Backpacking in Santa Barbara? Usually when people think of Santa Barbara they think of Stearns Wharf, the beach, the shops on State Street or the wild college scene near UCSB. But what you might not realize is that the Santa Barbara backcountry takes you into the expansive Los Padres National Forest, with deep canyons, soaring ridge lines and clear, cool streams. This two-day backpacking trip on the Santa Cruz Trail provides a weekend escape and an introduction to Santa Barbara’s real wild side.
Getting to the Trailhead
This trail begins at the Upper Oso Campground off of Paradise Road, which can also be a good staging camp for Friday night. Campsites are available for reservation for $20/night, and you can get driving directions here. There is trailhead parking for free with an Adventure Pass (though currently up in the air, I’d recommend using one for now).
From the trailhead, head north and into the hills. The trail begins as a dirt road running parallel to the creek and labeled as Camuesa Canyon Road on the map. At 0.7 miles, we reached a bend in the road. Here our trail broke away from the road, continuing into the canyon.
Be sure to stop here and sign the trailhead register. There are no permits required for camping back here (although you do need a campfire permit if you plan to have a campfire), but signing the register will help the rangers keep track of who is in the backcountry. With the drought conditions we’ve had this year, it’s a worthwhile precaution.
Off the dirt road, the trail becomes much more enjoyable. The single track trail runs beside the creek under the shade of old growth oak trees. At 1.8 miles, you’ll see a junction to Nineteen Oaks Camp heading uphill to the right.
Just beyond this junction our trail crosses the creek and begins a steady climb out of the canyon. In late April, the hills were covered with wildflowers. I saw Mariposa (pictured below), Lupen, California Poppy and many more that I couldn’t name. The trail is also mostly exposed and quite relentless in it’s climb.
The Santa Cruz Trail is remarkably engineered, with a steady grade that makes the climbing easy. There are surprisingly few switchbacks, which sometimes makes this trail feel very long.
Most of the terrain has full sun exposure, except when crossing through the canyons. The plant life ranges from agave to manzanita to chaparral to grassy knolls.
At 5.5 miles, I reached the Alexander Saddle. At 3,950 feet above sea level, it’s the high point of this trek (which started at 1,191 feet). That’s a respectable climb with a backpack.
Here’s a panorama from the Alexander Saddle, looking back on the trail.
This is a great place to stop for food and rest. Soak in the views. We actually spied some snow on the mountains further north from the rain the night before. Be aware that this saddle is also a junction. There is another trail that turns and heads up the ridgeline to the right. This is not the Santa Cruz Trail! Read the sign carefully, because the next segment of the trail is not as obvious.
At 6.3 miles there is a sign for Little Pine Spring. There is a fairly reliable spring here and a campsite, but the trail was completely overgrown difficult to even locate.
The Forty Mile Wall
At 7.2 miles you cross the canyon and begin a long traverse on what is affectionately referred to as The Forty Mile Wall. In reality, it’s just under 2.5 miles, but it does at times feel like the trail will just go on and on. This section of the trail follows the southwest face of a steep ridge dotted with splashes of brilliant orange poppies.
Finally at the 9.5 mile mark, you round the ridge and begin a descent into the wooded canyon via a series of switchbacks. At the bottom, the trail crosses the creek and turns east. About a quarter mile further lies the Santa Cruz Station.
There is a pit toilet not far from the station, and there are several good campsites nearby with picnic tables and a masonry cooking area. The stream is close by, providing a good source for replenishing your water (be sure to filter or treat it first).
There is an open grassy area as well as a number of beautiful spots to pitch a tent under old growth oak trees.
Sunday morning, we broke camp and headed back the way we came. Our total mileage: 21.8 miles.
In the End
The Santa Cruz Trail was a beautiful trail, particularly during the spring. This trail made for a great weekend excursion and excellent shake-down hike for the hikers in the group who were training to thru-hike the JMT this year. Being my first excursion in the Los Padres National Forest, it whet my appetite for more. I’ll be back to explore more of this area in the future.
Santa Cruz Trail Map
Click on any photo to view a larger version. You can also leave comments on any photo.
Tips for Hiking in the Santa Barbara Backcountry
- This is a 3-season trail best hiked in fall, winter or spring. It can get dangerously hot and dry during the summer.
- If you’re planning to have a campfire, be sure to first get a campfire permit. They are free, and you can get it online here.
- After your hike, stop in at the Cold Spring Tavern on Stagecoach Road. It’s on your way back into Santa Barbara, and famous for their tri-tip sandwiches, live music and people watching on the weekends.
