Santa Barbara Backroads
The Chumash Highway, SR 154
By Bennett Barthelemy
The first car over the San Marcos Pass is said to have travelled the steep switchbacks in 1910.
Today, it is the summit of the Chumash Highway — a two-lane alternative to Highway 101 between Santa Barbara and Los Olivos.
Horse teams and stagecoaches worked the route after Chinese laborers had hacked out a wide enough path in the early 1860s. Officially dubbed SR-154 in 1964, it was hewn out of a Chumash network of trails traversed by countless feet over some 10,000 years, connecting village sites, springs, rock art panels, and other important points in this small corner of Chumash land.
The Barbareño Chumash named their village Syukhtun, where present-day Santa Barbara sits. This is where you leave the 101 at the southern terminus of Highway 154 and quickly gain elevation to eventually crest the Santa Ynez mountains at 2,225 feet — the San Marcos Pass. A very worthy detour is Painted Cave Road. The eponymous cave can be visited two miles above the 154. Known to the Chumash as Alaxuluxen, Painted Cave fell out of use after the Spanish conquest of the 1700s, due to the genocidal consequences endured in the years since. (However, during my last visit I noticed quite a bit of white sage reverently placed beyond the barrier at the cave’s mouth.) Now guarded by an iron door to protect the site, it is believed the cave’s walls chronicle up to 1,000 years of Chumash history, including astronomical events like the eclipse of 1667.
About a mile and a half beyond the narrow Painted Cave Road lies West Camino Cielo.
From this ridge, the glimmering Pacific shines and the Channel Islands rise out of the cobalt sea — where the Chumash believe they started their journey as a people. Falling away to the right are views of the Santa Ynez Valley and the incredibly rugged San Rafael Wilderness. If you venture across the West Camino Cielo, there are some great rock formations and day hikes with incredibly expansive views. High-quality bouldering exists at the Brickyard and Lizard’s Mouth for those who like to climb. Beware, however: West Camino Cielo can be closed at any time due to weather (especially since it is in the burn scar of the recent Alisal Fire). A high-clearance vehicle will be helpful once the pavement ends a few miles in.
Past the Camino Cielo heading north, you drop down to the valley to cross one of the highest arch bridges in the U.S. The Cold Spring Arch Bridge is more than 1,200 feet long and sits 400 feet above the canyon. Take a left at Stagecoach Road just before the bridge and you’ll discover Cold Spring Tavern, a historic stagecoach stop-turned-bar that hearkens back to the 1860s. If you’re traveling the 154 Thursday-Sunday, be sure to grab a local beer and one of the Tavern’s famous tri-tip sandwiches to fuel the rest of your trip.
Just down the 154 to your right will be Paradise Road. A 10-mile oak-studded drive will put you in the foothills where there are ample day-use picnic spots — a perfect home base for creek splashing or great day hiking on the Alder Creek Trail (a 4.5 mile loop). There are also several campgrounds if you’re looking to stay the night.
But if you’d prefer to camp with a view, try Lake Cachuma. It boasts ample tent and RV sites, along with a handful of yurts. The man-made reservoir has been dropping to historic lows due to drought in recent years, but still offers boat rentals and decent bass fishing during the right time of year. There is also a challenging disc golf course and a quite nice nature center, with stuffed critters and other interesting exhibits great for engaging travel-weary kids. Bald eagles are winter residents at Cachuma, and are often seen hunting along with herons, ospreys, and red tail hawks.
Forging ahead, once back on the 154, the forested hills and tight valleys give way to gently rolling plains, and the last 10 or so miles are lined with cattle ranches and wineries. Sweeping live oaks dot the scraped plains. At the junction to SR-246, one can bear left and find the impressive Chumash Casino to watch a live concert, gamble, and give some long overdue money directly back to the tribe. Continue on the 246 and you’ll find yourself in Solvang, the quaint Danish-style town which deserves its own day trip.
Past the 246 junction just two miles before reaching the 101 again, lies the community of Los Olivos. The thirsty will find some 20 wine tasting rooms in this up-and-coming tourist destination with its distinctive Old-West Americana persona.
Depending on the day, you might pass only a handful of cars on the 154, or be ensnared in traffic (should the 101 be closed due to a major traffic impediment, you can bet on the latter). But either way, as you amble along the Chumash Highway it is well worth the effort — especially when adding in a few worthwhile detours while considering the complicated history and continued legacy of the region.