In the early morning and late afternoon, when the light is low on the horizon, the rolling, grass-covered hills of the Santa Ynez Valley turn golden, giving a fresh, clean appearance that is magical. This is a land seemingly unaffected by the changes wrought upon the rest of the Southern California landscape. Though the Santa Ynez Valley contains a handful of colorful and rustic towns, it is what is in between the communities of Solvang, Santa Ynez, Ballard, Los Olivos, and Buellton that gives the valley its character.
This is a land the Chumash called home for thousands of years, where the grizzly roamed only a century ago. Though man has drastically altered the Santa Barbara landscape in the 200 years since Mission life altered that of the Chumash forever, the Santa Ynez Valley has a quality little changed by time.
Golden hillsides dotted with valley oaks seem to disappear into the distant mountains, and bucolic farms bespeak of a turn-of-the-century lifestyle. Quiet rural roads, wineries created from ranch houses and dairy sheds, expansive stud farms, all nestled between the Santa Ynez and San Rafael mountains, make the Santa Ynez Valley a place to be experienced slowly and in depth. There is no easier or better way than by bike.
An accident of geography
The Santa Ynez and San Rafael mountains form a unique coastal range; the fifty-mile stretch of mountains and valleys from Point Conception to Rincon are the only east-west traverse of shoreline from Alaska to Cape Horn. The east-west running valleys open up to the Pacific Ocean, allowing the inland flow of fog and ocean breezes.
Because of the county’s coastal position in the northern latitudes between 32 and 40 degrees, the valleys are particularly susceptible to convection fog, which occurs between the months of May and August. As this fog develops along the coast during the evening hours, prevailing westerlies move it inland through the valleys, blanketing the county. Even in the hot summer months the valley is often filled with a cool blanket of fog in the morning and a pleasant inland breeze in the afternoon.
This combination of geography and topography has a profound effect on the climate of the area, making Santa Barbara County one of the coolest grape-growing environments in California. This marine influence has its greatest effect on those vineyards closest to the coast, where the fog is denser and takes longer to burn off. Further inland, the fog tends to burn off earlier in the day, making for somewhat warmer growing conditions. Even without the fog, ocean breezes continue to blow through the valleys, influencing the climate. Vineyards closest to the coast parallel the growing conditions of Burgundy, while vineyards farther inland are more similar climatically to Bordeaux.
Santa Barbara County has a history of wine production spanning 200 years. Father Junípero Serra brought grapevine cuttings from Mexico in 1782 to be planted in the fertile bottoms of Sycamore Creek in what is now known as the Milpas area. The largest mission vineyard, about twenty-five acres, was located in the San Jose Creek area, and an adobe winery, built nearby in 1804, is now Goleta’s oldest landmark.
In 1884, Justinian Caire imported grape slips from France and planted a 150-acre vineyard on Santa Cruz Island. His prize-winning wines were shipped to San Francisco for bottling. A grapevine planted in 1842 on a farm in Carpinteria grew to monstrous proportions. In fifty years, it had a trunk measuring nine feet around, an arbor covering two acres and producing an annual yield of ten tons of grapes!
The first modern vineyards were planted in the Tepusquet area of the Santa Maria Valley in the early 1960s. Shortly thereafter, vineyards were planted in several parts of the Santa Ynez Valley. Their growing popularity was very much due to the nature of the county’s geology.
Today there are more than thirty local wineries, many of them producing wines rivaling those from throughout the world. For those of us who like to ride the valley’s backroads, these wineries provide some of the most beautiful and pleasant spots to stop for a picnic or a sip of the delicious nectar.
For more information about county wineries there is a web site that provides a lot of good information. Santa Barbara County Wineries can be found on the Internet at http://www.sbcountywines.com.
There are a number of good starting points for valley rides. Among my favorites: the Park-and-Ride at the intersection of Highways 154 and 246; Solvang; Mattei’s Tavern in Los Olivos; and downtown Los Alamos.
Due to the relatively quiet traffic on most of the country roads, biking in the Santa Ynez Valley is both safe and pleasurable. Nevertheless, do observe basic safety rules when riding:
- Ride single file and warn riders ahead of you of approaching traffic
- Wear a helmet and always ride defensively
- Bring plenty of water and basic first-aid supplies
- Use brakes to avoid excessive speed on long downhills
- Wear eye protection and bring plenty of sunscreen
The main point to remember about valley riding is that due to its unique geography, onshore breezes kick up in the afternoon and make riding in a westerly direction difficult after lunch. As a rule of thumb, ride toward the ocean (westerly) in the morning and away (easterly) in the afternoon. Most of the routes below are planned with this in mind.