Ultimate Base Camp: Santa Barbara mountain bike destination guide

Cold Spring, Romero Canyon hint at SB’s rock n’roll personality

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UBC Santa Barbara Cover

This article is part of Mtbr’s Ultimate Base Camp feature. See all the stories in this special section here.

UBC Santa Barbara Map

With its close proximity to Hollywood, sunny Santa Barbara, Calif. has always been a good place for celebrity spotters to get a glimpse of the stars away from LA’s hustle and bustle. Brad Pitt, Oprah Winfrey, Kenny Loggins and Elen Degeneres are all SB regulars, as are mountain bike celebs like Shaums March, Duncan Riffle and Carlin Dunne.

No disrespect to all those folks, but the guy you should be chasing down for an autograph is Chris Orr. Long before the native Nebraskan ever drew a paycheck from IMBA, for whom he’s now a community trails liaison, Orr spent hundreds of volunteer hours on the trail swinging a mattock, and at least as much time in municipal meeting rooms using his powers of persuasion so the rest of us could have access to Santa Barbara’s trails. Orr, along with the Santa Barbara Mountain Bike Trail Volunteers (SBMTV), are pretty much the reason you can ride here at all, so if you see any of these guys or gals in town, by ‘em a beer.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Santa Barbara

And about those rides—they tend to have long uphills, steep, techy downhills, and lots of all-mountain thrills for those with the skills, fitness and bike to match. The two trails listed here are just the start of SB’s intermediate-and-up options.

UBC Chris Orr SB

Chris Orr has been the glue that’s kept mountain bikers organized in Santa Barbara for years. Not only does he help keep trails open, he’s got serious skills on the bike.

Ride 1: Cold Spring Trail

Ride Snapshot:

Like many rides in Santa Barbara, the Cold Spring Trail descends from East Camino Cielo—the road along the ridgeline of the Santa Ynez Mountains that frames Santa Barbara’s postcard view to the east. This at times extremely technical trail tumbles downward across a mix of buff singletrack, chunky rock gardens and sinewy tracks that crisscross drainages with a fun assortment of tricky challenge sections.

UBC Santa Barbara Cold Springs Start

The start of the Cold Spring Trail is marked by this interesting water tank. Photo by Don Palermini

The trail’s numerous chunder sections require your full attention and some momentum—things that are easier envisioned than executed on a first descent where route-finding and not crashing your brains out compete for your affections. Though following the trail is fairly simple, at a couple points Cold Springs presents you with some multiple choice switchbacks in the steepest, roughest sections—pick one and commit with confidence as they all come back.

Near the bottom things gets a little confusing—when you hit the utility fire road, go right and look for where Cold Springs continues as a singletrack into Gould Park. Even if you miss it, just keep going downhill and you’ll eventually hit East Mountain Drive, which puts you back in civilization.

On this and any of the rides coming back to town, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter hikers and equestrians—please be courteous and alert for all trail users. Though contentious in the past, the SBMTV has done yeoman’s work in brokering the peace, and we got nothing but friendly vibes from everyone we encountered.

At the top of many trails you’ll find a box of bike bells that you can borrow to help alert others of your approach. Just return them in the box at the bottom and the SBMTV will shuttle them back up.

YouTube Preview ImageWe didn’t get many photos on Cold Spring because we didn’t want to stop and risk ruining the flow. This YouTube video from 5150dhbiker gives you a feel for the route’s continuous chunder.

There are a number of ways to get to the top, but our favorite is the six-mile-climb up Romero Canyon Road—a former automobile road that’s been reclaimed by nature and slowly regresses from nearly-paved to fire road to singletrack. Starting off Bella Vista Drive in the tony berg of Montecito, the track offers stunning views of Oprah’s house, the Santa Barbara coastline and the Channel Islands beyond. Even when fogged-in—as it often is on summer mornings—the visuals are breathtaking. Once you make it to the top, turn left and take East Camino Cielo to the trailhead at the water tank pictured above.

Shuttling up is another option—take Gibralter Road up to the top and hang a right on East Camino Cielo to the trailhead.

Ride Level:

Let’s be very clear, this ain’t no beginner ride. Cold Spring is steep, technical and tough—especially so after burning some matches on the long climb up Romero Canyon. We saw some riders in full-face helmets with full armor and on DH bikes. At the very least don some armor with your half-shell lid, ride a 160mm-travel or more bike, and we can’t stress how good idea the aforementioned warning bell is.

