Beautiful beaches abound. Photo by Ron Johnson.

A Guide to Biking in Santa Barbara

Written by Ron Johnson. Photos courtesy of the Santa Barbara Department of Tourism.


Santa Barbara is oh so very pretty. Ideally situated about an hour up the Pacific coast from Los Angeles, near where Southern California and Northern California meet, the town of about 90,000 snuggles up gently beside the dreamy Santa Ynez Mountains. Dubbed the American Riviera for the massive harbour, moderate climate and romantic Spanish vibe, it is also an ideal jumping off point for some fine two- wheeled adventures thanks to the 200 wineries that dot the countryside, the freshest of seafood, the ocean, and rare south­facing coastline, the mountains. You get the idea.

Point and click

When you have the scent of the ocean at your heels, and the call of the mountains in your gut, one should really be so inclined to just point your front wheel in any direction and pedal off in search of adventure. After all, there is a serious cycling scene in the area, many pros and lycra-­forward folk visit Santa Barbara to train. It would really be a challenge to not encounter stunning scenery wherever you choose to put rubber to road, but by following Gibraltar Road up a series of challenging and delightful switchbacks, the chances of success are as likely as they are in finding delicious local craft beer at any roadside stop — excellent. But given that this is considered an epic ride with heart- pumping grades along the nine-­mile climb up La Cumbre, save the dreamy sightseeing for the descent down to dreamy East Beach. Fun can be had basking in the glory of the American Riviera as you coast back down towards the waterfront, a smile permanently plastered on your newly salted face.

Cycling in Southern Calfornia

The Wayfarer cruisers.

Uncorking a classic

But not everyone is equipped with quads of steel. And for those of us who gravitate to the downhill portion, one could catch a ride with one of numerous shuttle services and tour operators specializing in adventures for the vertically challenged. Said assisted services can also transport riders to wine country. And that’s where the fun really begins. The wineries of this fine region were featured in the quirky little movie Sideways, starring Paul Giamatti as the dishevelled and rosy cheeked wine aficionado singing the praises of this delightful region. There is no better way to take it all in than on a bike, beginning in the town of Lompoc and taking Santa Rosa Road looping back along Highway 246 through the Santa Rita Hills. You’ll find a range of wineries, some dining options, a craft brewery or two. Highlights include the Melville Winery and the Alma Rosa Winery, which appeared in the film. Cycling tours through wine country are available from the Santa Barbara Adventure Co. amongst others.

Town cruisers

Tooling around Santa Barbara to take in the sites has never been easier thanks to an abundance of rental bikes available around town from the likes of Wheel Fun Rentals. In addition, bike-­forward accommodation providers such as the very cool Wayfarer Inn have a fleet of sweet bikes available for guests at this hipster hostel meets stylish inn. For a smaller town, cycling infrastructure and lanes are plentiful. Highlights include a ride to the old and charming Mission Santa Barbara, a slow tour of the main shopping drag along Cabrillo Boulevard and an exploration of other happening neighbourhoods such as SoCo. Other points of interest within easy cycling range include the cute little Santa Barbara Zoo near the waterfront, the Museum of Natural History and the Ty Warner Sea Center. One could also make a day of hunting for the perfect taco, such as those offered by the local hotspot La Super- Rica Taqueria (622 N. Milpas St.). If burritos are more your thing, Mony’s Mexican (217 Anacapa St.) is your spot.

Cycling in southern california

Beautiful beaches abound.

Water’s Edge

Given this is where Southern California begins, one might be so inclined to stay near the beach. In Santa Barbara there is an abundance of oceanside trails ideal for leisurely cycling to and from some of the finest seafood restaurants and wine tasting rooms one can find. Spend an afternoon exploring the waterfront including a stop at historic Stearn’s Wharf and bike your way south to the nearby towns of Summerland and Montecito, passing great people-­watching spots such as Butterfly Beach. To make a day of it, pedal all the way to Carpinteria and check out the seal sanctuary before heading back for dinner at the Santa Barbara Harbourfront where an abundance of patios such as at Chuck’s Waterfront Grill are equipped with high­powered heaters to ensure any cool ocean breezes don’t spoil the gorgeous views.

Bring the funk

A fairly new and most welcome addition to Santa Barbara is the Funk Zone, which is an artsy little ‘hood replete with two dozen wine tasting rooms and craft breweries alongside numerous galleries and restaurants. This is a must see, and place to dedicate at least one long and sunny afternoon. Highlights include the Oreana Winery tasting room located in an old tire shop at 205 Ancapa St., and the perfect, tiny Riverbench Santa Barbara room at 137 Ancapa St. The Funk Zone is also home to two excellent dining options in town: the upscale, quirky The Lark as well as the fun and lively Enterprise Fish Co.

Cycling in Southern California

The tasting room at AVA Santa Barbara.

Before you leave

The cycling in Santa Barbara is fantastic, as is the surfing and paddleboarding, but just off the coast is a true local gem in the Channel Islands National Park. The area offers some of the best sea kayaking available along this stretch of the Pacific coast with incredible sea caves, sea lion rookery, kelp forests and much more. Local tour companies keep kayaks on the island, and will ferry adventurous types out to the island for a day of exploration. If hiking is of interest, it would be hard to beat the stunning Gaviota State Park just north of town. And, easily the most charming day trip is one that includes a trip to Cold Spring Tavern. This historic and scenic locale was once a stagecoach stop, and is now a bar and restaurant that serves up something called a tri­tip sandwich as its house specialty along with a selection of relish craft beers. Now, this place accommodates bikers of the leather fringe and chaps variety, but show up in some lycra or other cycling apparel, and watch the jaws drop. Such is the climb up Hwy. 154 to Stagecoach Road. Check upon arrival, as there is often live music on weekend afternoons.

The fundamentals

• Should anything happen to your ride while in town, Bici Centro is a neighbourhood bike workshop that charges $5 per hour to use their space complete with all the requisite tools and a store at the ready should spare parts be required for purchase.

• The Amtrak train that runs the Surfliner route up the California coast allows bikes on board if it is pre-­booked when making a ticket purchase on their website. There are secure and safe bike lock­ups on board. The best way to travel.


Ron Johnson is a Toronto-based writer and editor with an interest in cycling, travel, craft beer and environmental issues. Find him on Twitter @TheRonJohnson, or check out his blog.

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