Santa Barbara will soon say hello to a new Gibraltar Road. For the first time since the 1940s, the notoriously steep mountain passage is scheduled for a full repaving.
Though the six weeks of work between April 13 and May 20 will temporarily halt the cyclists, hang gliders, and rock climbers who chance its patchy pavement for access to world-class sporting, county officials and longtime recreationalists agree the famous route is due for some serious repair.
“Gibraltar doesn’t get a lot of love,” said project manager Charlie Elbert on a recent tour. As we climbed the 7 percent grade, the pavement thinned dramatically the closer we neared its crest at Angostura Pass. “It’s like a quilt,” Elbert said of the uneven road, where parts are “ground to nothing but dirt.”
Built in the 1930s with New Deal funds, Gibraltar Road was formerly known as Depression Drive. Santa Barbara County came to possess it via a 1947 contract with the U.S. Forest Service, which maintains the dirt spur roads to Gibraltar Dam and eastward to Divide Peak. According to Rosario Curletti in Pathways to Pavements, the name Gibraltar comes from the Arabic words “gebel al Tarik,” referring to the “Pillars of Hercules” that mark the end of the known Mediterranean world of old.
Straddling populated foothills and remote forest, Gibraltar is indeed one of the furthest ends of Santa Barbara civilization, and it is just past the mileage sign on the border of Los Padres where county maintenance funding had, until recently, petered out. The county performed preventative resurfacing over the decades but lacked the money to give it a full refurb. “We don’t have enough funding for all our roads,” Elbert said, alluding to the county’s $200 million road maintenance backlog.
In 2013, however, the Federal Highway Administration put out a call for projects for its new Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century program, wherein local governments could receive funding for transportation initiatives located on federal lands. Santa Barbara successfully applied to have Gibraltar and Painted Cave roads redone as a joint $4.6 million venture, and agreed to match 20 percemt of the funding.
“It’s been painless, a breath of fresh air,” Elbert said of the program. “This great opportunity wouldn’t be possible without the grant.” The county has already sent out another application for repaving along Figueroa Mountain and Happy Canyon roads.
Typically, Santa Barbara partners with Caltrans for major road projects, like the construction of Gibraltar retaining walls following a 2005 storm washout, which were later reinforced in 2011 after a scorching by wildfire. Along with erosion and rockfall, the road has seen a number of facelifts over its history.
Fossilized ocean ripples on sandstone near Flores Flat tell the tale of the Santa Ynez Mountains’ previously undersea life, before the San Andreas Fault vaulted the seafloor heavenward 5 million years ago. Evidence of its human history, however, is surprisingly scant. Like other mountain roads in the region, it may have first existed as a Chumash foot trail before the Spaniards arrived, but research has so far not yielded any definitive proof.
In 1869, Anastacio Flores purchased a large rancho in the region, with his sons Carlos and José further subdividing the land over the ensuing decades. In 1901, José sectioned off 160 acres on the mountainside near present day Gibraltar and Camino Cielo, and the site of his cabin became present-day Flores Flats. In the late 1920s, David C. Williams established 600 lots on the 184 acres he called Mission Canyon Heights, and neighborhoods followed.
After Gibraltar Road’s Depression-era development, the area attracted a variety of free spirits. In the 1940s, Bobby and Floppy Hyde purchased land on nearby East Mountain Drive in Montecito, where they welcomed creative and counter-cultural souls to their bacchanalian commune. In 1970, the Brotherhood of the Sun established their first communal farm on Gibraltar Road, but like other utopian societies of their time, the Brotherhood eventually descended into paranoia and disillusionment. In the ’60s and ’70s, Gibraltar also provided access to El Roca Grande, which was “The Place, if you were a teenager on a Saturday night,” as Neal Graffy writes in Santa Barbara Then and Now.
Nowadays, most parties on Gibraltar follow the finish of a big athletic event, such as the Pier to Peak half marathon. The Santa Barbara Century cycling race travels up Gibraltar before rolling down Painted Cave and Old San Marcos Road.
“Gibraltar Road is an iconic ride in the South Coast of Santa Barbara and is often referred to as our ‘Alpe d’Huez’ [after one of the most famous climbs in the Tour de France],” said Kalon Kelley of the Santa Barbara Century. “It has been used as the training ground for professional cycling teams and is regarded as the best major hill climb in the South Coast by both serious and recreational cyclists.”
Rising more than 3,000 feet in just under seven miles, the road is a strenuous climb. The fastest ascent on record is 29 minutes, said Dave Lettieri of Fastrack Bicycles, but it’s the going down that may be tougher. “It definitely tests your skills on the way down. It’s a little dangerous to try to grind corners with potholes,” he said. “I hope people still pay attention when it’s smooth.”
The nine miles of road will remain open for residents during construction; the county counts 15 separate properties along the stretch. Elbert fears cyclists and other sporting types may continue to use the road despite the closures. “The mountain bikers will see it as a challenge. But when you start intermixing bikes and cars, that’s when it gets dangerous,” he said. In 2006, a UCSB cyclist was killed when she was struck by an asphalt truck delivering supplies to Forest Service crews.
The new road will not require any maintenance for the next 20 years, Elbert said. This will mean a higher quality ride for all, motorists and cyclists alike. “Once we’re done, it’s going to be pretty incredible,” he said.