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
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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