Figueroa Mountain from the Santa Ynez Valley

 

Los Olivos, Figueroa Mountain and Happy Valley

-- click on thumbnails for larger image --

Los Olivos' Country Style Architecture Neatly painted signs

Figueroa Mountain rises to nearly 4,500' feet above the north-eastern corner of the Santa Ynez Valley.

I learnt that it had been used by Lance Armstrong and his Discovery Team as a winter pre-season training ride. Starting from Solvang the team would climb over the mountain and then complete a 100 mile loop.

St Mark's massive Episcopal Church in Los Olivos

I planned to do just part of the ride ... the 4,500' mountain. Even skipping the 100 mile loop the ride still rates as 'very strenuous' according to Ray Ford's guide.

A sign that we're heading into the country

I started from the small town of Los Olivos.

I had been warned to start early to avoid the hottest part of the day ... even so when I set off the local Rotary Club were up and about closing a side road and setting up stalls for a charity event.

Snaking up Alamo Pintado Creek Looks pretty flat here

I carefully crossed the busy Highway 154 and pedalled northward on Figueroa Mountain Road along Alamo Pintado Creek.

The road snakes along the valley bottom passing a number of horse ranches.

Er ... how do we get round that mountain? Dried up stream bed ... and shadow of yours truly Conical peak

The first eight kilometres along Figueroa Mountain Road are almost entirely flat and give no indication of what is ahead.

Midland School Valley sides closing in

The road turns eastward and passes the private Midland School.

I learnt later that one of the turn-offs along this section leads to Michael Jackson's famous (or is that infamous) Neverland Ranch ... but I failed to spot any giraffes or ferris wheels.

One of the first of many bends Looks like we've got some way to go
That's where we've come from ... ... looking back down into Birbent Canyon
Climbing away from Birbent Canyon ... ... views open of the mountains ahead

Beyond the School the valley sides gradually close in as you enter Birbent Canyon.

Just as you're wondering how the road can escape from the canyon it doubles back on itself and crosses a narrow bridge over the creek and turns steeply upwards over the canyon's southern flank.

Crossing the creek in Birbent Canyon ... to begin the serious climbing More backward view ... was I avoiding looking ahead?

After the initial shock of the sudden climb the gradient reduces slightly ... and I settled into a steady (and very slow) climb.

Several racing cyclists descended in the opposite direction ... but they were so quick that I didn't have time to get my camera out and capture them.

"Join Us for the Santa Ynez Valley Cycling Series. Figueroa Mountain Hill Climb - 9.5 miles, individual time trial. 3,900' of climbing average gradient of 9%. Do you have what it takes?"

Er ... no.

View backwards ... with serpentine outcrop on left Steady climb ... and cows .. ahead
I could have saved some weight by leaving my Winchester behind. View across the Santa Ynez Valley to the south
Obviously not at the top yet Meandering through a meadow

The road passes many outcrops of serpentine ... which is a shiny pale green rock containing copper, chrome and mercury.

A century ago this area was actively mined ... the local maps show the sites of a number of these now long abandoned mines.

More gentle meanderings ... and climbing Some remaining flowers

Figueroa Mountain is famous for its displays of spring-time flowers. These are at their best through March and April.

I was riding at the beginning of June ... so they were well past their best.

Entering Los Padres National Forest I didn't realise I'd have to pay a fee

Los Padres National Forest covers some two million acres of Central California from Monterey in the north to Los Angles in the south.

Signs indicated that I would have to pay a fee ... but I never discovered who I should pay the fee to. Perhaps the Discovery Team have a season ticket?

Road continues to snake ... ... up the side of Figueroa Mountain Looks like I wasted my time bringing my fishing rod
Someone's found peace up here Looking back down the mountain

As you climb higher up the mountain ever more expansive views open up to the south over the Santa Ynez Valley.

On the far side of the valley are the Santa Ynez Mountains which overlook Santa Barbara and the Pacific.

Another break to take a picture looking back One tree does not a forest make ... more climbing ...
Looking back ... ... after climbing ... ... around a zig-zag

After climbing steadily for about eight kilometres to about 2,800' the road turns and climbs more steeply around a large zig-zag.