More Santa Barbara Backcountry Resources
- Upper Oso Campground – Trailhead car campground
- Santa Barbara County Hikers – a great Meetup group with regularly scheduled hikes in the area
- Guidebook: Hiking and Backpacking Santa Barbara and Ventura by Craig Carey
- Official website: Los Padres National Forest
Wow this looks like a beautiful trail!
Jeff Hester says
Thanks, Josh! There were some awesome poppy fields that I just couldn’t do justice. Like most things in nature, the real experience is usually 100x better than the photos.
Deborah Smith says
I’ve never heard of this trail; it looks wonderful and I want to try it next spring if I can find others to join me. I’m so glad I joined up with the SoCal Hiker site. I’m fairly new to backpacking and I’m eager for knowledgeable info about places to go. Your details are great. Thanks Jeff! 🙂 Deb S.
Jeff Hester says
Thanks for the comment, Deb! I’m working on adding more weekend backpack trips and advice, but in the meantime, you can ask me anything in the forums.
I’ve done this hike! It was probably 20 years ago when I was hiking with the scouts but Los Padres is a beautiful place to be. Thanks for the amazing photos. I’ll have to give it another try next time I’m in SB visiting family.
Thank you for making this site!
Jeff Hester says
Thank you for checking it out, ck!
Thanks for the details. My daughter and I did this hike last weekend. We were looking for something without snow. Ended up only going to the saddle because of time constraints and having to park a mile below Upper Oso. It was still pretty cold at night (20s) but beautiful!
Thanks for the info. Plan on doing this overnighter in two weeks.
Jeff Hester says
Should be beautiful this time of year, depending on the weather. Have a great trip, Eric!
Laura D says
Hey Jeff! Thanks for all you do to get us out there and exploring! Im wondering if this hike can be done in one day? Im thinking it should only take about 8-9 hours and Ive hiked 20 miles in a day a few times. What are your thoughts? Thanks!
Don Burton says
A HUGE thanks to Jeff for this trip report/guide. It was exactly as you reported. Myself and 2 friends had a great trek. Perfect overnighter for an Angeleno. We had SC Station all to ourselves mid week about 4 weeks ago.
@Laura: It took us about 5 hrs each way at a moderate pace so I’d definitely say it’s doable in one day.
J.D. Hartman says
I was curious what the water situation was at the Santa Cruz Station, is there water there or does it need to be packed in?
Don Burton says
There is PLENTY of water. Zero issue. The first 1 1/2 miles you follow the creek with low water flow. Don’t worry, there’s plenty at SC Station.The spring at Little Pines had lots of water. I cameled up at the parking lot and carried 2L of water to get me to Little Pines spring. It was a hot (upper 80’s), sunny day and it was plenty to get me there. Filled up at Little Pines, ate lunch and left with 1.5L. Keep in mind, we almost passed Little Pines Spring. Keep track off your mileage and check the map when you get close. There is a small side trail that leads down to it. You will not be able to see the spring from the main trail. I think there is a tiny sign. I missed it but luckily one of my friends saw it. The side trail is a little overgrown and is about 100 yards to the site. The spring flows out of a pipe into a large basin to collect water. Not a big deal but bees around the water in case you’re allergic. Picnic table. Great spot to eat lunch. Have fun!!!
Beautiful photos, Jeff. Great TR.
This site has helped pick out my next two trips ! I am going to do the Santa Cruz with a friend the first weekend in November. We’ll get down there after dark on Friday and would like a reliable place you can sleep, but don’t want to pay for two nights when really we’re not going to stick around. Any thoughts?
Awesome trip report Jeff! My wife and I just did this trip a few days ago and reading this was very helpful. Beautiful backcountry although unexpectedly hot (it seems we’ve already transitioned into summer here on the coast haha), there is still a decent water flow at Santa Cruz creek near the station. Would love to come back and hike this again next December/January.
Jonathan Montenegro says
We just completed this trek, a couple updates: The equestrian trough on the way to the saddle, before the clearing, is much more reliable than little pine spring now. Little Pine Spring is completely overgrown, except for one site, but there is no trail in or around without some heavy bushwacking. If you find yourself pinched for time, get to the junction and go to Happy Hollow instead. No water there, but you can make it back to the equestrian trough with one liter for two and there’s campsites. The creeks were also a huge help thanks to the LifeStraw. Be smart with water!
Jeff Hester says
Thanks for the update! Glad you enjoyed the trail. It’s always cool (to me) to know that there are creeks in our local mountains. Most people think SoCal is dry as a bone, and that’s only partly true.
Does anyone know if bugs are an issue at this time on this trail?
