From Lower Oso picnic area, follow the spur road leading to Upper Oso, a distance of 1 mile.
Plan on meeting mountain bikers coming down the trail from the trop of Little Pine Mountain. The Lower Santa Ynez Recreation Area ends shortly after you leave the dirt road and start up the single track trail. Hunting is allowed outside the recreation area and last year an off-leash dog was killed by a hunter on this trail.
You’re looking for a long hike. One that will challenge you a bit. You want views—loads of them—and you’re willing to pay the price. And perhaps you are a little tired of the chaparral and would like a change of scenery. Then the Santa Cruz Trail is for you.
A dirt road, known as the Buckhorn Road, leads from Upper Oso to the high country and is the easiest way to get to the start of the Santa Cruz Trail. But this is a well traveled ORV route. A nicer way to get there is by a little known trail leading directly up the canyon from the horse corrals on the west side of the creek. Though you will still hear the sound of an occasional motorcycle, at least you won’t have to worry about running into one of them.
From the upper end of the campground look for the road that crosses Oso Creek. The trail—which is three-fourths mile long—is just beyond the corrals. Immediately you are in the Oso Narrows. Sandstone walls rise up on either side and the creek zigzags back and forth through lush vegetation, with the trail crossing and re-crossing the creek numerous times before intersecting with the Santa Cruz Trail. From this point the trail is almost level, following the right side of the creek for a mile to Nineteen Oaks.
In the early morning, the lower canyon is still cool, and this is a good time to be on the trail. Above Nineteen Oaks, the trail crosses the creek and ascends through serpentine soils to a prominent ridgeline. From here the trail leads steadily uphill to the peak.
Up on the ridgeline, the sun finally beginning to peak over the shoulder of Little Pine Mountain, the hills become alive in the morning light. You continue on through oak meadows and grass and finally into the chaparral. Steadily you continue up the left side of the ridge, with switchbacks on the steeper sections. Finally you come to a saddle where the ridge ends—the halfway point in elevation gain.
From here you begin to work your way west across the face of the mountain. The trail winds in and out of small creases, then opening onto a large meadow at the base of the upper slope of Little Pine. The grass is deep, 3 to 4 high, and after the relentless climb to this point, adds just the right touch. Mustard and wild radish provide a yellow and violet contrast to the colorful grasses. If you are quiet on the way back down you may spot a deer or two grazing here.
Three-quarters of a mile later you’re there—at Alexander Saddle, which marks the high point on the trail. Alexander Peak is a half-mile to the west and 150’ in elevation gain above the saddle. The ridge leading to it is thin, and overlooks the upper part of Santa Cruz Creek. Beyond is the high country of the San Rafael Wilderness.
The crest of Little Pine Mountain is still above you. A mile’s hike on a spur trail takes you up the last 400’ in elevation gain to the summit. The views are stupendous—well worth the effort. Sitting back against one of the many pine trees you can finally relax and soak in the sights—the Channel Islands, Lake Cachuma, the entire Santa Ynez Valley.
Tucked in a small valley just north of the summit you’ll discover a second treat—Happy Hollow. A small niche that has just the right combination of environmental conditions for them, Yellow and Jeffrey pines and Kellogg Oak trees create a very special setting for the camp that is situated there.
It is a place I try to come at least once each spring and every winter. Just after a big January or February storm, the hollow is usually filled with snow and is a great place for a humorous snow-ball fight. I’ve even been known to hike my cross country skis in here.
A note though—when it’s wet, this isn’t a trail you want to be on. The serpentine soil creates a sole-sticking mud that clumps up and makes the hiking an exercise in cursing. You’ll feel like you’ve gained 2” in height and 10 pounds in weight. To get to the top after a winter storm you need to start about 7am when the ground is still frozen.