'The lure of the hills is partly about the need for physical challenge, partly also about the panoramic views they reward that effort with. But it is also a soul thing. About lifting your spirit up from the common, quotidian life of the plain and searching for something transcendent. Mountains, as the Romantics knew, are sublime'.
Matt Seaton after Casper David Friedrich, Guardian 16 August 2006
Approaching Figueroa Mountain Recreation Area Road rounding a shoulder We don't seem to be getting any closer
I'm doing my best by riding a bike Santa Ynez Mountains across the valley
I stopped at this layby for a rest ... and 100m further on to take a photo More backward views

A kilometer further on you reach Figueroa Ranger Station at 3,200'.

After the Ranger Station the road dips briefly into Sawmill Basin.

Turn-off for Tunnel Farm

Here a turn-off to the south leads to Tunnel Ranch and one to the north is called Catway Road.

Figueroa Ranger Station

Catway Road ... which is a relatively smooth dirt track ... contours around the mountainside for some fifteen kilometres towards Zaka and Wildhorse Peaks and viewpoints overlooking Zaka Lake. Perhaps next time I'll try exploring them.

Turn off to Tunnel Farm ... more climbing ...

After a brief respite in Sawmill Basin the road begins to climb again.

This slope seems to be gentler than I remember it

Soon after there is a turn off which leads to the actual summit of Figueroa Mountain. The Mountain reaches 4,528' and has a lookout post on top.

More 'serpentine' curves

Figueroa Mountain Road itself skirts to the south of the summit and next passes Figueroa Campsite at about 3,500'.

Turn off for Figueroa Mountain Lookout

It was now about five more kilometres to the road's summit. Pine trees were becoming more numerous and fewer deciduous trees were lining the slopes.

Does this apply to bikes ... I haven't got a pass

There was yet more evidence of previous small scale mining activities ... with a number of spoil heaps visible from the side of the road.

Spoil from a mine It doesn't say how far it is to the top ... do I go back or carry on?
.. er ... more climbing Davy Brown Trail

Further on Davy Brown's Trail leaves northward to descend into Fir Canyon, east of Figueroa Mountain's summit.

Figueroa Mountain Road then crosses a minor saddle and starts the final ascent to the top of Ranger Peak.

More serpentine The Santa Ynez Mountains ... and is that a glimpse of the Channel Islands beyond?
Convenient barrier to stop me falling off the road More barriers
A dangerous gap in the barriers Road about to disappear into the trees
Hunters clearly don't approve of the road being closed

I passed a barrier which can be used to close the road ... the sign clearly wasn't popular with our gun-toting friends.

The last drag

Near the top the road follows a forested ridge and the road narrows to a single lane ... I'm not sure that a Humvee could get through this final section ... please don't try.

Final section amongst the trees ...

Finally at long last ... well some four hours after starting ... I reached the top.

... over the top at last

Or not quite the top ... as well as missing the top of Figueroa Mountain ... the road also just fails to reach the top of Ranger Peak.

Just missed the top

Instead the trail runs along the 4,400' contour just below the 4,680' summit.

First view over the other side .. towards the San Rafael Wilderness ... and the Hurricane Deck

As the road emerges from the trees dramatic views open up eastward to the San Rafael Mountains.

Particularly prominent is a ridge of banded white rocks called the Hurricane Deck.

Looking back up at the summit of Ranger Peak

Much of the San Rafael Mountains is classified as a Wilderness Area ... and so for example bicycles are excluded.

Ranger Peak

I stopped at the top for some food and drink and to get my bearings ... yes I was at the top ... and no there was no café.

Never mind ... ahead I had some ten kilometres of descent ... followed by a short uphill section ... and then another five kilometres downhill.

Welcome downhill

During the day the temperature had gradually risen .. reaching around 75°F by the time I arrived at the top.

Road weaving in and out along the flank of Figueroa Mountain

As I began to descend down the eastern side of the mountain it was like standing in front of a fan heater ... the temperature rose in a few hundred metres to around 95°F.

Road cut into the side of the mountain .. with Lion Canyon on the right

The road drops to a small saddle and then weaves its way along the flank of Figueroa Mountain following the line of Lion Canyon.

Perfectly graded road disappearing into the distance

The road is carved into the side of the mountain ... exposing further seams of serpentine.

Carefully planted bushes ... to stop you going over the edge

On some of the corners there are big drops ... so care is needed whilst descending.

Ranger Peak still visible

As the road drops further its twists and turns become more exaggerated.

