This is a long loop that I probably do more than any other. Linking the lower and upper Santa Ynez River canyons and skirting the edge of the Dick Smith Wilderness, the route passes through almost every type of country that I like. Along the way you can enjoy the historic Sunbird Quicksilver Mine, the quiet beauty of the upper Santa Ynez River canyon, excellent single-track riding on the Gibraltar and Mono trails, a dip (or incredibly exciting slide down the face) in the pool at Mono Debris Dam, or a hot tub in the relaxing waters of Little Caliente Hot Springs. If you are properly outfitted, this makes for a nice overnight trip.
Start at Lower Oso picnic area, which is 5 miles east of Highway 154, and just across the first stream crossing in the Santa Ynez River.
Expectations for Riding the Santa Barbara Area Trails
Country trails are multi-use trails and as such are used by several thousand users each week. If you are riding downhill on these trails, expect to encounter them on your way. Your cooperation will help make everyone's experience a safe and pleasant one.
Ten things every mountain biker who rides the front country trails is expected to do:
From Lower Oso, ride five miles on pavement to the Red Rock parking area and from there follow directions for the Gibraltar Trail ride (#10). Once you are near the end of Gibraltar Trail, notice the thick cottonwoods that you can see at the mouth of Mono Creek. This is where you’ll be heading. Near the Forbush Flats intersection the trail is somewhat washed out, so please take care.
At the intersection, head downstream. (If you go up the Forbush Trail you’ll push almost all the way to the crest). It is just over a half-mile of single tracking down to the Santa Ynez River. The route here isn’t obvious. Turn left and go downriver about fifty yards. You should see the trail leading across the river (actually just a small stream most of the time). You can probably ride across the river, but if you prefer to make sure your shoes and socks stay dry, take them off first.
On the other side this incredibly beautiful path turns into the Mono Trail, and leads through a half-mile of riparian vegetation to Mono Creek. The 1.5-mile ride up the creek winds through the clusters of cottonwoods seen from above, so thick that they form a tunnel of greenery. The trail ends at Mono Campground, an open area situated in a scattering of huge oak trees near the base of Mono Debris Dam.
The dam was built in the 1930s after a huge wildfire (the 232,000-acre Matilija Fire) burned from Ventura into many of the drainages upstream from Gibraltar Dam. Several debris dams were built to check the flow of sediment. Mono Debris Dam was silted in by 1938, just two years after its construction. Ironically, the rich silt left above and just below the dam provided an excellent habitat for cottonwoods and willows and the least Bell’s vireo, a small bird now on the Endangered Species List. The bird has kept the city of Santa Barbara from raising the level of Gibraltar Dam.
This is a nice place for lunch. Walk your bike the fifty yards to the water hole and stop for a dip. If water is running down the front of the dam, the truly hardcore will also take time to climb the rope leading to the top and then slide back down into the pool. The drop is eighty feet and is as steep as anything you’ll find at Magic Mountain. One caution: wear rugged shorts. The stretch fabric in bike pants wears out fast.
A short connector leads out to Pendola Road. Turn left and ride along it through open meadows. In a half-mile look for a road leading to the right. This leads up the Mono Creek drainage to Little Caliente Hot Springs, which are actually not that hot but thoroughly wonderful anyway, especially in the spring when the view from this natural hot tub is of hills filled with wildflowers.
Return back to Pendola Road and continue up it. It crosses Mono Creek—where you will find a locked gate—and then within a few yards begins to follow Indian Creek, crossing it several times. In a mile, look for the Indian Creek trailhead on the right. I usually ride up the trail just a bit to a small check dam and replenish my water supply. I’ve used this source a lot and never had problems, but to be cautious, I would recommend treating the water before drinking it.
Just beyond the trailhead you’ll find another locked gate across the road. For the first mile Camuesa Road rises steadily, and you will gain about 300 feet, then in the next mile you drop down into Camuesa Canyon. The downhill is fun, but unfortunately you lose everything you just gained. The next three miles involve fairly easy but steady uphill riding through oak meadows and short, narrow, and pretty canyons. Middle Camuesa Campground is 5.6 miles along the way. Beyond it the road leads through a long, thin meadow for a mile, then turns left and ascends out of the canyon. In a mile you come to a high point from which you can see the Camuesa–Buckhorn intersection.
From the high point, several short drops and climbs lead to Buckhorn Road, and from there it is all downhill.