Posted by: James Wapotich | June 8, 2017

Trail Quest: Santa Cruz Trail

Santa Cruz Trail is the closest trail to Santa Barbara that leads into the San Rafael Wilderness. From Upper Oso, the trail climbs over Little Pine Mountain and provides access to Santa Cruz Camp and the upper Santa Cruz Creek drainage.

The first half of the trail was burned in the 2016 Rey Fire and subsequent winter rains have added to the damage. The hike to Santa Cruz Camp from Upper Oso is about 21 miles round trip.

Given the uncertain trail conditions, I invited my friend Jasper, who is an experienced backpacker, to join me for a four-day trek into the area.

From Santa Barbara, we took State Route 154 over San Marcos Pass to Paradise Road and continued on Paradise Road to First Crossing Day Use Area. The road is currently closed at the first river crossing and so we start from there, which adds about a mile to our hike.

Upper Oso Creek Santa Cruz Trail Nineteen 19 Oaks hike backpacking Los Padres National Forest

Oso Creek is seen from the trail

Gathering our gear, we follow Paradise Road past the locked gate and down to the river.

The road through the river is covered with rocks and silt, and the only reminder that it was once there are brown carsonite signs that mark the edge of the road. Taking off our shoes, we wade across the river, which is only about knee deep.

The Forest Service hopes to have the road cleared and reopened within the next month, restoring access to Upper Oso and Red Rock trailheads.

On the other side, we continue to Lower Oso Day Use Area. Here, the road branches. Paradise Road follows the river towards Red Rock, while Romero-Camuesa Road continues towards Upper Oso.

Santa Cruz Trail Map Rey Fire burn area Los Padres National Forest

Map courtesy

From Lower Oso, we take the connector trail that leads to Upper Oso. The trail is in generally good condition and joins the road briefly near the bridge over Oso Creek. The bridge, which is about six feet above the creek, is covered with debris deposited by flooding from this year’s rain.

The unmaintained roads and fewer visitors to the area call to mind the television series Life After People. The series speculates how cities and manmade structures would appear if there were no people and nature was allowed to run its course.

From the bridge, the trail continues along the west side of the canyon, leading through mostly oaks and wild grasses. The area was burned in the 2013 White Fire and appears to be recovering. Adding to the scenery are large patches of purple vetch in bloom.

The trail then arrives at Upper Oso Campground. Here, the damage from last year’s Rey Fire can be seen.

The fire started August 18, near White Rock Picnic Area and Rancho San Fernando Rey, and may have been caused by an oak limb falling and bringing down a power line along Paradise Road. The fire spread north towards Little Pine Mountain and east as far as the Mono Creek drainage, burning 32,606 acres before it was contained on September 16.

From Upper Oso, Santa Cruz Trail enters the burn area and follows the unpaved Buckhorn Road for roughly the first three-quarters of a mile before leaving the road and continuing as a single track trail.

At times the burn damage seems overwhelming. Much of the vegetation has been burned away, leaving just barren hillsides. Winters rains have washed down debris and the heavy flow of debris and flooding has scoured Oso Creek, making it much wider than before.

mariposa lily super bloom nineteen oaks rey fire santa barbara los pardes national forest santa cruz trail hike

Mariposa lilies cover a hillside near Nineteen Oaks

In spite of the burn damage, the first section of trail towards Nineteen Oaks is in fair shape. The rain has encouraged a surprising amount regrowth. Along the trail we can see scrub oak, toyon, elderberry, ceanothus, and holly-leaf cherry sprouting back around charred trunks. The real treat, however, is the amount wildflowers. In bloom are fairy lanterns, larkspur, China houses, and fiesta flower.

About two miles from Upper Oso, we arrive at the turnoff to Nineteen Oaks and hike up to the camp. Here, the hillsides are covered with mariposa lilies. Fire has destroyed the picnic table and outhouse at the main site and charred the tables at two other sites. The fire has also cleared the brush around the camp revealing not only tin cans and bottles, but an ice can stove that had probably been all but forgotten. On the plus side, the rain has caused the pipe-filled trough below camp to once again start flowing.

Past the turnoff to Nineteen Oaks, Santa Cruz Trail begins the 3.5-mile hike uphill to Alexander Saddle. The trail steadily climbs away from Oso Creek passing through a hillside meadow that is starting to recover from the fire.

The first obstacle we arrive at is a section of trail that passes through an outcropping of Monterey shale. Here, the already narrow trail has been washed out. We scramble down into the wash and climb back up and continue along the trail.

