Posted by: James Wapotich | May 9, 2014

Trail Quest: Mission Pine Trail

In the mountains behind Santa Barbara there are three main ranges, the Santa Ynez, San Rafael and Sierra Madre Mountains. Of these three, the San Rafael Mountains are the tallest and in some ways the most remote.

Mission Pine Trail traces the top of the San Rafael Mountains from McKinley Saddle to Buckhorn Road, and offers some exceptional views out across the Santa Barbara backcountry. The trail itself is typically visited as part of a multi-day backpacking or horse-packing trip as there is no particularly easy way to reach the trail.

To get to the beginning of Mission Pine Trail, one needs to first get to Cachuma Saddle. From Santa Barbara, take State Route 154 north over San Marcos Pass; continue past Lake Cachuma, and turn right on to Armour Ranch Road. Follow Armour Ranch Road to the beginning of Happy Canyon Road, also on your right.

West Big Pine Mountain Mission Pine Trail Spring San Rafael Wilderness hike Los Padres National Forest

A view towards West Big Pine Mountain along Mission Pine Trail

Happy Canyon Road climbs out of the Santa Ynez Valley, and towards the top of the San Rafael Mountains, arriving at Cachuma Saddle, a low point in the ridge line. At Cachuma Saddle there is a four-way intersection, to the left is Figueroa Mountain Road, to the right is the beginning of McKinley Mountain Road, and straight ahead Happy Canyon Road becomes Sunset Valley Road, and continues towards Davy Brown and Nira Campgrounds. Parking at Cachuma Saddle is found in the large pullout at the intersection.

From the saddle, continue east along McKinley Mountain Road. The gated and unpaved Forest Service access road traces the ridge line along the top of the San Rafael Mountains to McKinley Saddle and the beginning of Mission Pine Trail. The route is mostly exposed and offers water at only two places. The first is a water tank with a faucet and trough past Cachuma Mountain, at about the 4-mile mark. The second is at McKinley Spring, at about the 9-mile mark.

McKinley Spring Camp, with its reliable water, can make for a good first night destination of a multi-day backpacking trip. The camp has a fire ring and grated stove, and two picnic tables. Both the spring and the mountain are named for President William McKinley.

A half mile past McKinley Spring, the trail arrives at McKinley Saddle and a sort of four-way intersection; to the right is the half mile trail to the top of McKinley Mountain, ahead, descending down into the Santa Cruz Creek drainage is Santa Cruz Peak Fire Trail, and to the left is the beginning of Mission Pine Trail.

map los padres national forest mission pine trail spring basin san rafael wilderness

Map courtesy

From the saddle, Mission Pine Trail continues east and enters the San Rafael Wilderness, and gradually climbs towards San Rafael Mountain.

At the 1.75-mile mark from McKinley Saddle, the trail arrives at the turn off for San Rafael Mountain. From here, it is a very short hike to the top, and well worth the modest effort. San Rafael Mountain, 6,593 feet, is the second highest peak in Santa Barbara County after Big Pine Mountain at 6,827 feet. From the top, the views can include Hurricane Deck and the Sierra Madre Mountains to the north, the Santa Ynez Mountains and Channel Islands to the south, and to the northeast Mount Pinos, the tallest mountain in our area.

Past San Rafael Mountain, Mission Pine Trail descends towards Mission Pine Spring and transitions from chaparral dotted with pines to mostly conifers. This section of trail saw the least amount of burn damage from the 2007 Zaca Fire and is a reminder of just how beautiful Los Padres National Forest can be. In the winter one can often find snow along the ridge.

This trail along the top of the San Rafael Mountains is often referred to by local backpackers as our own mini-version of the Sierras, and some have even taken to calling it the “high route” because it traces the highest ridge in Santa Barbara County.

