The ride up Old San Marcos Pass provides both the promise of a major challenge, as well as the opportunity to experience what may be the premier rock art site in North America—Painted Cave. The ride leads steadily uphill to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Knapp's Castle is a bit more than a mile to the east, the perfect place to have lunch and recuperate before the ride back down.
Trip mileage begins at Stern's Wharf
For thousands of years, San Marcos Pass was a major Chumash trade route leading from settlements ringing the Goleta Estuary (comprising most of what is now the airport) to the Santa Ynez Valley. The crest elevation is 2,225 feet, slightly less than a half mile in height, but enough to test even the most conditioned bike rider. Friar Marcos Amestoy, after whom the pass is named, was in charge of the Mission from 1804 to 1813, a period in which he supervised the waterworks leading from Mission and Rattlesnake Canyons. Today you can see remnants of the dams at the Botanic Gardens (Mission Creek) and a quarter mile up Rattlesnake Canyon from the trailhead on Las Canoas.
Perhaps the most colorful period of Pass history involved the rough-hewn Flint & Bixby stagecoaches which plied the route over the Pass for almost 25 years. In the late 1860s a group of Santa Barbara businessmen created the Santa Ynez Turnpike Road Company to construct a toll road over the Pass. This would provide a shortcut to the much longer route over Gaviota Pass.
Gangs of Chinese laborers hacked out the route using picks and shovels, crude wheelbarrows, and black powder to blast out the resistant sandstone. By 1886 the road had been extended all the way to Mattei's Tavern in Los Olivos, where it connected with a narrow gauge railroad leading north. In 1892, when access to the road was closed off by one of the property owners, the County was forced to survey a new route to the east. The new road, what is now called Old San Marcos Pass Road, was completed a few years later.
Today you can recreate the effort required by the stagecoaches to make it over the Pass on your bike. Park at the upper end of Tucker's Grove, where there are usually plenty of places and ride back out to Cathedral Oaks. Turn right onto Old San Marcos Pass. The first quarter mile is level, then the climbing gets serious, 3 miles of steady, and in some places steep pedaling up to Highway 154, where you're half way to the crest in mileage and a bit less in elevation gain.
Above Highway 154, the old pass road turns into Painted Cave Road. The first mile is very steep, with plenty of switchbacks but then gets a bit easier. Painted Cave is on the left, just as the canyon begins to narrow and is well worth plenty of time to savor the memory of those who painted the images contained in the cave. The Camino Cielo crest is a mile further. It is an incredible feeling knowing you made it to the top. If you've got the time (or perhaps more accurately, the energy), Knapp's Castle is just over a mile to the east.
At this point it is all downhill. The Cielo Store is 2.5 miles of screaming downhill to the left. To return to Old San Marcos Pass Road, cross Highway 154, take Kinevan Road down to West Camino Cielo, and from there take Highway 154 (ride very carefully) the last mile back to it.