This article appeared in the July 2007 issue of American Motorcyclist.
By Grant Parsons
As I wind around a tight righthander, I spot exactly what I’m looking for: a small gravel pullout next to a big, rocky outcropping.
I aim the bike for it, kill the engine and settle myself onto a front-row perch, with my legs dangling over the edge of a steep dropoff.
Mission Santa Barbara: David Liu photo
To my left, the sun is just rising over the mountains. But in the valley below my feet, fog still covers Santa Barbara, Calif., like a blanket. From nearly 4,000 feet up, I can see the fog bank extending out over
the Pacific. And way out there, the highest points on Santa Cruz Island rise above the cloud layer to catch the first rays of a new day.
It’s an amazing contrast. Less than a half-hour from here is the edge of the huge Los Angeles area. Yet along this barely paved track called Camino Cielo, I haven’t seen another person since I climbed out of the fog in the predawn gray.
Which is just the way I like it.
What makes a great motorcycle road? The definition is different for every rider. Some of us like endless curves. Some of us prefer gently winding routes where we can gear down and enjoy the scenery. Some of us look forward to the chance to discover for ourselves the places we’ve only read about in books.
But there’s one thing we can all agree on: A great motorcycle road has to be at least a little bit off the beaten path. Nothing ruins the
riding experience quicker than sharing it with an endless stream of cars, trucks and motorhomes.
And if you happen to find curves, and scenery, and history along a lightly traveled back road, you may come close to motorcycling perfection.
That’s the goal of this trip, headed up the California coast. But without taking U.S. Route 101.
My quest begins in foggy darkness in the midst of Santa Barbara, center of a metro area that is now home to more than 200,000 people.
I’m at the spot where this exclusive, expensive community got its start: Mission Santa Barbara, founded in 1786.
Back then, this land was home to the Chumash Indians. When this stone church, which is actually the fourth on the site, was completed in 1820, it and the nearby Spanish army presidio were the largest structures for miles around.
Today, there’s a whole downtown area right next door. But at a little before 6 a.m. on a Saturday, there’s not much moving around here. And the morning fog makes it possible to block out everything else and imagine the twin bell towers of the church towering over the landscape, as they did nearly 200 years ago.
About a mile south, right along the beach, is Route 101, which is lined by a series of mission bells marking it as El Camino Real, the Kings Highway. It’s the official road linking the missions. But I’ve got another camino in mind: Camino Cielo, the highway of heaven.
My map shows that a quick left and a right out of this parking lot will get me on the way to Camino Cielo.
I tiptoe quietly past the homes of Santa Barbara’s rich and famous, quickly climbing out of the fog on a road that clings to the edge of a hillside, following every contour in the terrain. There’s no center line, but at least at the start, it’s nearly two lanes wide. Then I pass the “Road Narrows” signs, and I get into an area where two oncoming cars would have to
enter into negotiations before passing each other.
It’s clear that Camino Cielo has never been the subject of anything like highway engineering. It meanders whichever way some early traveler’s donkey did centuries ago, never running straight for more than 50 yards at a time.
And as promised, the pavement deteriorates as I climb more than three-quarters of a mile above the ocean into the scrub-covered slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Eventually, it’s not so much a paved road as a series of patches stitched together like a pair of ancient blue jeans.
I just leave the biki in second and roll the throttle on and off, enjoying the remote riding experience I’ve found just a few miles out of a modern city. And when I spot a pullout on a long traverse overlooking Santa Barbara and the Pacific, I stop to enjoy the sunrise spectacle.
The coastal fog completes the end-of-the-world illusion, since it obliterates all signs of civilization down there. It feels like I’m gazing over a layer of clouds from an 11,000-foot ridge in the Rockies.
In the silence at this overlook, the only sounds are birds staking out their territory, insects buzzing and, way off in the distance, something that might be traffic on 101 and might be surf crashing. I prefer to think it’s the latter.
Eventually, I recognize that even though I’ve already found a nearly perfect location along a nearly perfect back road, I might want to see what else this area has to offer.
I continue along Camino Cielo to its junction with California Route 154, which is the main alternate to 101, leading over San Marcos Pass to the towns of Santa Ynez and Solvang. But almost immediately, I
find another excuse to turn off a numbered highway onto an older route.
Until the 1960s, travelers on Route 154 had to wind down and then back up the steep sides of Cold Spring Canyon. Then a massive arch bridge was built spanning the 1,200-foot canyon.
You can cross the bridge on 154, but to appreciate it, you need to follow the old route, now designated Stagecoach Road. It takes you through a shaded canyon to a place where you can tip your head back and gaze up hundreds of feet to the soaring span overhead.
It’s also a fun road in its own right, with almost as many turns, but much better pavement, than Camino Cielo.
I’m truly California dreamin’.