Snow Plant flower sacordes Los Padres National Forest San Rafael Wilderness Mission Pine Santa Barbara hike trail

Snow Plant

Adding to the comparison with the Sierras, through this section one can often find snow plant growing amongst the pine needles. Snow plant, or sarcodes, is a small, bright red, parasitic plant that gathers nutrients from a mycorrhizal fungi that grows on the roots of conifers. Snow plant typically blooms in the spring and early summer.

At the 3.5-mile mark from McKinley Saddle, the trail arrives at Mission Pine Spring Camp. The camp has one fire ring and a picnic table, and is located near a reliable spring at the edge of a small meadow.

The name Mission Pine comes from the story that beams and rafters in both the Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez Missions were hewn from pines harvested along the ridge. However, an argument could be made that those same pines could’ve more easily been harvested from the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Another version states that just the longest beams came from the pines in the San Rafael Mountains, which are said to grow taller than those in the Santa Ynez Mountains. It’s also said that settlers along the Sisquoc River came up to the ridge in the early 1900s to cut shakes for their homesteads.

Mission Pine Spring is the last reliable water found along the top of San Rafael Mountains heading east, so it is best to stock up here before continuing.

Mission Pine Spring Trail Santa Barbara Hike Los Padres National Forest

Mission Pine Spring

From Mission Pine Spring, Mission Pine Trail continues east towards Mission Pine Basin, and returns to a mix of chaparral and pines. And although Mission Pine Basin is actually at lower elevation than Mission Pine Spring, the route along the ridge line provides more than enough ups and downs to make up for it.

As one approaches Mission Pine Basin, the burn damage from the Zaca Fire becomes more evident, and it is encouraging to see so many coulter pines sprouting back up in what appear to be even greater numbers than the original trees.

At about the 7.5-mile mark, the trail arrives at Mission Pine Basin, and continues across an open grassy flat. Here, one finds a sign pointing back up a small wash to Mission Pine Basin Camp, which is about a quarter mile further along the somewhat overgrown side trail. Past the sign, under a lone ponderosa pine, is the top of Santa Cruz Trail.

Mission Pine Basin Camp was badly damage during the Zaca Fire, however, here too the pines are starting to grow back. The camp has a fire ring, and two ice can stoves that are now being used to support benches made from what’s left of the picnic table. Nearby is the horse corral, which has been damaged by fallen pines.

Mission Pine Basin for all intents and purposes is a dry camp. In the best of years, there can be some water in the creek near the Santa Cruz Trail junction; in dry years, a small pool of water can sometimes be found further downstream. Water can sometimes also be found near a stand of willows just downstream from the beginning of the old Fall Canyon Trail. However, neither of these should be relied upon.

The next nearest reliable water from Mission Pine Basin, is either Fall Canyon Spring in Fall Canyon, about 2 miles away, or at Coche Camp along Santa Cruz Trail, about 3 miles away.

Mission Pine Basin Trail Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara hike San Rafael Wilderness

Mission Pine Basin

From Mission Pine Basin, one can continue east along Mission Pine Trail towards West Big Pine Mountain, Buckhorn Road and Big Pine Mountain, or turn south and continue along Santa Cruz Trail towards Upper Oso Campground.

For those continuing east, there is no water along ridge between Mission Pine Basin and Buckhorn Road, a hike of about 7 miles. And from Buckhorn Road the nearest reliable water is either at Upper Bear Camp, 4 miles further north, or Bluff Camp 4.5 miles further south, and so it’s best to research conditions beforehand and plan one’s trip accordingly.

The article originally appeared in section A of the May 9th, 2014 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


  1. […] A half mile later McKinley Fire Road arrives at McKinley Saddle and at what is essentially a four way intersection. To the left is the half mile social trail that leads to the top of McKinley Mountain. Straight ahead is the Santa Cruz Peak Fire Trail which drops down below the ridge and eventually leads towards Santa Cruz Station in the San Rafael Wilderness. And to the right, continuing eastward along the top of the San Rafael Mountains is Mission Pine Trail. […]

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