This sunny, 166-mile (267-kilometer) romp is centered in Santa Barbara, a coastal resort where bougainvillea flowers climb white walls and an old California mission drowses in the sun. Among the city's ravishing charms are a Mediterranean climate, gardens, broad beaches, a pretty yacht harbor, and mountains tinged with Impressionist pinks and blues.
The drive makes two loops. First it jogs westward from Santa Barbara, visiting the flower fields of sleepy Lompoc and the wine and horse country of the newly glamorous Santa Ynez Valley. Then, circling back to Santa Barbara, it takes off eastward, to the mission city of Ventura and the orange groves of the Ojai Valley.
Start in Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara was settled by the Spanish in the late 1700s and lived graciously during California's later rancho period. In the late 19th century, it became a health resort for wealthy Easterners after a guidebook writer touted it as a "Mecca for the moribund." When a 1925 earthquake leveled the haphazardly built downtown, civic leaders rebuilt in the Spanish colonial style that now unifies the city.
Queen of the Missions
On a slope overlooking town stands the venerable Mission Santa Barbara (2201 Laguna St.; tel. 1 805 682 4713; santabarbaramission.org). At the old mission, founded in 1786, it's easy to picture gray-robed padres saying Mass for the Indians.
Franciscan friars still reside at this Queen of the Missions, and Sunday services continue in the colorfully painted church. The sandstone Roman facade and adobe walls demonstrate how missionaries integrated European architecture with the rude but handsome materials—mud, stone, and timber—available on the California frontier.
Museums, Gardens, Theaters, Historic Sites, and More
From here, head up Mission Canyon. Kids love the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History (2559 Puesta del Sol Rd.; tel. 1 805 682 4711), with its 72-foot (22-meter) blue whale skeleton, animal dioramas, insects, "lizard lounge," and planetarium. The tree-shaded grounds by Mission Creek make a lovely picnic spot. At the nearby Santa Barbara Botanic Garden (1212 Mission Canyon Rd.; tel. 1 805 682 4726; www.sbbg.org), five and a half miles (8.9 kilometers) of paths wind among a thousand species of California native plants, from paper-dry poppies to fog-loving redwood trees. A dam across the creek was built by padres and Chumash Indians in 1806.
Downtown, take in a movie or concert at the Arlington Theatre (1317 State St.; tel. 1 805 963 4408; www.thearlingtontheatre.com) just to see the interior, designed to evoke the plaza of a Spanish village. At the nearby Santa Barbara Museum of Art (1130 State St.; tel. 1 805 963 4364; www.sbmuseart.org), look for Monet's 1884 painting of the Italian Riviera in sunny pastels; it could have been painted yesterday in Santa Barbara. This impressive regional museum also has works by Matisse and Chagall, Picasso and Dalí, plus classical antiquities and Asian art.
Wander a few blocks to the Santa Barbara County Courthouse (1100 Anacapa St.; tel. 1 805 962 6464; www.santabarbaracourthouse.org), which looks like a fantasy out of El Cid. Built in 1929, it has thick white walls and red-tile roofs, set off by sunken gardens. Inside are hand-painted ceilings, wrought-iron chandeliers, hallways sheathed in Tunisian tiles, and marvelous historical murals. For a 360-degree view of the city, ride the elevator up the clock tower.
Nearby, El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park (123 E. Canon Perdido St.; tel. 1 805 965 0093; www.sbthp.org/presidio.htm) preserves a bit of Spain's original military outpost, including the city's oldest remaining building (1788), which once provided housing for married soldiers and their families. Reconstruction of the fort includes an adobe chapel, a two-story lookout tower, and soldiers' and commander's quarters.
The Santa Barbara Historical Society Museum (136 E. De la Guerra St.; tel. 1 805 966 1601; www.santabarbaramuseum.com), a short stroll away, displays iron treasure chests from Spanish explorers, silver saddles from the rancho period, and a golden altar from old Chinatown. Material from Santa Barbara's Flying A Studio, which pioneered moviemaking around 1913 and became the then-largest studio in the world, includes an early Bell-and-Howell motion picture camera.
