Bluff n' Back -

The Best Santa Barbara Mountain Biking

Ride Log
On the Ride


Difficulty: Gonzo • Paved or Dirt: Dirt Path • Mileage: 40
Elevation Gain: 4500+ ft. •

While most riders take the Little Pine Mountain turnoff and head over to Happy Hollow for the downhill ride on the Santa Cruz Trail, you will find beautiful country as well as almost complete solitude if you continue on Buckhorn Road in the direction of Bluff Camp, which makes an excellent spot for an overnight camping trip.

I don’t ride beyond the turnoff to Happy Hollow too often, not because it isn’t worth it, but because I just love the day loop over Little Pine Mountain and down the Santa Cruz Trail. Often, though, I do make the entire trip across the corridor from Cuyama to Upper Oso, and I rarely fail to spot a group or two on their way up toward Bluff Camp.

Recently, I decided to head up that way myself. I got up a bit earlier than usual and was at the trailhead by 8 a.m. and up at the water tank by 11:30—plenty early to explore further. While it appears the road is heading to a much higher elevation, in actuality for the next ten miles, until you reach Bluff Camp, you are making your way up a long ridge, which leads almost due west from Big Pine Mountain. Surprisingly, Bluff Camp is only 300 feet higher elevation than the Happy Hollow turnoff.

Before you head off, thinking the ride will be a breeze, a quick reality check is in order—this ridge has lots of ups and downs. In fact, from the turnoff you’ll actually drop 250 feet before a series of 300-foot to 500-foot gains—four of them in all—before you finally make it to Bluff. The good news, however, is that the riding is much easier on the way back.

Here’s my suggestion: Ride as far as your legs feel like they will carry you comfortably, leaving yourself about three hours of daylight for the trip back. It’s beautiful country with spectacular views, and more than likely you won’t see too many other people. With the BOB trailing behind you with gear for an overnight or two, you’ll love it up at the camp. If you can carry enough food to stay for two nights, use the layover day for a trip up to Big Pine. It’s a beautiful place to explore.

Ride Details

  • Cautions : Little Pine Mountain Road is open to ORV use to a point about five miles before you reach Bluff. You should be alert for their presence. The Santa Cruz Trail is used extensively by equestrian groups. Assume a rider is just around each corner. If necessary, dismount from your bike and ask the horse rider what he or she would like you to do.
  • Use Fees : An Adventure Pass is required if you park within the Santa Ynez Recreation area.
  • Length : 20 miles from Upper Oso to Bluff Camp.
  • Gain : 2,950’ to Little Pine turnoff; ups and downs along ridge from turnoff to Bluff Campground are from 200’ to 500’ in height; approximately 1,500’ in elevation gain from turnoff to Bluff.
  • Difficulty : Strenuous to Gonzo. The good news is that it is an easy ride on the way back.
  • Path : Dirt road all the way.

Find Other Similar Trails

Difficulty: Gonzo
Points of Interests: Out & BackBackcountry CampForest Station
User Types: BackpackersOHV

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Driving Directions
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Access / Parking

 From Lower Oso picnic area, turn left and follow the spur road leading a mile to Upper Oso Campground. The ride begins at the locked gate.

Ride Log

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:

  1. Have a bike bell so other trail users know you are approaching.
  2. Keep your speed down; practice riding techniques that minimize impacts.
  3. Good braking means never having to skid. Do not lock up your brakes.
  4. Approach switchbacks with caution and brake well before you reach them.
  5. Stay on the designated tread. The front country trails are multi-use, not a race course.
  6. Ride with other trail users in mind and enhance rather than interfere with their enjoyment.
  7. Always assume there is another trail user around each corner.
  8. Yield the right-of-way to uphill trail users. Stop and dismount if necessary to allow them to pass.
  9. When approaching equestrians, dismount and ask them what they want you to do.
  10. Be courteous. Smile and say something friendly to everyone you encounter.


On The Ride

A Caution
If you return on the trail after dropping down to Alexander Saddle, do not  turn right and take the trail down to Santa Cruz Station by accident. It is an easy ride down to Santa Cruz Creek and a long way back up. Little Pine Road is open to ORV use. You should be alert for their presence. The Santa Cruz Trail is used extensively by equestrian groups. Assume a rider is just around each corner. If necessary, dismount from your bike and ask the horse rider what he or she would like you to do.

