Distance - 5 miles to Hell’s Half Acre; 7 miles to McKinley Springs; 9 miles to McKinley Saddle
Elevation - 1,300’ gain from Cachuma Saddle to Hell’s Half Acre; 1,400’ from Hell’s Half Acre to McKinley Saddle; return trip is almost all downhill
Trail Conditions - good dirt road the entire way; some of it steep
Difficulty - Moderately strenuous to very strenuous
Camping Options - McKinley Springs has water, a table and an open area beneath a canopy of bay trees
Topo - Figueroa Mountain and San Rafael Mountain
Though the entire ride is along a dirt road, it provides views out over both the San Rafael Wilderness and the Santa Ynez Valley. The road follows a long ridgeline leading to the wilderness’s namesake - 6, 593’ San Rafael Mountain. In the winter months when it is clear, you can see the snow-capped Sierras from the ridge. The ultimate adventure is to ride to McKinley Saddle and from there hike the remaining 2 miles to the top of San Rafael Peak.
Turn right on Armour Ranch Road, which is immediately after Highway 154 crosses the Santa Ynez River. Follow it a mile to Happy Canyon, turn right and continue on this for slightly more than 10 miles to Cachuma Saddle (site of Forest Service Station). The route to Hell’s Half Acre follows a dirt road starting from the east side of the saddle.
Though the trail isn’t conducive to riding it, once you reach McKinley Saddle you will be entering wilderness. Bikes are not allowed.
On the surface, Hell’s Half Acre doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of place you’d ordinarily go out of your way to visit. But the road you ride along winds up the long ridge to San Rafael Mountain and on either side of it you have lots of great views. The road isn’t too steep and is well graded, which means you can spend more time concentrating on the views and less time watching what your front wheel might be about to hit.
As you reach Cachuma Saddle, look for a large parking area opposite the ranger station. The route begins on the east side of the saddle. The first mile is the steepest as it curves around the west and north sides of a tall, pointed mountain known as Cachuma Peak. This area offers the first views out over the San Rafael Wilderness. The next 1.5 miles beyond this are only slightly uphill and continue to provide an overview of the entire wilderness.
At the 3 mile point the road cuts through a saddle on the east side of Cachuma Mountain and you shift from vistas of the back country to views out over the Santa Ynez Valley and the Channel Islands. The next 2 miles to Hell’s Half Acre are almost level. In actuality the flat meadow is probably more like Hell’s Twenty Acres - for it is much larger in size than its name would indicate. And the views are certainly not like those from Hell.
To the north you are looking directly down on Manzana Narrows and over the sandstone ledges that form the eastern edge of Hurricane Deck. On the south horizon, the Channel Islands shimmer on the horizon, looking far larger than they really are.
Continuing beyond this open meadow turns the ride from being relatively moderate to a hard core adventure. The road drops slightly down to a saddle and across the back side of a hill which still has the charred remains of hundreds of Big Cone Spruce on it. This area burned in 1966 when an airplane crash caused the Wellman Fire.
East of the road begins to climb steeply. This “section from hell” begins at the base of a series of impressive sandstone cliffs leading onto McKinley Mountain. The road is steep, loose and difficult to ride. The worst part of it is that you can see all of this part of the road from Hell’s Half Acre, meaning that you know exactly how bad it will be before you ever get there. Plan on pushing for a quarter mile or more.
Eventually you do get to a more level stretch on the back side of McKinley Mountain, though there are just enough short little hills to keep your legs from fully recovering. McKinley Springs is a small camp located at the 7 mile point. There is a small table there and may be water, though you can’t count on it. The saddle is an additional 2 miles. It is a round, flat open dirt area, with not much to recommend it other than you can climb to the top of either McKinley or San Rafael mountains from there.
The 6,593’ crest of San Rafael crest is 2 miles but I highly recommend the hike up to it. Though it is chaparral covered, the view from there is absolutely spectacular, and a short walk to the east of the peak brings you to the start of the Mission Pines and several square miles of the most enchanting sandstone and pine hideaways you will ever find. An incredibly wonderful camp - Mission Pine Springs - is 2 more miles down into this primeval wonderland.
I try to do this ride when I know there will be a full moon. The road is open and wide enough you almost don’t even need a light and this makes it possible for you to spend the entire day up on top.