Posted by: James Wapotich | September 27, 2011

Trail Quest: Santa Cruz Trail

While many people in southern California have to drive several hours for their backpacking trips we here in Santa Barbara are blessed with an abundance of trails essentially in our own backyard. And while some of our trails can be more rugged than those you’ll find elsewhere, they are also less crowded. Generally the two best times to go backpacking in the local backcountry are in the spring when everything is green and water is plentiful and in the fall when the temperatures in the backcountry start to cool off.

Two of the more accessible areas within the Los Padres National Forest for backpacking are the trails found along Manzana Creek and the Sisquoc River in the San Rafael Wilderness and the Santa Cruz Trail. With the Santa Cruz Trail being the closer to Santa Barbara of the two areas. The Santa Cruz Trail starts near Upper Oso Campground, climbs to the top of Alexander Saddle and then continues down the backside to Santa Cruz Creek and then from there continues to the top of the San Rafael Mountains, leading through some of Santa Barbara’s more rugged backcountry.

Little Pine Mountain Nineteen Oaks Santa Cruz Trail Santa Barbra Hike Los Padres National Forest Backcountry

View towards Little Pine Mountain from Nineteen Oaks

And while the trails along Manzana Creek may be better suited for first time backpackers, the trail camps found along the Santa Cruz Trail can offer something for everyone. The hike to Nineteen Oaks is about 4 miles roundtrip and makes for a great first time backpacking trip. Further along the Santa Cruz Trail for those with a little more experience is Little Pine Spring, about 13 miles roundtrip and then Santa Cruz Camp which is best done as part of a multi-day trip. The hike to Santa Cruz Camp is about 21 miles round trip and includes some incredible scenery.

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara take State Route 154 to Paradise Road and continue along Paradise Road to the kiosk at the first crossing. You will need an adventure pass, which you can purchase at the kiosk. Continue on Paradise Road as it crosses the Santa Ynez River and then turn left towards Upper Oso campground. Parking for the trailhead is found just past Upper Oso at the locked gate where the paved road ends.

Deer Lower Oso Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Hike backcountry

From Upper Oso the trail follows the Buckhorn Camuesa Road; you’ll want to keep alert as the road is open to motorcycle and OHV (off highway vehicle) traffic. At the three quarter mile mark the Santa Cruz Trail leaves the road and continues following Oso Creek. Almost immediately you’ll see a sign that says “Next Water Beyond 19 Oaks – 5 Miles” with the 5 scratched out and replaced with a 9. The water 5 miles past Nineteen Oaks is at Little Pine Spring which can be difficult to get to and the water found 9 miles past Nineteen Oaks is at the Santa Cruz Creek.

The sign at first glance can seem almost out place like one of those next gas – 80 miles signs you see in the desert, but the reality is that the hike from Nineteen Oaks to Alexander Saddle is steep, gaining 2250 feet over 3.5 miles and offers little shade, and from the saddle down to Santa Cruz Creek it is still another 5.5 miles, in other words be prepared. In fact if you’re planning on hiking to Alexander Saddle and beyond it’s best to get an early start and avoid the heat of the day.

At about the 2 mile mark the Santa Cruz Trail arrives at the turnoff for Nineteen Oaks. Nineteen Oaks has two campsites under the oak trees each with a picnic table and fire ring and makes for a great destination for camping or picnicking. Water for Nineteen Oaks can often be found nearby at Oso Creek. Currently the creek is running intermittently, but there is still cool, clear water flowing near the turnoff to camp thanks to this year’s rain.

Santa Barbara Backcountry Santa Cruz Trail Los Padres National Forest Little Pine Mountain Spring

From here the trail leaves the creek and begins its ascent towards Little Pine Mountain, transitioning out of riparian plants and into wild grasses and chaparral. The hike to the saddle is challenging but arriving at the top brings with it both a sense of accomplishment and great views in just about every direction. From the saddle the Santa Cruz Trail continues down the backside of the mountain and becomes noticeably more overgrown in comparison to the hike so far. This is both a reflection of the regrowth from 2007 Zaca Fire, the southern edge of which burned to just past the saddle, and the lack of funds available for ongoing trail maintenance.