Joel Kirkpatrick says
Can the Santa Cruz Camp at the end of the trail be driven to?
Jeff Hester says
@Joel: Yes and no. The road is closed by a locked gate and access restricted to forest service personnel and trail maintenance crews by permission. So, yes, it can be driven to, but only with permission and access.
Liv Karas says
Hey Jeff–thanks for the awesome info. Thinking about doing this hike in April and I’m wondering if you’ve got any more updates about parts of the trail being “a mess,” or have a good resource I could look at to stay updated. Thanks for any advice you’ve got!
Liv, did you find any info out? I was also interested in doing this trip in the next month.
Jeff H says
@Liv and @Andrew: Here’s what I’ve heard from someone who does trail maintenance in those mountains:
“It’s a mess. Big slides, plus the rain created some huge washouts from what I have heard. Big project to get it back in shape.”
PAUL TAKEMOTO says
Adventure passes are not Required for parking at the Santa Cruz Trail parking area. I just called the ranger station and confirmed. 805-967-3481 at 10 AM 4/21/17.
That’s good to know Paul. I was hoping to do this hike Memorial Day Weekend but sounds like trail is still in bad shape. Will research other trails in the area for backpacking trips, anyone have any recommendations?
I was wondering if you have to make a reservation for the campsite at the Santa Cruz Ranger Station and if so where you make it at?
Considering this hike in mid-November. Will I freeze my butt off? Also wondering if anyone knows current trail conditions.
Craig R. Carey says
The upper trail’s something of a trainwreck at the moment, post-wildfires. It’s in decent shape (now) to 19 Oaks, and volunteers have done a great job at the camp. You can check hikelospadres.com for latest updates.
I attempted this hike with my dog this week. While it certainly wasn’t as scenic as you might see in these photos (spring versus fall) it was still a beautiful hike! We got a little bit of a late start in the morning after camping at Upper Oso for the night. Note: If you plan to camp there you will need to pay the camp host $30 (cash or check) and if you plan to park your car at the trailhead for the two-day trek, that’ll be an additional $10.
The first 5 miles of the trail up to Alexander Saddle are pretty straightforward. The footpath is obvious and as mentioned above its a pretty steady grade for the elevation gain. After passing the 5 mile marker at Alexander Saddle, the trail became significantly more difficult (in my opinion). There were several fallen trees blocking the path, and a couple sketchy spots with incredibly loose terrain where the trail had been washed out. This section would have been much more doable without the pup so I don’t want to scare anyone off.
In addition to those tricky spots, the trail becomes much less obvious to follow. Especially as you’re approaching Little Pine Spring CG (be prepared for lots of bushwhacking). I’m usually pretty good with navigating but man, this one took us forever. We were circling the campsite following multiple different paths (most likely used by animals: cougar, deer, etc) that lead to dead ends before finally pulling out the phone and realizing we were less than 300 ft away. At this point it was about 4:00 pm, with sun setting within the hour so we just decided to camp there for the night instead. The campsite is best for a single tent, but in a pinch you could fit 3-4 (1-2 person) tents.
Currently water from the spring flowing into the basin is more of a drip, so plan time to fill up as it will take you awhile. The basin itself currently has a dead rabbit at the bottom of it, it looked pretty recent as there were no signs of significant decay yet. I decided since we were just hiking back the next day and going down hill almost the entire way to forgo a water refill. My suggestion, if you are doing this soon and plan to get water from the basin will be to either A) Filter your water, and then boil it just to be safe, or, B) refill from the tiny drip from the pipe.
The hike back out was beautiful and leisurely. Ultimately I would love to attempt this trail again to make it to the station, but unless there is a significant amount of work done to the trail, we probably won’t be making it out soon. Again, unless your dog is eager to jump over lots of big trees and is comfortable going through mini-rock slide adventures, I might leave him/her at home. As far as temperatures go, it was a perfect 75 sunny and slightly windy during the day, and down to the 40-50s at night. We were plenty warm with his own sleeping bag and my 15 degree bag.
Sorry for the novel, but I hope this helps any one thinking of completing this trail soon!!
Jeffrey Hester says
Thanks for the great trip report, Taylor! I’m not surprised about the bushwhack to Little Pine Spring CG. It doesn’t seem to get a lot of use.
Craig Carey says
Great report, thanks for the update Taylor! Would be worth sharing over at hikelospadres.com as well.
Is this hike safe for a female solo hiker? I was going to do the first leg of the PCT, but heard the boarder was unsafe. I just did the Trans Catalina and LOVED it, but safety is always a concern. Thanks!
Susan Powers says
Anyone do this hike recently?