PLEASE NOTE: the ride over Little Pine is currently closed due to the impacts of the Zaca Fire. This may change in the Spring 2008. More info is needed on the upper Santa Cruz Trail. Fire damage may have made the upper mile of the trail difficult to ride.
Elevation Gain-3300 feet
Trail Conditions-Dirt road all the way to the top; Santa Cruz Trail is in very good shape with some shale slumps you will have to walk
Difficulty-Strenuous. Level 2 single track most of the way back on the Santa Cruz Trail, with a Level 3 section from Happy Hollow down to Alexander Saddle and some big time exposure on the first half mile down the trail from the saddle; walk anything which makes you nervous.
Topo-San Marcos Pass and Little Pine Mountain
This is the premier ride in the upper Santa Ynez Valley. Incredible views, secluded stands of pine atop Little Pine Mountain, and an exhilarating ride back down make this one of the most worthwhile rides in Santa Barbara County. However, its 3300’ elevation gain demands that you be in pretty good physical shape to enjoy it all the way up. Along the way you will find a host of trails and connector roads, which provide numerous loop possibilities and the best, most challenging riding anywhere in Santa Barbara County.
From Lower Oso picnic area, turn left and follow the spur road leading a mile to Upper Oso.
If you return on the trail once you drop down to Alexander Saddle DO NOT turn right and take the trail down to Santa Cruz Station by accident. It is an easy ride down to Santa Cruz Creek and a long ways back up. The Little Pine road is open to ORV use. You should be alert for their presence. The Santa Cruz Trail is used extensively by equestrian groups. Assume a rider is just around each corner. If necessary, dismount from your bike and ask the horse rider what he/she would like you to do.
A dirt road-the Buckhorn Road-leads to the top of Little Pine. The first .75 mile leads through the shaded beauty of Oso Canyon, gradually gaining elevation and providing an easy way to stretch out you legs. The canyon walls are narrow, looming almost directly overhead, the formation composed of Matilija Sandstone, the same as at the top of La Cumbre Peak.
At the three-quarter mile mark, Santa Cruz Trail leads off to the left. From here the road ascends rapidly up a series of switchbacks. Though only a mile in length, they never seem to end. Beyond here the road cuts up and around the left side of a large peak, providing shade for the next mile, to a large open grass meadow where Camuesa Connector trail begins.
From here the route follows a long ridgeline past the Old Mine Road, then goes west around another peak to its intersection with Camuesa Road, which marks the halfway point to Little Pine Mountain.
Fortunately the next mile is almost level, at one place dropping down several hundred feet to a small saddle. At this point the crux of the ride begins as the road begins to rise steeply again. Several switchbacks lead to the Chalk Bluffs and from there you’ve got a half-mile of effort ahead of you-a tortuous half mile. The road is more a series of staircases than a steady uphill grind, with short almost level sections followed by steep little hills.
Around the corner a treat awaits you. The road is almost level for a half mile and then begins to wind up through a series of gradual climbs over the eastern shoulder of Little Pine that give your aching legs a needed rest. Monterey Shale dominates this part of the mountain, as well as the mountain crest. It weathers to a rich, loamy soil that supports an abundance of grass and huge fields of golden poppies, lupine, goldfields, cream cups and other wildflowers in the springtime.
On the top of the shoulder, Buckhorn Trail leads off to the right. A mile further (a last steep section), a water tank marks the turnoff that leads to the top of the mountain. Though it is 2 miles long, the road is gradual, an easy climb after what you’ve already encountered, at first through manzanita forests, then near the top thick clusters of pines.
The road leads down into Happy Hollow, a large depression that looks like the inner core of an extinct volcano. The pine forests surrounding the small camp area make it seem like a piece of heaven. Just to the south a short climb brings you to the summit of Little Pine, a rounded, grass-covered mound that opens onto fabulous views of the entire Santa Ynez Valley complex, the Santa Ynez Mountains, and beyond them the Channel Islands. This view alone makes the ride a rewarding one.
From here, a short, very steep spur trail leads down to Alexander Saddle where you will find the Santa Cruz Trail. The ride down to the saddle is steep, loose and it is easy to fall. Unless your riding skills are top notch, you should walk this section. Once you are at the saddle, the route back down on the Santa Cruz Trail is 7 miles of incredible single tracking, eventually coming back out on the dirt road .75 miles from Upper Oso. The first several miles are breathtaking, with lots of exposure so you will need to concentrate on your riding. I stop a lot and enjoy the views rather than trying to catch a glimpse while I am on the move.
Once you are past the shale hills the trail drops down several switchbacks and then follows a long ridgeline which takes you away from Little Pine and out onto a spur looking down into the various forks of Oso canyon. A final drop down across a series of grass-covered hills and serpentine outcroppings brings you to the creek.
From here you’ll have a mile of excellent single track along the creek to the Little Pine road, then three-fourths mile of cruising on it back to Upper Oso. Please be extremely cautious along this section because it is very popular with both hikers and equestrian groups.