A charming holdover from earlier days is the nearby 1920s shopping arcade called El Paseo (State and De la Guerra Sts.), which calls to mind a street in Spain. Passages wind among shops built around the adobe 1828 Casa de la Guerra (closed to the public), the home of the Spanish military commander and the center of Santa Barbara's surprisingly refined society of the 1820s.
Now turn toward the city's waterfront, where Stearns Wharf (foot of State St.) ranks as the oldest wharf operating on the West Coast (1872). Like any self-respecting pier, it has a bait shop and a gypsy palm reader; also, restaurants and shops. The Ty Warner Sea Center (211 Stearns Wharf; tel. 1 805 962 2526; www.sbnature.org/seacenter) displays a model whale and tanks of live marine animals, giving you a glimpse (and sometimes a feel) of what's underwater in the Santa Barbara Channel.
Santa Barbara Harbor is both a yacht basin and home to a commercial fishing fleet. Inhale the waterfront smells of boiling crabs, diesel fuel, and salt spray; walk to the end of the breakwater for a memorable view of the ocean, mountains, and town. Whale-watching trips (Sea Landing; tel. 1 805 963 3564; www.sealanding.net) seek blue whales and humpbacks June through September, and gray whales December through May.
Just east of the wharf you'll find East Beach—the most popular of Santa Barbara's five miles (eight kilometers) of beaches. Here, volleyball players dive for impossible shots, in-line skaters zip along the bike path, and teens hang out at the snack bar.
The First Loop
Leave Santa Barbara on US 101 North, passing El Capitan, Refugio, and Gaviota beaches before the route turns inland. At Gaviota Pass the surroundings change from coastal grasslands to chaparral with sycamore trees. A few miles north of the junction with Calif. 1, a side trip leads to Nojoqui Falls County Park (Old Coast Hwy. to Alisal Rd.; tel. 1 805 934 6123), which cascades—or trickles, depending on the season—down a cliff draped in maidenhair ferns.
Backtrack to Calif. 1 and head north through rolling hills sprinkled with oaks and cows to Lompoc. Nicknamed the Valley of the Flowers, this region produces much of the world's flower seeds. In June and July hundreds of acres bloom with larkspur, delphinium, alyssum, and marigolds. Roll down your car window to catch the heavenly fragrance of sweet peas.
La Purísima Mission State Historic Park
Calif. 246 leads east to La Purísima Mission State Historic Park (2295 Purisima Rd.; tel. 1 805 733 3713; www.lapurisimamission.org). No other California mission so hauntingly evokes the era of the Spanish padres. Situated in the hills beyond sight of modern life, the perfectly restored mission has a painted church, workshops, residences, fountains, and gardens. Ask about the living history events.
The Danish Look
Keep going to Solvang, a quaint village that capitalized on its founding by Danes in 1911 by later adopting a Danish look to attract tourists. It's all half-timbered architecture, clock towers, fluttering flags, Scandinavian bakeries, and gift shops. The Hans Christian Andersen Museum (1680 Mission Dr.; tel. 1 805 688 2052) has displays on the Danish writer's life and first editions of his work. On the town's east side stands the Old Mission Santa Inés (1760 Mission Dr., Solvang; tel. 1 805 688 4815; www.missionsantaines.org), whose museum displays old crucifixes, musical instruments, and fine 16th-century vestments.
Santa Ynez Valley
Drive on into the Santa Ynez Valley, where horse ranchers raise Arabians, Andalusians, paints, and Icelandics. Miniature horses, no taller than 34 inches (86 centimeters), roam Quicksilver Ranch (1555 Alamo Pintado Rd., near Solvang; tel. 1 805 686 4002; qsminis.com). Numerous wineries throughout the valley offer tours and tastings, notably of Chardonnay (winery map available at Santa Barbara County Vintners' Assoc., 3669 Sagunto St., Santa Ynez; tel. 1 805 688 0881; www.sbcountywines.com).
Stop at tiny Santa Ynez and mosey past false-fronted buildings that look like sets for a cowboy movie. A Wells Fargo stagecoach and other rolling antiques are parked at the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Society Museum and Carriage House (3596 Sagunto St., Santa Ynez; tel. 1 805 688 7889; www.santaynezmuseum.org). See Chumash and pioneer artifacts, plus an 1895 jailhouse whose inmates were sometimes allowed to "escape" at night, returning in the morning.
