Trail leads down the front side of the mountains.
10.2 Gibraltar Road. On the way down look for Gibraltar Rock, a large ice cube-shaped boulder made of extremely resistant Matilija Sandstone, where you will usually be able to watch climbers testing their skills (and courage).