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ACTIVITIES | Road Trip / CAMINO CIELO

A Sky-High Drive to Delight the Senses, Not Test Reflexes

July 29, 1999|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA BARBARA — It's easy to see, up here above the clouds, why they named it Camino Cielo--Sky Highway (although, to be linguistically correct, they should have named it Camino del Cielo).

You're 2,200 feet above sea level, one moment looking straight down onto the tile rooftops and bougainvillea-draped fences of Santa Barbara, the next peering deep into the canyons of the Santa Ynez Mountains on the inland side of the road.

The Pacific Ocean spreads out beyond the city, frosted with the haze that seems to always hang above the Santa Barbara Channel. The tops of the mountains that form the Channel Islands chain peek up above the clouds.

But if you take the drive to take in the scenery, then take it slow.

It's spin the wheel, shift to second, spin the wheel, drop down to first, climb and turn and upshift and downshift and turn again as you crawl along the razor-edge ridge topping the rugged hills that provide Santa Barbara its picturesque backdrop.

Try it any faster than a 15- to 20-mph crawl and you'd best focus all your attention on the task of staying on the road and ignore the sights that abound just off it--unless you wish to become one of those "look-there-off-to-the-side-of-the-road!" curiosities the next group of sightseers can thrill to.

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This is a drive to delight the senses, not to test the skills. It isn't technically difficult, but it is demanding of the driver (and of passengers prone to carsickness).

Among other things, the road is frequented by spandex-clad bicyclists who can be as rude and road-hogging as the worst the motoring world can offer. Tear around a blind curve, and even if you stay on your own side, you're likely to come up hard against a bicyclist pumping hellbent for whatever, head down and oblivious to the fact that it is still legal to drive a car or motorcycle up here and that lane rules apply to everyone on wheels.

That said, the next time you are in the vicinity of Santa Barbara, or on a visit to Solvang, Lake Cachuma or the wine country around Zaca Creek, do yourself a favor and head for Camino Cielo.

It is the kind of road that does double duty as route and relaxant. Even as you wind your car or truck or bike through the twists and turns, you feel yourself unwinding.

The views are incredible, the scenery quintessential Southern California, with towering eucalyptus, spreading oaks, spiky yucca and gnarly manzanita lining the road and spilling down the steep, rocky slopes.

The route can be done as a 38-mile circle (up from Santa Barbara on Gibraltar Road, across the ridge on Camino Cielo and then back down into the city on California 154 for lunch or dinner) or as a more linear 43-mile drive between Santa Barbara and U.S. 101 just west of the town of Los Olivos.

Getting to the starting line is a bit of a trip--a circuitous trek through a big chunk of Montecito, the upscale estate region of Santa Barbara where lots are measured by the acre and homes by the millions of dollars. All of the roads in the area wind around themselves, and it is easy to get lost. If you'd like to try for a more direct path to the foot of Gibraltar, call the Santa Barbara Visitors Bureau, (800) 676-1266. Or if you belong to one, ask a motoring club such as the Automobile Club of Southern California to map out the route before you go. You could also try one of several map-making sites on the Internet.

Here's one way, though: From Ventura and points south, pick up Gibraltar by heading north on 101 and cutting inland on Salinas Street. It's a quick drive up Salinas to Sycamore Canyon Road (Route 144). Head north about 1.5 miles to Stanwood Drive (192) then west on Stanwood to Mission Ridge. Keep going until Mountain Drive, head north past the Sheffield Reservoir, then pick up Gibraltar Road at the three-way intersection where it and Mountain meet Las Canoas Road.

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The seven miles up Gibraltar represent the steepest climb of the drive. You'll pass from residential neighborhoods to rugged mountainside terrain where a few brave souls have built homes that hang off the side of the hill. About 3.2 miles in, a turnout provides the chance to grab a stunning view of Santa Barbara Harbor. At 4.3 miles, the surface changes from crisp new asphalt to rutted, potholed country road. And at 4.8 miles, there is an incredible double hairpin.

From notes dictated into a cassette recorder as I drove the straighter sections: "It feels like you're falling off the edge of world, it's so steep and high above it all."

At the top of the climb, Gibraltar leads directly into Camino Cielo, and you find yourself heading westerly along the ridgeline, with the Pacific on the left, the northern flanks of the San Rafael Mountains on the right. A signpost points east to the Divide Peak Off-Highway Vehicle recreation area and Big Caliente Hot Springs--the "Hot Springs" part of the sign plastered over with a flier that says "Closed."

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