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 ten miles to Cachuma Saddle (site of Forest Service station). The route to McKinley Saddle follows the dirt road starting from the east side of the saddle. You will need to have a shuttle car at Upper Oso Campground.
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:
s you reach Cachuma Saddle, look for a large parking area opposite the ranger station. If you are doing the ride as a day trip I would recommend you be riding by 7 a.m. at the latest.
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. Continuing beyond this open meadow turns the ride from relatively moderate to a hard-core adventure. East of Hell’s Half Acre the road begins to climb steeply. This “section from hell” begins at the base of a series of impressive sandstone cliffs leading up 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 point. This is a good spot to stop for the night if you are camping out, though staying here means you will have a very long second day’s ride.
McKinley Saddle is an additional two miles. It is a round, flat open dirt area, with not much to recommend it other than the views. Backpackers take the trail leading straight up the ridge to San Rafael Mountain.
Finding the start of the Santa Cruz Fire Road will take a little bit of reconnaissance. It is on the south side of the saddle and is just open enough to negotiate on your bike. Looking across the canyon, you can see the fire road heading across the frontside of San Rafael Mountain and to a ridge leading in the direction of Santa Cruz Peak. Beyond this the road drops steeply down into the Santa Cruz Creek drainage.
This is the point where you need to decide if you really can make the rest of this ride. If you are out for the day, you should be at this point by 11 a.m. and your legs should still feel fresh. You’ll need a minimum of three hours to make it to Santa Cruz Campground and another two to three hours for the 2,000-foot climb to Alexander Saddle. My recommendation if you’ve been dropped off at Cachuma Saddle is to have a cell phone along with you so you can make arrangements for your driver to come back for you if need be.
Once you start down the fire road you are more or less committed. (Some would say you should be committed for even trying this ride). In the first half-mile you lose 800 feet of elevation as you drop down into the upper end of Peachtree Canyon. Then you regain it it all as you climb up across the south face of San Rafael Mountain onto Santa Cruz Ridge.
Once you are on the ridge the next several miles have short rises and gains, but in general the fire road leads gradually downhill around the north side of Santa Cruz Peak until you are on its east flank. From there it is four miles and 2,500 feet of screaming descent down to Santa Cruz Trail and another 900 feet of downhill to Santa Cruz Campground. This is a beautiful camp and my recommendation for the evening’s layover. The creek is one of Santa Barbara County’s prettiest ,and the swimming hole downstream from the camp is very nice.
The first mile of the climb out of Santa Cruz Canyon on the trail is the hardest. The trail switches back and forth on the north side of a steep ridge. (Fortunately, most of this is in the shade). The gain is almost 800 feet. You will most likely push quite a bit of this, but once you reach the top of the switchbacks and turn the corner, the riding gets much easier. It is 3.2 miles to Little Pine Springs, and the gain is about the same as the last leg, which means the grade is about three times as gentle. You’ll appreciate this.
Little Pine Springs is down a very rough trail. The drop is about 200 feet to this small and very pretty camp, but you will definitely want to make the side trip to replenish water and rest in the shade of the oaks.
From the springs to Alexander Saddle is just over a mile and a 250-foot elevation gain, the last you will have to do before the long downhill single-track ride to Upper Oso. If you’ve made it this far, you are almost there. Most likely, by this point you will also be very tired. Take your time and don’t rush the downhill. There are several sections with a lot of exposure, and this is not the time to ruin what otherwise might be the biggest ride of your life.