Now drive Calif. 154 toward Santa Barbara. You'll pass Cachuma Lake Recreation Area (tel. 1 805 686 5054), a liquid blue mirage amid the dry hills. It offers fishing, boating, and camping, but no swimming (the lake is residential drinking water). In summer a naturalist guides boat tours to view ospreys, deer, great blue herons, and turtles.
After cresting the Santa Ynez Mountains, detour into history at Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park (two miles east on Painted Cave Rd.; tel. 1 805 733 3713; www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=602), where more than two centuries ago Chumash Indian shamans painted pictographs on cave walls, probably for religious use. Yet no one knows the meaning of the wheels and other colorful but fading symbols.
The Second Loop
- Nat Geo Expeditions
The drive returns to Santa Barbara and commences the second loop, heading south on US 101. Just east of town lies Montecito, a residential enclave where millionaires and movie stars dwell on estates built around the turn of the century. Drive along the lanes to see Tudor mansions, Spanish haciendas, and Italian villas.
About 20 miles (32 kilometers) farther along US 101 lies Ventura. Downtown, history buffs will enjoy the small San Buenaventura Mission and Museum (211 E. Main St., Ventura; 1 805 643 4318), founded by Padre Junípero Serra in 1782. The nearby Ventura County Museum of History and Art (89 S. California St., Ventura; tel. 1 805 653 0323; www.venturamuseum.org) has miniature costumed historical figures, Chumash artifacts, and early agricultural machines.
At Ventura Harbor is the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center (1901 Spinnaker Dr. Ventura; tel. 1 805 658 5730; www.nps.gov/chis/planyourvisit/visitorcenters.htm), whose tide pool display and other exhibits focus on the park's five islands—Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara—and the surrounding marine sanctuary. Take a day or overnight excursion to Channel Islands National Park (Island Packers Cruises, 1691 Spinnaker Dr., Ventura; tel. 1 805 642 1393; www.islandpackers.com) to hike, camp, kayak, scuba dive, and view sea lions and indigenous foxes. You'll discover a world that hints of California in the early 1800s. In season, whale-watching boats head out to view blue, humpback, and gray whales.
Now follow Calif. 33 north to the Ojai Valley town of Ojai, long a center for the metaphysically inclined. In an old chapel downtown, the Ojai Valley Museum (130 W. Ojai Ave., Ojai; tel. 1 805 640 1390, www.ojaivalleymuseum.org) displays the artifacts of Chumash Indians and early settlers. A nearby local institution is Bart's Books (302 W. Matilija St., Ojai; tel. 1 805 646 3755; www.bartsbooksojai.com), a rambling shop with an honor system for after-hours customers; simply choose a book from the outside shelves and drop the money through a door slot.
Be sure to explore the Ojai Valley's east end: With its palm-lined lanes and citrus groves set against the mountains, the scene looks like a vintage orange-crate label. The Krishnamurti Library (1098 McAndrew Rd., Ojai; tel. 1 805 646 2390; www.kfa.org) has books and CDs of renowned Indian spiritual figure Jiddu Krishnamurti, who lived on and off for more than six decades in this 1895 California ranch house.
To finish the drive, take scenic Calif. 150 past Lake Casitas, popular with fishermen and boaters, then across mountains of sandstone and chaparral. On reaching US 101, swing north to Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara Conference and Visitors Bureau (tel. 1 805 966 9222; www.santabarbaraca.com); Lompoc Valley Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau (tel. 1 805 736 4567 or 800 240 0999; www.lompoc.com); Santa Ynez Valley Visitors Association (tel. 1 805 686 0053 or 800 742 2843; www.syvva.com). Solvang Visitors Bureau (tel. 1 805 688 6144 or 800 468 6765; www.solvangusa.com); Ventura Convention and Visitors Bureau (tel. 1 805 648 2075 or 800 483 6214; www.ventura-usa.com); Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce (tel. 1 805 646 8126; www.ojaichamber.org).
—Text by Jerry Camarillo Dunn, Jr., adapted from National Geographic's Driving Guides to America