Cachuma Mountain peaking round the corner

The road gradually turns north-eastward and the bulk of Cachuma Mountain slowly comes into view.

What's round the bend?

At first it's impossible to discern any way through or past this bulk.

Gradually you can spot golden threads of roads and trails along its flank. At first they don't seem to be connected ... but slowly you can piece together the linkages and see how the route will unfold.

Watch out for debris in the road Cachuma Mountain How will we find our way through these mountains?
More outcrops of serpentine Don't fall off the edge ... oops  ... looks like someone has Bends before Cachuma Saddle

After a couple of impressive 180° bends you can see down onto Cachuma Saddle ... which is were we will branch off to descend down towards Happy Valley.

180 degree bend descending towards Cachuma Saddle
Dropping down to Cachuma Saddle Notice board at Cachuma Saddle

The Saddle lies at just above 3,100' and was until recently ... when fire destroyed it ... the site of a Ranger Guard Station.

We seem to be going the right way

At the Saddle the road splits ... to the north the trail drops towards Sunset Valley ... and southward it descends following Cachuma Creek on Happy Canyon Road.

Road starts to descend from Cachuma Saddle

Here the nature of the trail changes dramatically ... previously it had traversed open ridges and hillsides with expansive views ... now it was overshadowed by the bulk of Cachuma Mountain.

Leaving the Figueroa Recreation Area

On the side of the mountain there are numerous mine workings .. the most notable being the appropriately named Redrock Mine.

Descending down Happy Canyon Road

This is on the site of an outcropping of cinnabar ... which is a scarlet crystalline form of mercury sulphide.

The road continues its descent running alongside Cachuma Creek. The creek switches from one side of the road to the other ... over a series of fords. Fortunately there was little water in the creek so I didn't get wet.

Ford across Cachuma Creek Slow down for the ford ... someone with a gun doesn't like this sign Shady pool alongside the road
Another outcrop of serpentine Open aspects again Road surface becomes a little more challenging
Looking back across to Cachuma Creek Dirt Road

After descending for a couple more kilometres I reached Cachuma Camp nestling alongside the Creek below.

Just after the Camp the road climbs away from the creek over a shoulder towards the west.

An unusual scar on the hillside ... ... turns out to be a roadside cutting

The road ... which had previously all been tarmaced ... turned to dirt.

Although there was an occasional pothole ... the surface didn't present any problems to my hybrid's tires.

Contouring the hillside Back on tarmac again

I wonder how the Discovery Team's bikes ... with their narrow section tires ... cope?

As the road crosses the shoulder views open up to the north ... back up to Ranger Peak.

More outcrops and workings Was I up there? Is that a crop circle?
Sudden change to more pastoral surroundings Well ... I didn't see the river

After the brief uphill section the road continues to descend.

On reaching 1,200' the nature of the land changes dramatically as you enter Happy Valley.

Flat bottomed Happy Valley The farm signs are much smarter than those outside the mines on the mountain

The scenery becomes more pastoral and the road is lined with expensive looking ranches ... with tidy barns and paddocks.

A tidy barn What about cyclists?

Along the valley road I met a number of cyclists ... but no horse riders ... perhaps they were waiting for the cool of the evening.

Calves taking it easy Blindfolded horse

Happy Valley Road crosses Alisos Avenue then turns right to become Baseline Avenue.

Panorama of the mountains from the Santa Ynez VAlley
Back on the flat ... with the mountains in the distance
Happy Canyon - Alisos Road Junction Ranger Peak in the distance

Baseline Avenue heads due west for about six kilometres all the way to the small village of Ballard.

Due straight that is ... except for a kink where it crosses Highway 154

My salvation - the Church at the Highway 154 / Baseline Avenue junction

At this point I'd drunk three large bottles of water and most of the contents of a Camelback and was beginning to feel rather hot.

Swooping through the final kilometres

Fortunately at the junction there was a Church with a water fountain ... where I was able to replenish my supplies and give my head a cool soaking.

Vinyards Bales of hay Approaching Ballard
I didn't see any Stage Coaches Temperature in the 100's

Baseline Avenue eventually reached Ballard where I turned right to follow Alamo Pintado the last few kilometres back to Los Olivos.

Back in Los Olivos the temperature was over 101°F ... no wonder I'd felt hot ... definitely time to find a café for some cool drinks ...

 

Kirby James