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The many delights near California 154, connecting Santa Barbara and Los Olivos

Photo of a sign that reads "Welcome to Los Alamos" with a town in the background.
Pint-sized Los Alamos is just a short drive from California 154, which connects Santa Barbara and Los Olivos.
(Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, fellow Escapists. Labor Day weekend is upon us, and many Southern California travelers will be heading north to Yosemite National Park, west to the beach or off on another trip.

Need a last-minute road trip idea for this weekend? You’ll find one in this edition of Escapes.

I love Highway 1 and US 395 as much as the next traveler, but destinations such as Mammoth Lakes and Big Sur typically are packed on holiday weekends.

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Instead, I’m inclined to opt for California 154, a sun-soaked, 32-mile road connecting Santa Barbara and Los Olivos. Driving it takes you through the San Marcos Pass in the Santa Ynez Mountains, past Cachuma Lake and through some of California’s best wine country.

It takes just 40 minutes to drive the entirety of 154, but this is a road worth savoring over the course of a weekend. Linger along the way and sample all the wine, food and views the journey has to offer. Take a short detour to Danish-style Solvang, pint-sized Los Alamos and a lavender farm that seems straight out of Provence, France.

Below you’ll find a few intriguing stops along California 154 and in the area around it. If you have any additional recommendations, my inbox is always open.

People walk in front of a half-timbered building with a windmill. An illustration of flowers is in the foreground.
Solvang offers travelers plenty of shopping, easy access to wine country and the opportunity to try Danish pastries.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times; illustration by Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times)

Where you have you been traveling this summer? I’d like to share your summer adventures in a future edition of Escapes. Send your travel stories using this link.

One more thing: If you’re staying in L.A. over Labor Day, check out our new Weekend page to find plenty of close-to-home adventures.

Spot Chumash cave paintings

Your first stop on a California 154 road trip, heading north from L.A., is roughly seven miles from where the road begins in Santa Barbara. Welcome to Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park — also known by its Chumash name, Alaxuluxen.

While there, you’ll have the chance to glimpse rock art created by the Chumash tribe, thought to date back to the 1600s and earlier, according to California State Parks and a nonprofit called CyArk.

The meaning of the paintings on the walls of the sandstone cave — which include circular designs and figures — is unknown at present, lost after Europeans colonized the area, though a few different interpretations have been considered. However, the cave remains an important place for the Chumash tribe today.

If you go, you’ll be able to venture as far as the cave entrance, which is covered by a protective grillwork.

Want to get a preview of the cave before you go? Take a look at this 3-D visualization of the cave, created through a partnership between California State Parks, CyArk and Santa Ynez Valley High School.

Grab lunch at Cold Spring Tavern

A man walking into a rustic building with a sign that reads "Cold Spring Tavern," with stylized illustrations of trees.
Try a tri-tip sandwich at Cold Spring Tavern in Santa Barbara.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times; illustration by Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times)

Most travelers cruise California 154 in search of wine. We’ll get to that in a minute — but first, it’s a good idea to fuel up before hitting the tasting circuit.

Cold Spring Tavern, a 15-minute drive northwest from Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park, is the stuff of road trip dreams.

It’s “a special spot, tucked along the roadside on San Marcos Pass above Santa Barbara, where it has been uniting bikers and dressed-down upper-crusters for decades,” writes my colleague Christopher Reynolds, who included it on his list of the 101 best experiences in California.

On weekend afternoons, guests can pick up tri-tip sandwiches between 11:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. at its outdoor barbecue on Stagecoach Road and stroll the old-timey grounds.

Kick back at Santa Ynez Valley wineries

A collage of photos shows a two-story farmhouse with wraparound porch, green acreage, and Iris Rideau with Tom Bradley.
Iris Rideau worked with L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley, upper right, before becoming a winemaker. She turned Alamo Pintado Adobe into the Rideau Vineyard tasting room.
(Photos from Iris Rideau; illustration by Ross May / Los Angeles Times)

Exploring a wine region for the first time can be a little overwhelming — how do you decide which tasting rooms to visit?

I don’t claim to have all the answers, so I was especially gratified when retired winemaker Iris Rideau — widely celebrated as the first Black woman to own a winery in the U.S. — offered to show me around her favorite spots in the Santa Ynez Valley last year.

She purchased the land that would become Rideau Vineyard in 1995, before many casual wine tourists had the valley on their radar. “In those days, wine tasting rooms were pretty much focused on just having people come in to taste wine, buy wines and go,” Rideau said. “My concept was totally the opposite of that.”

Born in New Orleans, Rideau made a point to play blues and jazz, hand out Mardi Gras beads and make gumbo for guests, in addition to serving wine. “I brought my culture to the valley and really had no competition,” she told me.

In addition to a tasting experience at Rideau Vineyards, we stopped by Beckmen Vineyards, Vincent Vineyards, Roblar Winery and Vineyards and the Refugio Ranch tasting room on our journey around the valley.

“The most exciting wines are being made right here, right now,” said Kevin Gleason, who runs Gleason Family Vineyards’ portfolio with his wife, Niki. “We’re not competing with Napa. We’re creating the Central Coast.”

One last thing: No matter where you decide to sip this weekend, make sure you have a designated driver.

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Eat your way across Los Alamos

Bottles of beer are shown in a decorative display under a sign that says "Beer Emporium."
The selection of beers at Babi’s Beer Emporium in Los Alamos.
(George Rose / Getty Images)

Make Los Alamos your culinary home base for the weekend. Despite the tiny community’s size, it’s home to an impressive selection of restaurants perfect for a road trip pick-me-up.

Reynolds included the town and its Old West-style main drag on his list of 101 best experiences in California. Feeling fancy? He suggests spending an evening at Bell’s Restaurant, which was awarded a Michelin star.

Casual diners might consider stopping by Bob’s Well Bread Bakery and Plenty on Bell for breakfast or lunch. “Full of Life Flatbread does big dinner business,” Reynolds writes, while also recommending the menu at Pico — the building with the “General Store” sign in the front.

Not super into wine? Los Alamos also is home to Babi’s, a beer emporium selling craft brews from around the world.

Relax at a lavender farm

Spring wildflower season may be a distant memory this late in the summer, but the Santa Rita Hills Lavender Farm is still open to visitors.

Stop by the lavender field, situated on a quiet stretch of country road between Lompoc and Buellton, on your way back to L.A. from Los Alamos. The farm’s lavender is used to make bouquets, mists, lotions and other floral-scented products.

According to its website, the farm is open daily except Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. After Labor Day, it will be open only on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. or by appointment.

Or, if you’d like to spend more time immersed amid all the purple blooms, make Santa Rita Hills your first stop on the road trip by signing up for a painting class held on Saturday, Sept. 3, from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the farm. It includes a glass of wine and instruction from a trained artist.

One last thing

Vacationing with friends can be a blast — as long as you have the trip’s budget figured out ahead of time.

“Different income levels, spontaneous add-on activities and not budgeting add stress to what’s supposed to be a fun getaway,” writes Times contributor Jessica Benda. “Yet we tend to avoid financial conversations with friends because they’re uncomfortable, even though they’d make everyone more comfortable in the long run.”

Benda created a list of financial tips for friends traveling together — take a look before your next getaway.


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