California's Delight-Filled Santa Ynez Valley Road Trip

Savor California's Highway 154 as it passes through food, wine, and art of the Santa Ynez Valley.

plate of wild mushroom pappardelle at S.Y. Kitchen in Santa Ynez, Calif., picture
Wild mushroom pappardelle with thyme at S.Y. Kitchen.
Rob Stark Photography

California's Highway 154 slices through the Santa Ynez Valley and Mountains, follows a former stagecoach route south through a national forest, then switchbacks down to sea level, depositing you directly in Santa Barbara. Savor the detour, stopping along the way for picnics, pinot, and people-watching.

Los Alamos may sit at the northwest edge of the Santa Ynez Valley, the central California wine region made famous by the movie Sideways, but one of the town's biggest draws is actually a craft beer wonderland. Babi's Beer Emporium is a cheeky bar and bottle shop stocking up to 60 hard-to-find brands and pouring six more on tap, all of which can be paired with light bites such as tacos with homemade tortillas. The whole place is decked out country dollhouse–style, with blue trim and vintage signs. The tiny town has recently become an unexpected culinary hub, thanks to Bob's Well Bread Bakery, which draws devotees in with its flaky chocolate croissants.

Los Olivos is a postcard-perfect western town, its strollable main drag, Grand Avenue, lined with shops, farm stands, and tasting rooms housed in California bungalows. A row of white Adirondack chairs beckons outside Los Olivos General Store, where the Larner family sells its wine along with other wine-related goods such as cork sunglasses and wine soaps. A vintage gas pump out front pays tribute to the building's former life as a garage. Down the road, farm stand Global Gardens invites a different sort of sampling at its walk-up olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting bar.

The Wild West town Santa Ynez may be rigged with hitching posts, weathered facades, and folks sporting ten-gallon hats, but sleek S.Y. Kitchen feels decidedly modern. Diners arrive early to tuck into rustic Italian dishes such as wild mushroom pappardelle, either inside the spruced-up farmhouse or on its cozy porch. Around the corner, the Lucky Hen Larder makes a tasty pit stop for those just passing through, serving gourmet box lunches complete with house-made pickles and seasonal nut brittle. Prefer to build your own picnic? The market has you covered, with Santa Ynez jams, cheeses, breads, and olive oils.

Continue along Highway 154 and toward the Santa Ynez Mountains for a visit to Los Padres National Forest, a 3,000-square-mile wildland of pines, firs, and redwoods. The easily accessible Falls Day Use Picnic Area is the kind of spot dreams are made on: framed by fragrant oaks, sheltered by vertiginous sandstone cliffs, next to a cool emerald-green river that's just right for a post-lunch dip. Or stretch your legs on 3.75-mile Aliso Loop Trail, a shady ridge hike with views of the Santa Ynez River.

What to do in Santa Barbara? It might feel counter-intuitive to head to the industrial Funk Zone, but go anyway. The burgeoning creative hood is packed with inspiration. Take for example GraySpace, an indoor-outdoor gallery where bonsai and cacti stand alongside sculptures and canvases. A few blocks away sits Moxi, the Wolf Museum of Exploration and Innovation. The new hands-on museum invites the insatiably curious to come play, with exhibits that allow you to analyze guitar riffs, build prototype marble roller coasters, and mix colored light. And should you need refreshment, a bevy of neighborhood tasting rooms await. At the Valley Project, you can sip varietals from a selection of Santa Barbara vineyards and trace your wine's origin on the beautiful chalkboard wall map.