Setting the Scene
The dirt road to the top of Little Pine Mountain rises inexorably, a dozen switchbacks, then a long climb up an extended ridge brings you to its face, a sheer thousand-foot escarpment known as the Chalk Bluffs. They are composed of cream-colored shales laid down twenty million years ago, long before pressures along the nearby San Andreas Fault pushed them skyward.

Pedaling steadily, continue up more switchbacks that take you around the east side of the mountain. At a saddle at the top of the last long push, stop for a rest, a drink of water, and a moment to absorb the quiet beauty of the back country and island views on the distant horizon.

For me, this is what mountain biking is all about: the experience of nature firsthand; the opportunity to discover new places with friends; the excitement and adventure of riding; moments like this to get away from the pressures and over-regulation of urban life.

The Ride
A dirt road—Buckhorn Road—leads to the top of Little Pine Mountain. The first three-quarters mile leads through the shaded beauty of Oso Canyon, gradually gaining elevation and providing an easy way to stretch out you legs. The canyon walls are narrow, looming almost directly overhead, the formation composed of Matilija Sandstone, the same as at the top of La Cumbre Peak.

At the three-quarter-mile mark, Santa Cruz Trail leads off to the left. From here the road ascends rapidly up a series of switchbacks. Though only a mile in length, they never seem to end. Beyond this point the road cuts up and around the left side of a large peak, providing shade for the next mile, to a large open grass meadow where the Camuesa connector trail begins.

From here the route follows a long ridge past Old Mine Road, then goes west around another peak to its intersection with Camuesa Road, which marks the halfway point to Little Pine Mountain.

Fortunately the next mile is almost level, at one place dropping down several hundred feet to a small saddle. At this point the crux of the ride begins as the road begins to rise steeply again. Several switchbacks lead to the chalk bluffs, and from there you’ve got a half-mile of effort ahead of you—a torturous half-mile. The road is more a series of staircases than a steady uphill grind, with short, almost-level sections followed by steep little hills.

Around the corner a treat awaits you. The road is almost level for a half-mile and then begins to wind up through a series of gradual climbs over the eastern shoulder of Little Pine Mountain that give your aching legs a needed rest. Monterey Shale dominates this part of the mountain, as well as the mountain crest. It weathers to a rich, loamy soil that supports an abundance of grass and huge fields of golden poppies, lupine, goldfields, creamcups and other wildflowers in the springtime.

On the top of the shoulder, Buckhorn Trail leads off to the right. A mile farther (a last steep section), a water tank marks the turnoff that leads to the top of the mountain. Though it is two miles long, the road is gradual, an easy climb after what you’ve already encountered, at first through manzanita forests then, near the top, thick clusters of pines.

The road leads down into Happy Hollow, a large depression that looks like the caldera of an extinct volcano. The pine forests surrounding the small campground make it seem like a piece of heaven. Just to the south a short climb brings you to the summit of Little Pine Mountain, a rounded, grass-covered mound that opens onto fabulous views of the entire Santa Ynez Valley complex, the Santa Ynez Mountains, and, beyond them, the Channel Islands. This view alone makes the ride a rewarding one.

From here, a short, very steep spur trail leads down to Alexander Saddle, where you will find the Santa Cruz Trail. The ride down to the saddle is steep, and loose, and it is easy to fall. Unless your riding skills are top notch, you should walk this section. Once you are at the saddle, the route back down on the Santa Cruz Trail is seven miles of incredible single tracking, eventually coming back out on the dirt road .75 miles from Upper Oso. The first several miles are breathtaking, with lots of exposure, so you will need to concentrate on your riding. I stop a lot and enjoy the views rather than trying to catch glimpses while I am on the move.

Once you are past the shale hills the trail drops down several switchbacks and then follows a long ridge, which takes you away from Little Pine Mountain and out onto a spur looking down into the several forks of Oso Canyon.?A final drop down across a series of grass-covered hills and serpentine outcroppings brings you to the creek.

From here you’ll have a mile of excellent single track along the creek to Little Pine Road, then three-quarters mile of cruising on it back to Upper Oso. Please be extremely cautious along this section because it is very popular with both hikers and equestrian groups.


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Last Updated: Friday, August 22, 2014