Running east-west across the middle of the Santa Ynez Mountains overlooking Santa Barbara, East Camino Cielo provides an engaging drive and access to some top hiking trails.
Camino Cielo, which translates to Sky Road, isn't as epic in scale as the Angeles Crest Highway, which extends through the San Gabriel Mountains, or as celebrated as Mulholland Highway, which twists through the Santa Monica Mountains. And Camino Cielo lacks official vista points, parking, restrooms and interpretive signs.
But this lightly traveled mountain road offers stunning views: to the south, the sparkling coastline and the Channel Islands; to the north, the Santa Ynez Valley, Lake Cachuma and the rugged San Rafael Wilderness.
For an introductory loop of about 30 miles, drive U.S. 101 north through Santa Barbara, then up California 154 northwest into the Santa Ynez Mountains. Just short of San Marcos Pass, turn east onto Camino Cielo and follow it 10 miles along the mountain crest to Gibraltar Road, which continues south back to Santa Barbara. Depending on the number of stops you make and the trails you take, an adventure along East Camino Cielo could last all day. East Camino Cielo is paved but usually has potholes. Road work seems to be in progress whenever I visit. But with careful driving and some patience, you can reach these three hiking options:
Fremont Ridge Trail
Directions to trail head: From California 154, turn east on East Camino Cielo and drive 1.75 miles to a metal Forest Service gate on the left, where there's space for a few cars to park.
The hike: Follow in the footsteps of John C. Fremont on this ridge-top ramble to an overlook of the Santa Ynez Valley. In 1846, Fremont led Army troops south from Monterey. At Christmastime, in heavy rains, the troops struggled over muddy mountains to claim Santa Barbara from the Californios and bring it under the American flag.
This leg-stretcher of a walk follows a dirt road down the north slope of the mountains. The first quarter-mile or so is fairly steep, but it mellows out.
About a mile out, Fremont Ridge begins another drastic drop toward the Santa Ynez Valley. Savor the view of Lake Cachuma and Los Padres National Forest before turning around for the walk back.
The trek is two miles round trip with a 300-foot elevation gain.
Directions to trail head: From California 154, take Camino Cielo east 2.5 miles to a saddle, where you'll spot a parking area and a Forest Service gate.
The hike: In 1916, industrialist George Owen Knapp sought relief from hay fever high in the Santa Ynez Mountains and decided it was an ideal locale to build the mountain home of his dreams.
The house, carved from thick sandstone blocks, took four years to complete. It was magnificent, complete with illuminated waterfalls and a room housing a huge pipe organ.
Stone walls, part of the foundation and a couple of chimneys are all that remain. But the view of the Santa Barbara back country is still gorgeous, particularly if you arrive at sunset and watch the purple shadows skim over the Santa Ynez and San Rafael mountains.
The land remains privately owned, although it's considered part of Los Padres National Park and is accessible to the public.
To reach the ruins, follow a trail, formerly the house's long driveway, from Camino Cielo. Chamiso, ceanothus, toyon and other hardy chaparral line the road. Enjoy fine vistas of the Santa Ynez Valley. After half a mile, the "castle" ruins come into view; continue your descent to the unusual (and photogenic) assemblage of walls, arches and chimneys.
From the ruins you also can see the Santa Ynez River, Lake Cachuma and the Pacific. The panorama of peaks includes Mt. Pinos, Figueroa Mountain and the Casmalia Hills.
This route is 1.5 miles round trip with a 200-foot elevation gain.
La Cumbre Peak
Directions to trail head: This route is accessible from East Camino Cielo, about nine miles east of California 154 and 1.8 miles west of Gibraltar Road.
The hike: At almost 4,000 feet, La Cumbre Peak isn't the highest summit in the Santa Ynez Mountains, but it's a favorite of hikers because it offers one of the best views.
You can see the coast from Point Mugu to Point Conception, as well as the inland back country of the San Rafael and Dick Smith wilderness areas.
The Forest Service constructed its first fire lookout on the peak in the 1920s. The lookout that stands (barely) today dates to 1945. The elements and vandals have not been kind to the structure since it was abandoned in the early 1980s.
The route is easy: From the trail head, walk up the asphalt road to the peak, where picnic tables and benches beckon. Sandstone outcroppings and stacks of boulders also invite hikers to sit and enjoy the view.
The path to the summit is a quarter-mile round trip with a 100-foot elevation gain.
For more of John McKinney's tips, visit http://www.thetrailmaster.com.
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Fremont Ridge, Knapp's Castle, La Cumbre Peak Trails WHERE: Los Padres National Forest
DISTANCE: Hike along Fremont Ridge is two miles round trip; to Knapp's Castle is 1.5 miles round trip; to La Cumbre peak is 0.25 mile round trip.
TERRAIN: Sandstone-topped crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains.
HIGHLIGHTS: Scenic drive accompanied by short hikes and magnificent views.
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Easy.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Los Padres National Forest, tel. (805) 961-5793.