West Camino Cielo Drive

The drive is awesome. Breathtaking. Winding its way from the 2,250’ summit of San Marcos Pass to the tiptop of 3,985’ La Cumbre Peak, each turn along East Camino Cielo uncovers a new vista—Santa Cruz Island, the Santa Barbara coastline, Lake Cachuma, Figueroa Mountain, the Big Pine cliffs, Little Pine, Gibraltar Lake,  a blend of images which suggests a wildness and an isolation rare to be found so close to civilization.

In actuality, the road 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 17 miles to Refugio Pass where it ends. For five miles the road is paved, and the going seems 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 a frontier era in which the mountain wall dominated human attempts to intrude upon the wilderness interior.

To get the flavor of what travel might have been like three-quarters of a century ago, take an afternoon and drive from San Marcos Pass to Santa Ynez Peak along West Camino Cielo. It is rough and bumpy, and there are lots of potholes and plenty of places for you to curse me for taking my advice, but it is well worth your time.  

Most likely you won’t meet anyone on the entire 15-mile drive and you won’t see sprawls of tract homes dotting the valley below. Only rarely will you see either Highway 101 or the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks. What you will see is a land almost unchanged since the days in which Chumash Indians lived here, a place that must be taken slowly and with care, as your springs and shocks will tell you.



Saturday, July 12, 2014