Though entirely along a dirt road, this ride provides views over both the San Rafael Wilderness and the Santa Ynez Valley. The road follows a long ridge leading to the wilderness’s namesake—6,593-foot San Rafael Mountain. In the winter months when it is clear, you can see the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas from the ridge. The ultimate adventure is to ride to McKinley Saddle and from there hike the remaining two miles to the top of San Rafael Peak.
Turn right on Armour Ranch Road, immediately after Highway 154 crosses the Santa Ynez River. Follow it a mile to Happy Canyon Road, turn right, and continue on Happy Canyon Road 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.
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:
By its name, 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 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 three-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 of the Santa Ynez Valley and the Channel Islands. The next two 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 sea, looking far larger than they really are.
Continuing beyond this open meadow turns the ride from relatively moderate to a hard-core adventure. The road drops slightly to a saddle and across the backside of a hill that 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 here the road begins to climb steeply. This “section from hell” begins at the base of a series of impressive sandstone cliffs leading 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 backside 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 seven-mile mile point. There is a small table there and maybe water, though you can’t count on it. The saddle is an additional two miles. It is a round, flat ,open dirt area, with not much to recommend it other than that you can climb from there to the top of either McKinley Mountain or San Rafael Mountain.
The 6,593-foot crest of San Rafael Mountain is two miles away, but I highly recommend the hike up to it. Though it is chaparral covered, the view 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 campground—Mission Pine Springs—is two 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.