Refugio Canyon received a lot of attention when Ronald Reagan was President, and a lot of traffic, but today it is relatively untraveled. There is little elevation gain for the first 4 miles, making this an excellent road for younger children to explore with you. The narrows leading to the Circle Bar-B Ranch are very picturesque, with the creek crossing the road several times along the way. This is Santa Barbara County's most vertical pavement ride.
Trip mileage begins at Refugio State Park
0.0 Refugio State Park
4.0 Circle-Bar-B. Beginning of the major uphill climbing.
While I tend to ride down through Refugio Canyon on my way from Santa Ynez or from West Camino Cielo, there are times when I head out to Refugio Beach for an afternoon at the beach and a barbecue. I usually pack along the bike too, and head up into the canyon for an hour or so of riding. The canyon is especially pretty and well worth the ride up into it.
I especially love the section about 3 miles into the ride where the canyon walls narrow and the walls become steep, vertical cliffs. The sandstone has been sculptured by the water to form exquisite patterns in the rock. Alder trees filter the sunlight, casting a magic pattern on the rock. The water is cool here and there are plenty of pools to enjoy.
While the riding is easy to this point, a few hundred yards beyond the Circle Bar B, Refugio Road begins a steady, and unyielding, climb to the pass, which is at 2250 feet in elevation. The first mile is especially steep, but if you find a comfortable gear and the right pace it isn't too bad.
Near the pass is Rancho La Sherpa and a well needed rest. For those of you with mountain bikes (and arrangements to be picked up in the Santa Ynez Valley), the ride down the backside of Refugio Road is loads of fun—four miles of narrow, winding dirt road and four more miles of pavement that bring you out to Highway 246 at the edge of Santa Ynez High School. El Rancho Market is just around the corner and has excellent sandwiches.
If you are into major challenges, then you'll want to turn right at Refugio Pass and continue up the 3 mile (and extremely steep) paved road that leads to Santa Ynez Peak and marvelous ocean and mountain views. The last quarter mile to the peak isn't paved, so you might want to stash your bikes behind a rock and walk the rest of the way up.
The whole reason for this madness is, of course, to be able to enjoy the downhill cruise, which is absolutely breathtaking. And of course, to be able to brag to your friends that you've made it up Santa Barbara County's best. It's 4,298 feet to the tip top, three hundred feet more climbing than you can get on the ride up to La Cumbre Peak (3985').
By the time you return back to the beach—it's barely 45 minutes from crest to shoreline— you should be ready for a dip in the ocean.