The next major obstacle is what’s know as the Shale Slide Area. This section of trail is regularly covered in loose shale and often the best approach is just to scramble across it. In the aftermath of the fire and winter rains each of these half-dozen slides are now bigger and require more care to traverse.

The Forest Service is planning next month to look specifically at what would be required to fix this section of trail.

Our next stop is the horse trough just off the main trail, about a mile from Alexander Saddle. Here, instead of seeing gushing water like at Nineteen Oaks, we discover the fiberglass trough has been burned and melted, with no water flowing into it.

Past the trough, the trail arrives at the upper meadow. In contrast to the burn area, the meadow seems almost paradisiacal with its vibrant green grasses and wild mustard. The moment fades however as we have to push through the abundant plants now obscuring the trail.

Upper Meadow Santa Cruz Trail hike backpacking Los Padres National Forests Little Pine Mountain

The upper meadow is seen along Santa Cruz Trail

Eventually, we arrive at Alexander Saddle. I had heard the worst section of Santa Cruz Trail was from Alexander Saddle down to the turnoff to Little Pine Spring. I’d also been told that the Forest Service had created a fuel break that more or less followed the old, overgrown Happy Hollow-Little Pine Spring Connector Trail, which seemed worth trying out as an alternate route.

From the saddle, we continue uphill towards Little Pine Mountain and arrive at Happy Hollow Campground. The site was badly burned in the 2007 Zaca Fire and charred pines can still be seen strewn about the area.

The fuel break starts right at the old connector trail and we follow it to the top of the ridge. The fuel break continues down the backside, but instead of following the old trail it ties into the burn area and unfortunately, because of the terrain, doesn’t provide an easy route over to Santa Cruz Trail.

However, along the edge of the fuel break we spot a trail, likely cut by fire crews, and follow it as it twists and turns its way downhill, leading away from the burn area. Jasper points out a side trail, that might lead to the connector trail, but in my zeal I press on along what seems like the more traveled route, which unfortunately dead ends.

According to Jasper’s GPS we are supposedly standing on Santa Cruz Trail, but we know better. Rather than hike back up to find another route, and sensing that we’re not that far from the actual trail, we opt to push and weave our way through the overgrown brush. Ten minutes later we arrive at Santa Cruz Trail, near the turnoff to Little Pine Spring and decide to head down to the camp.

The camp was not burned in the Rey Fire, sitting just on the edge of the burn area. The quarter-mile trail down to the camp is overgrown, but still somewhat followable. The camp features a picnic table and fire ring, and reliable water from the spring that is piped into a nearby trough.

On the last day, hiking back out, we decide to hike the section of Santa Cruz Trail we’d bypassed the first day. With no plants holding the soil in place, winter rains have caused loose dirt and ravel to slide down the mountain, covering several large sections of trail. The route is challenging to cross, requiring us to take extra time and care in order to not lose our footing.

The good news is that trail is likely still underneath all the loose dirt and once cleared will again become useable, but for now is not recommended for hiking.

Hopefully the damaged sections of Santa Cruz Trail can be repaired and made safe for trail users.

This article originally appeared in section A of the May 22nd, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press. 

Upper Lower Oso vetch connector trail hike los padres national forest

Purple vetch in bloom along the connector trail between Lower Oso and Upper Oso


  1. Although this post is nearly three years old now, I found it very helpful – and it gave me a small spark of hope that I’ll be able to hike back to Santa Cruz Camp again in the future, after being away for nearly 50 years! Thanks!

    • Hey Pete, in follow up to my comment on the Flores Flat article, I was out there just last year. Santa Cruz Trail as I mentioned in my other comment suffered flood damage as it heads over Alexander Saddle, but an experienced backpacker can make it through. The trail up to 19 Oaks is in great shape, and from there to Alexander Saddle is in fair shape although probably a little overgrown, with the challenging sections being the shale slide areas that were present 30-40 years ago. Heading down the backside towards the turnoff to Little Pine Spring also has slide damage, but is not impassable, it just requires care to follow and traverse. Past the turnoff to Little Spring, all the way down to Santa Cruz Camp, the trail is in decent shape, overgrown in places, but average for the backcountry. Feel free to reach out to me with any questions

  2. Thanks for your helpful reply – and I’m sorry it’s taken me almost two years to acknowledge it! 🙂 Anyway, I’ve registered for your upcoming Zoom presentation about SB/Ojai Waterfalls through the SB Library on 3/17/22, and am looking forward to it! Btw, is the trail from Nineteen Oaks to SC Camp open again? All the Best! –

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