This beautiful route to the top of the mountains is one of the most enjoyable rides in the Santa Barbara area, climbing steadily to the crest at a gradual pace you'll thoroughly enjoy. At one time it wasn’t even a trail. Rather, it is the remains of a historic dirt road, a reminder of what Santa Barbara’s mountain roads were once like. In 1978 the road was closed to public automobile travel after heavy rainstorms caused huge slides across it. What it provides is a great ride and mountain bike access to the back country.
From Highway 101 take the Sheffield Drive exit. Follow Sheffield Drive 1.5 miles to East Valley Road. Turn left, then almost immediately to the right on Romero Canyon Road, and continue another 1.5 miles to Bella Vista and turn right on it. The trailhead is about .3 miles farther. You will find a locked red steel gate marking the trail’s beginning.
Expectations for Riding the Front Country Trails
Front 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:
Have a bike bell so other trail users know you are approaching.
Keep your speed down; practice riding techniques that minimize impacts.
Good braking means never having to skid. Do not lock up your brakes.
Approach switchbacks with caution and brake well before you reach them.
Stay on the designated tread. The front country trails are multi-use, not a race course.
Ride with other trail users in mind and enhance rather than interfere with their enjoyment.
Always assume there is another trail user around each corner.
Yield the right-of-way to uphill trail users. Stop and dismount if necessary to allow them to pass.
When approaching equestrians, dismount and ask them what they want you to do.
Be courteous. Smile and say something friendly to everyone you encounter.
SETTING THE SCENE
Romero Canyon is named for the Romero family, whose ties to the Santa Barbara area are long and illustrious. Juan Romero was a soldier under Governor Felipe de Neve, the first resident governor of California, and Captain José Francisco Ortega, who helped found the presidio. Descendants of Juan Romero later homesteaded various locations in the Santa Ynez Mountains, including what is now Romero Canyon and the Middle Fork of Cold Springs Canyon.
Prior to 1978, Romero Road was the last remaining vestige of the primitive system of roads leading up to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Built in the early part of the century, it was the only automobile route to the mountain crest which hadn’t been paved.
This rugged and extremely narrow dirt road was still available for public travel as late as the mid-70s, when forty-two inches of rain in 1978 caused massive mud and rock slides. Because it was too expensive to repair the old road, it has been closed to vehicle travel since then. Beyond the power lines the roadside vegetation has grown in, and what is left is a fairly narrow trail almost all of the way to the top.
There is no better place to go than Romero Road to find a bike ride that combines scenery and getting in shape. It also provides a bicycle route into and out of the upper Santa Ynez Valley, allowing a number of shuttle options or opportunities for weekend overnight trips from Santa Barbara. What other cities in Southern California offer such a possibility for mountain bikers?
Though the road is steep right at the start, most of the uphill is fairly moderate. It is 6.7 miles to the crest, and there are excellent views and exciting riding due to ample exposures of Coldwater and Matilija sandstones. This makes the ride a trials adventure, though as more and more people ride it the trail is becoming smoother and smoother.
From the locked gate, follow the dirt road straight up the grade for a half-mile. This is the steepest section. It is loose and somewhat rutted, making you wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into. Once you are beyond the bridge, however, things get much easier.
The best is ahead. In a bit, the road levels out and then splits. The left turn takes you up to the power lines—and the steepest grade in town. Curve to the right and cross Romero Creek. The first two miles from the creek to the power lines is well maintained and easy to ride. For the next mile the road gradually curves back to the left and around a large peak formed from Matilija Sandstone. There are lots of places to stop for views of Montecito and, as you curve farther around, Toro Canyon.
Eventually you come to a saddle which takes you back into the Romero Creek drainage. The next two miles of riding are wonderful as the road makes a complete circle of the drainage. The road is almost completely level for a half-mile to the last of the power line towers; then as you round a corner and head up into the canyon the vegetation suddenly closes in, and from here on out it is single-track riding. Though the route isn’t too steep, the riding is tricky in places, but with the exception of a short hill or two created by slumps you will be able to ride all the way up.
At a fork of Romero Creek a small creek bubbles up and crosses a cement apron near the upper end of the canyon. This is a great place to splash water over your (probably) sweat-drenched face. Another half-mile brings you to an intersection with the Romero Canyon Trail.
It is 2.7 miles beyond this point to Romero Saddle. From the trail intersection the riding gets steeper again, but most of the single track can be negotiated and the views are excellent. Once you have curved west around the last mountain the old road leads through a saddle, and then in a quarter-mile you’ll spy the cement water tank which marks Romero Saddle.
Just before the saddle, look for an old road leading to the left, up toward Camino Cielo. This is a remnant of the old roadway built by George Owen Knapp and was once a shortcut for those who were heading up to Camino Cielo and over to Gibraltar Road. Look for this road to be opened up again soon. If you are planning on looping back down to town via the San Ysidro or Cold Springs trail, this will make it much easier to do.
With a bit of judicious planning you can continue on into the backcountry on one of the trails leading down to the Santa Ynez River. My personal favorite is the Cold Springs Trail. From Romero Saddle, this trail is 2.8 miles west. I drop down it, stop for a few minutes at Forbush Flats, then continue down to the Gibraltar Trail and then past the Sunbird Mine to Red Rock, where I have a shuttle car waiting for me.
Another great ride can be made by continuing even farther west on Camino Cielo to Angostura Pass and then down the backside to the North Tunnel Trail, which is about 0.8 miles below the pass. This trail leads down through the chaparral for 1.5 miles to a trail intersection where you can continue on the Matias Potrero Trail to Live Oak picnic area or take the Devil’s Canyon Trail to the Red Rock area.
There is another option for those who are out for a long day ride but want to end up at your car at the bottom of Romero Canyon. When you are at Romero Saddle, you’ll notice a trail heading steeply up the eastern ridge. You’ll have to push the first fifty yards of the trail, but once up on top of the ridge you can follow the Island View Trail for three-fourths mile to a saddle where the Romero Canyon Trail crosses the top of the mountains. From there you’ll have nearly five miles of single track on the Romero Trail back down to your car.