7 Toughest Outdoor Adventures in Santa Barbara

The view from Gibraltar Road, which challenges cyclists with one of the more difficult climbs in the state.
The view from Gibraltar Road, which challenges cyclists with one of the more difficult climbs in the state. Jonathan Creighton
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Santa Barbara may be a beach city perfect for lounging and relaxing. But if you’re the more active type, willing to go off the beaten path (literally) and seek the wilder side, then you can experience some of the most epic adventures of your life here, too. Whether it’s trekking along the many sprawling trails within the Santa Ynez Mountains or navigating the Pacific currents, Santa Barbara meets every kind of outdoor enthusiasts needs, including these seven challenging yet thrilling adventures.

1. Cycling Gibraltar Road

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Gibraltar Road is considered one of the toughest and most scenic cycling ascents in Southern California. A total of 13 miles (6.5 miles both up and then down), the ride is steep with 2,600 feet in elevation gain and grades ranging from 7 to 15 percent. Although the climb is arduous, the feeling of accomplishment once finished and the amazing views from the highest point in Santa Barbara are worth the trek. Tip: Start at Tucker’s Grove Park for a few warm-up miles (you’ll need it) and then make your way to Gibraltar Road.

2. Surfing Campus Point in Winter

The best surf spot in Santa Barbara can be found at Campus Point near UC Santa Barbara. Campus Point is surfable all year round, but it catches the most north swells from September through March. In the winter months, the waves here can get up to 15 feet on peak days with fast, hollow, and long rides, especially during low tide. For shorter rides, yet more frequent waves, hit the top of the point for the beach break called "Depressions."

3. Climbing Gibraltar Rock

Next to Gibraltar Road is a 90- to 140-foot rock formation called Gibraltar Rock, popular for its various climbing routes (not to be mistaken for the Rock of Gibraltar in Rattlesnake Canyon). The easiest routes are along the front and south faces of the wall where many beginners can practice on bolted sport climbs. But if you’re looking for a challenge, try the southwest corner called "The Nose," an overhanging crack rated at 5.11a, or the popular 5.10a hand crack problem called “T-Crack” on the west side of the formation.

4. Hiking Jesusita Trail to Inspiration Point

Santa Barbara’s most popular hiking destination within the Santa Ynez Mountains features a 7-mile out-and-back route with about 1,400 feet of elevation gain. The hike starts at the Jesusita trailhead near the Cater Filtration Plant, transitioning between narrow singletrack and wide dirt roads. It’s also rated at moderate to difficult, and will certainly wear out your legs by the end of the hike. However, the views of Santa Barbara and the Pacific Ocean in the distance make this a one-of-a-kind experience.

5. Running Pier to Peak

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This half marathon course goes from sea level to 4,000 feet, which takes a lung-bursting, quad-burning effort to complete. It starts at the edge of Stearns Wharf in downtown and ends at La Cumbre Peak, overlooking the entire city. It’s considered one of the world’s toughest half marathon due to more than half of the course being a relentless uphill climb to the finish, except for a brief flat section at mile 11. Either run the race in early September or attempt the run solo. If running it solo, it’s a good idea to leave a shuttle vehicle at the top of the route.

6. Santa Barbara 100 Endurance Run

Take it up a notch by completing this 100-mile ultramarathon mostly run on Santa Barbara’s front-country trails. Ultrarunners will enjoy an easy-to-navigate out-and-back route comprised of both dirt and paved roads with breathtaking views of the coast. Although the race starts in downtown Santa Barbara, it’s not long before participants enter the wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest. Plus, it’s a qualifying race for the exclusive Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc race in Europe.

7. Santa Barbara Triathlon

Consisting of a 1-mile swim, 34-mile bike ride, and 10-mile run, the Santa Barbara Triathlon is a happy medium between an Olympic distance and half-Ironman distance. First, triathletes will swim parallel to the shores of East Beach, then cycle up into the hills overlooking Montecito and Carpinteria, and finally cruise along the beachfront Cabrillo bike path on foot. "Races like [the Santa Barbara Triathlon] are special for a reason," says six-time Ironman 70.3 champion Emma-Kate Lidbury. “Like all good things, you almost feel torn about spreading the word for fear you might spoil it by telling the masses.” After the race, enjoy music, refreshments, and food at the historic Cabrillo Bathhouse.

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