About a mile from the saddle the trail arrives at the signed junction for the Happy Hollow Connector Trail. Just a short way past this sign the trail opens up onto a grassy hillside. It’s right at this transition that one finds the turnoff for Little Pine Spring. The trail is marked, but is easy to miss and the trail itself is indistinct as it follows the edge between the grass and chaparral, threading its way through wild mustard before turning and heading down to Little Pine Spring. At Little Pine Spring you will find a picnic table, fire ring, shade and water.

40 mile wall Los Padres National Forest Santa Cruz Trail Santa Barbara hike backcountry

View along the 40 mile wall

The Santa Cruz Trail then continues becoming even more overgrown until arriving at what is affectionately known as the 40-mile wall. Here the trail follows the contour of the mountain for the next 2 plus miles as it descends towards the Santa Cruz Creek, the trail at times can seem never ending especially on the hike out. The trail then rounds this mountain and descends down to Santa Cruz Creek and the welcome sound of running water.
Santa Cruz Creek Los Padres National Forest San Rafael Wilderness Santa Barbara Backcountry

Santa Cruz Creek

At Santa Cruz Camp, there are 4 campsites each with tables and fire rings and good water the length of the creek thanks to the rain we’ve had this year. At Santa Cruz Camp one can also find the fireplace that remains from the cabin built by Edward W. Alexander, who at one time owned Rancho Oso in the early 1900s and was also one of the founding members of the Los Rancheros Visitadores. Alexander is credited with introducing tourism to the Santa Ynez River area and used to offer hunting retreats. The E. W. Ranch, as it was called also used to run cattle. The fireplace has since been adapted to house a barbecue grill.
Santa Cruz Station Trail Camp Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Backcountry San Rafael Wilderness

Fireplace from the E. W. Alexander Ranch

From Santa Cruz Camp there are several day hiking opportunities. Further up along the Santa Cruz Trail is Flores Flats, which at one time was owned by Carlos Flores whose brother, Jose Flores, owned the Flores Flats along Gibraltar Road. And it was Jose’s son, Leo Flores who later worked as a vaquero and foreman for the E. W. Ranch.
Los Padres National Forest Roma Potrero Santa Cruz Trail Flores Flats Santa Barbara Backcountry San Rafael Wilderness

Romo Potrero

At one time Santa Cruz Camp was also a prime destination for fishing, the creek with its many pools was an ideal place to find rainbow trout, but the overall decline of the steelhead and the silt and ash from the Zaca Fire have reduced their numbers. Nevertheless I did see a couple of good size trout and fair number of small fry. From Santa Cruz Camp one can also hike up the creek to picturesque Santa Cruz Falls, about two miles round trip.
Santa Cruz Creek Falls Los Padres National Forest San Rafael Wilderness

Santa Cruz Falls

Regardless of how far you go you will get see some of the rugged beauty of our Santa Barbara backcounty.

This article originally appeared in section A of the Tuesday, September 27th, 2011 Santa Barbara News-Press.


  1. […] over Labor Day weekend I hiked in along the Santa Cruz Trail to Santa Cruz Station. The next day I day hiked up to Flores Flats and came across a small rattler […]

  2. Does one have to make a reservation to stay at the Santa Cruz Camp? If so where do you do that?

  3. Since the Santa Cruz trail is closed, is the fire road off of the Cachuma Saddle a viable option?

    • Hey Axel, my understanding is that the trail is technically not closed. It is however challenging to hike due to several slide areas. I was there last year and it is passable, but requires care and patience traversing the slides. That was also last year and so this year’s rain may have compounded the issue. Here is the article I wrote last year, In terms of alternate routes, although Buckhorn Road is closed to OHV traffic due to slides, it can still be hiked. And as you mention McKinley Fire Road from Cachuma Saddle is open.

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