Posted by: James Wapotich | December 23, 2012

Trail Quest: Little Pine Spring

There are variety of ways to explore our local backcountry, such as day hiking, backpacking and even mountain biking. Each brings its own rewards. One of the closer backpacking destinations from Santa Barbara is Little Pine Spring. The trailhead is just 30 minutes from Santa Barbara and the hike leads through a rich variety of scenery. The hike follows Santa Cruz Trail and can also be done as a long day hike.

The hike to Little Pine Spring is about 13.5 miles round trip; and at Little Pine Spring one can find water and a campsite. For a shorter backpacking trip along the same trail one can camp at Nineteen Oaks instead, about 4 miles round trip.

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara take State Route 154, over San Marcos Pass, and continue to Paradise Road. Turn right onto Paradise Road and continue past the first river crossing to Lower Oso Day Use Area. At Lower Oso turn left onto Romero-Camuesa Road. The road follows Oso Creek and dead ends at Upper Oso Campground. Stay to the right of the campground and park near the forest service gate. Here the Buckhorn-Camuesa road continues as a dirt road. An adventure pass is required to park and camp in this section of the National Forest.

Little Pine Mountain Spring Alexander Saddle Santa Cruz Trail Santa Barbara Hiking trail Los Padres National Forest

The trail to Little Pine Spring follows the edge of the Chaparral near the backside of Little Pine Mountain

From the trailhead continue along Buckhorn-Camuesa Road as it follows Oso Creek. The road does see a fair amount of OHV traffic (Off Highway Vehicles) such as motorcycles and ATV so stay alert. The trail follows the road for the first .75 miles before arriving at the official beginning of Santa Cruz Trail.

Buckhorn-Camuesa road continues to the right and ultimately all the way to the other side of the Santa Barbara backcountry, however OHV traffic is allowed only a portion of the way.

For the hike to Nineteen Oaks and Little Pine Spring continue to the left along Santa Cruz Trail. The trail follows Oso Creek for the next mile and at about the 1.75-mile mark arrives at turn off for Nineteen Oaks. From here it’s a short hike up to the campground. Nineteen Oaks is situated on a long, somewhat flat bluff overlooking the valley. There are two campsites tucked under the oaks, both with a picnic table and fire ring. Water can often be found in Oso Creek just at the turnoff for the camp.

For the hike to Little Pine Spring and Little Pine Mountain, continue past the turn off for Nineteen Oaks. Santa Cruz Trail crosses a side creek and then quickly begins its ascent towards Alexander Saddle and Little Pine Mountain. From this point to the Saddle the trail gains 2,200 feet over the next 3.5 miles. The trail however also includes some incredible views of the surrounding area.

As the trail climbs, it passes through open hillsides dominated by purple sage, as well as a section with a pronounced outcropping of serpentine.

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

Scenery along Santa Cruz Trail

At about the 3.25-mile mark the trail crests this first hill and transitions into chaparral, passing along the backside of another large mountain before turning, and climbing across the front of Little Pine Mountain. Here the trail passes through several shale slide areas reenforced with retaining walls. These slides areas are often covered with loose shale and in need of clearing. The trail however is still generally passable but does require greater care in crossing the slide areas.

At about the 4.5-mile mark the trail arrives at an unsigned turn off to a spring and horse trough. The spring is easy to miss as it’s nothing more than a short side trail to the right. One landmark that can help alert you that you’re nearing the turnoff, is that just before the turnoff the trail passes through the only place along this section of trail where one finds Cottonwood and Maple trees.

The trail is generally in good shape, and the last mile towards the saddle is in excellent condition as it was just recently worked by Santa Barbara Mountain Bike Trail Volunteers.

At about the 5.5-mile mark the trail arrives at Alexander Saddle. The saddle and nearby Alexander Peak are named after Edward W. Alexander, who used to own Rancho Oso in the early 1900s and ran cattle from there over to Santa Cruz Camp, along Santa Cruz Creek, where he had a cabin.

Black-tail tailed mule deer Los Padres National Forest Santa Cruz Trail Alexander Saddle Little Pine Mountain Spring hiking

Black-tailed Deer explore the front of Little Pine Mountain

At Alexander Saddle the trail branches and is well marked. The trail to the right continues east over to Little Pine Mountain and Happy Hollow. Santa Cruz Trail continues north, down the backside of Little Pine Mountain. Here the view shifts dramatically as one is now looking out across the drainage of Santa Cruz Creek framed to the north by the San Rafael Mountains.

Santa Cruz Trail becomes progressively more overgrown, but is still followable. At about the 6.5-mile mark Santa Cruz Trail arrives at the juncture with Little Pine Spring Trail, which connects over to Happy Hollow, about a mile away. Little Pine Spring Trail is almost completely overgrown with regrowth from the 2007 Zaca Fire and it is not recommend unless you enjoy the challenges associated with route finding and pushing through brush.

Just past this easy to miss trail juncture, Santa Cruz Trail transitions out of the chaparral and onto an open grassy hillside where immediately on your left is a metal sign that says “Little Pine Spring 1/4 mile”.

The trail down to Little Pine Spring is badly overgrown, but the trick is to follow the line between the wild grasses and chaparral until you find where it then crosses through the chaparral and arrives at the campsite. The trail has recently been flagged which helps some in finding and following the route.

At Little Pine Spring there is a picnic table, a fire ring made of the same ubiquitous orange rocks seen along the trail and around camp, and Little Pine Spring. Water from the spring flows through a metal pipe into a large trough. The spring flows year round and with the recent rains the trough is overflowing with water.

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

Little Pine Spring

The site is said to be home of Florentine Garcia, who back in the early 1900s had a cabin nearby and ran sheep in the area.

Because of the available water, Little Pine Spring makes for a good overnight backpacking destination. And with the hike broken up over two days, one can easily add on a short day hike to Little Pine Mountain from Alexander Saddle.

From Alexander Saddle, continue east along Happy Hollow Connector Trail. The trail follows the ridge line and about a half mile later arrives at an intersection. The trial to the left continues over to Happy Hollow and the trail to the right continues to Little Pine Mountain and ultimately loops around to Happy Hollow as well, allowing one to visit both if they want. Happy Hollow has a number of campsites but no water. The area was badly damaged in the Zaca Fire.

From Little Pine Mountain as well as from Alexander Saddle one can take in views out across the valley to the Santa Ynez Mountains and behind them, on a clear day see the Pacific Ocean and the Channel Islands.

One can also day hike from Upper Oso to Little Pine Mountain. The hike is about 12 miles roundtrip and requires an early start to allow plenty of daylight to enjoy the hike.

Regardless of how for you go you’ll get to see some of the rich beauty of our local backcountry.

This article originally appeared in section A of the December 23rd, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

Pines Santa Cruz Trail Little Pine Mountain Spring Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara hiking backpacking

Pines along Santa Cruz Trail


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