Seasonality:

While it can occasionally get hot during the summer, Santa Barbara’s costal location and occasional fog keeps the temperature moderate for year-round riding. Things can get toasty up the mountain but Santa Barbara’s temperatures average between 65 and 75 degrees all year.

Continue to Page 2 for more on Santa Barbara and full photo gallery »
About the author: Don Palermini

Chicago-born editorial director Don Palermini became a cycling-based life-form in the sixth grade after completing a family road bike tour of his home state. Three years later he bought his first mountain bike to help mitigate the city's pothole-strewn streets, and began exploring the region's unpaved roads and trails. Those rides sparked a much larger journey which includes all manner of bike racing, commuting, on- and off-road bike advocacy, and a 20-plus-year marketing career in the cycling industry. Now residing in the San Francisco Bay Area and pedaling for Mtbr, his four favorite words in the English language are "breakfast served all day," together in that order.


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  • mtb says:

    Given you just profiled my evening ride I commend your grainy movie and images that don’t do the place justice. Watching the fog roll in during the evening is very much like the North Bay Area. A few more shots: http://imgur.com/ce1i2NE,yXxqF4W#0
    and sans-fog: http://imgur.com/ce1i2NE,yXxqF4W#1

    The weather is terrible, you definitely don’t want to ride here. Actually the trail system is very very limited compared to the Bay Area etc. so once you’ve ridden it (2 eve. tours max), you’ve seen it all. Many more trails can be found a few miles North in SLO or south between Ventura and San Diego.

    • Mtbr says:

      Nice photos MTB…and regarding your comments on it being limited and there being other places, while that may be true for a resident, most newbies to an area take a few rides (even on the same trails) to get up to speed, so you could easily spend four or five days in SB without getting bored.

      That said, we first envisioned this story as a California road trip where you hit all the best places in the state north to south. We couldn’t pull it off this time…but maybe soon!

  • John says:

    UCSB, class of 1988. Bought my first mtn bike around 1986 and rode this area, although maybe not these exact trails. Seems like there was a trail called Jesusita that was a lot of fun? Heading north from UCSB campus there were some large fields for exploring. Not a huge variety of trails in the late 80′s, but it’s where I got my start. Great memories, and a great town. I occasionally wonder why I’m not still there. Check out the Enterprise Fish Company for seafood. I worked there while at school. Great place.

    • David says:

      Hey John, We may have crossed paths riding the Elwood and Butterfly area North of UCSB. I bought my 86 Stumpjumper from Bicycle Bobs and started my off road biking there too. Jesusita is still a great ride to Inspiration Point and one my favorites. I stayed in SB, just too nice to leave…

  • mtb says:

    @John- Parts of Jesusita trail burned in the hill fires a few years ago but it is essentially restored now. The fields you mention had a well maintained jump line until disappearing recently, that entire area (butterfly grove included) was almost turned into a neighborhood ~5 yrs ago and locals ponied up $100M to preserve it permanently. However overall this is a small town with only a few trails (Strava will attest to this) so the area isn’t worth traveling to for riding. I get out of here as much as possible to get some trail network.

  • mtb says:

    Also a point of interest- the ocean view shown in the first few minutes of the movie ‘Donny Darko’ was filmed just a few miles north of here. Same view.

  • John says:

    Velo Pro rented me an AWFUL Kona 29er last year. Easily the worst bike I’ve ever ridden. Not sure why any shop hoping to sell bikes would keep something like this POS in their rental fleet. Just be careful that they don’t rent you an old, rickety, ride-ruining piece of crap like they did me.

    • Carl says:

      Sad to hear that, I wonder what bike you were on. I just got home from a trip to Santa Barbara and rented a Kona Process 134 from Velo Pro…took it on Romero Canyon mentioned above and another trail which I can’t remember the name of and LOVED it! In fact I tried to buy one once I got home but it appears Kona is sold out until next year’s bikes roll in…..guess I’m gonna have time to sell my Specialized Stumpy while I’m waiting…… They even set my wife up with a pretty sweet carbon road bike to ride…she’s not really into throwing herself off of mountains :-)

  • Ddubb says:

    Chris Orr is a legend, great article on commending chris for all his hard work.
    There are no best trails in sb, just the right trail for the day

    • Mtbr says:

      Ddubb– We often tell people the same thing about bikes–everyone wants to know which one is the BEST, when the truth is it’s about the best bike for YOU! Thanks for the props, and yeah, Mr. Orr is the MAN!

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