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36 Hours: Exploring the Santa Ynez Valley

So you’ve got 36 hours to spend in the Santa Ynez Valley, and while you know about Solvang, the wineries and the tasting rooms, there’s got to be more to do. Right?

Right! Located in the northern end of Santa Barbara County, Solvang and the surrounding towns of Santa Ynez, Ballard, Los Olivos, Buellton, Lompoc and Los Alamos are jumping off point for outdoor activities from road bike riding, mountain bike riding, surfing, hiking, camping, horseback riding, and yes, winetasting.

The Santa Ynez Valley offers access to the trails of Los Padres National Forest and beaches such as Jalama. Within the towns and just outside, there are all types of opportunities for exploration: The Quicksilver Miniature Horse Ranch in Solvang, Mendenhall Museum of Gasoline & Petroliana in Buellton, or a walking tour of Lompoc’s downtown murals.

Each place offers something a little different and if you only have 36 hours to spend before you’re off to somewhere else, you can pack a lot of activity in that short amount of time.

Here is a sampling of places to visit and activities to experience on your 36 hour adventure in Santa Ynez Valley.

And, although it is almost cliché these days, there’s wine tasting and interesting restaurants that go beyond the average fare found in most destination areas.

Photo 0349 rolling hills around Santa Ynez Valley
Under cloudy skies the green hills surrounding the Santa Ynez Valley

Santa Ynez

Santa Ynez is only 4 miles from Solvang along Mission Dr. (aka Highway 246), with the exception of one little hill getting back to Solvang, a simple bike ride.

Named after Mission Santa Inés’ patron saint, the town boasts a high-end resort in the Chumash Casino and Resort and a small vintage downtown with Old West charm. The town is a haven with boutiques to delight the most discriminating shopper.

There are horseback riding companies that operate out of Santa Ynez and take tourists on riding and tasting tours. One of these is The Little Big Riding School, which offers lessons and tours.

Eats

For a low-key experience, Santa Ynez has tasting rooms off the beaten path—park once and enjoy a taste or two, then walk to Dos Carlitos Restaurant & Tequila Bar for some exceptional botanas, carne and pescado dishes, along with an extensive collection of tequila.

Photo 1769 Dr. J's Bicycle Shop, Solvang, Calif.
Dr. J's Bicycle Shop's website has local bike rides

Solvang

A bit like a theme park in these Central California hills, this Danish confection town offers a way station, whether you are heading north or taking a detour before you hit Santa Barbara.

The town’s bike shop, Dr. J’s Bike Shop has rides with cue sheets and maps on its website for DIY bikers who want to explore the roads around the Santa Ynez Valley.

For fans of the early-2000s movie Sideways, there are two bike rides: Sideways Bicycle Ride via Los Olivos, and Sideways Bicycle Ride via Lompoc. The former ride is a little more challenging than the latter, as it takes riders from Los Olivos out the windy and hilly Foxen Canyon Rd.

Along both routes riders experience several of the tasting rooms that made an appearance in the movie. Whether you taste and ride or just ride, these routes do showcase the rural charm that makes up the Santa Ynez Valley.

Eats

Cecco Ristorante offers casual dining with fresh ingredients: pastas, salads, Neapolitan-style pizzas. On a warm summer night, the outdoor patio is comfortable and cozy.

Buellton

The town is an easy four miles from Solvang along Highway 246, in the opposite direction of Los Olivos.

Off the bike, you’ll not find a more off-beat collection of items than at the Mendenhall Museum of Gasoline & Petroliana. Behind a high wall on Zaca St., the museum beckons with race cars, vintage gas signs, antique gas pumps. It’s a shrine to a time when there was beauty in roadside and neon-lit gas signs, when gas companies used prizes and promotional items to entice people to spend money on their gas and products.

Photo 3340 Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co.
Shiny tanks of brew at Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co.

Eats

Buellton is making its name as a foodie haven, with eateries such as Industrial Eats. It also is the home of Figuroa Mountain Brewing Co.'s original tap room. With tables set around the tanks and outdoor seating, Figueroa Mountain Brewing has a comfortable vibe for people and their families to come, eat, listen to live music, catch a game on one of the many monitors or just sit in the comfortable adirondack chairs and watch the stars, sipping one of Fig Mountain’s excellent brews.

Lompoc

The town of Lompoc is an interesting one—it butts up to Vandenberg Air Force Base and it appears to be growing along the length of the base. There is a cute downtown with vintage buildings and houses, then to the north, several large developments with big box stores.

Since we can visit big box stores and housing developments at anytime where we live, we concentrate our stays near Lompoc’s downtown.

The town is also a jumping off point to go down the coast to Jalama Beach for surfing. This Santa Barbara County-controlled park is located off Highway 1 about a half hour by car out of Lompoc. Surfers who know recommend getting out early due to the winds that come up by mid-morning. If you are riding your bike, you definitely want to get on the road early before cars start crowding the road from Highway 1 to the beach.

Photo 3273 Mural in the restroom of Southside Coffee Company, Lompoc
City of murals: Even the restroom of South Side Coffee Company has a mural on the wall!

Eats

We always stop for a coffee and a nosh at the South Side Coffee Company. These folks offer good coffee and light breakfast fare: bagels, breakfast burritos, egg sandwiches, scones. The comfortable chairs make it easy to sit and peruse a newspaper while you sip a latte or surf the web via the free wifi.

Ballard

With a population of around 500, Ballard is the smallest town in the area. There are tasting rooms off Alamo Pintado Rd., through which you pass by Ballard. Ballard also is the home what is now known as the Ballard School, a landmark that is still a school and has been since 1883.

Eats

Ballard Inn & Restaurant offers an cozy elegant experience in an intimate setting—there are only 12 tables! The menu features Asian-inspired California cuisine and an extensive list of local wines. The menu changes frequently based on the availability of ingredients.

Los Olivos

Looking down on the town of Los Olivos, is the iconic mountaintop, Figueroa Mountain. Located in Los Padres National Forest in the San Rafael Mountains, it dominates the skyline to Los Olivos’ northeast at 4,534 feet. It also poses hillclimbing challenges for experienced road bike riders. From Highway 154 in Los Olivos, riders head northeast to Figueroa Mountain Rd. in about 11 miles. Once they start the climb, they will be challenged with steep climbing and a narrowing road. The reward is the lookout with spectacular views of the Santa Ynez Valley and the undulating hills that make up the various AVAs of the area. For those who would rather drive, there are picnic areas and places to camp, if you are interested in spending more time.

Eats

Back in town, entrés, sandwiches, roasted vegetables, salads, charcuterie plates, you name it, are on offer at Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café. A nice list of local wines augments the food offerings at this eaterie in downtown Los Olivos.

With these few suggestions, you’ll find reasons to keep coming back to the Santa Ynez Valley, even if you have more than 36 hours to spend!

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