This is one of the classic two day backpacking trips in the Santa Barbara area. Done as an out-and-back trek, this hike starts off winding through narrow sandstone canyons before climbing up and over a pass with views of the Los Padres mountains.
When people think of Santa Barbara, they usually picture sparkling beaches, a quaint downtown area, and the iconic Stearns Wharf. Yet, what many fail to realize is that Santa Barbara abuts the massive Los Padres National Forest, which covers nearly 3,000 square miles of mountains, canyons, and streams. The Santa Cruz Trail is an excellent weekend getaway that provides hikers with a taste of the Santa Barbara backcountry.
What Makes It Great
The trail starts as a dirt road paralleling a creek, as you head north from the campground. At .75 miles you’ll reach a bend in the road and your trail will break away and continue into the canyon. Less than a mile from the trailhead and you’ll already feel secluded, winding through a narrow sandstone canyon passing small pools of water as you walk beside a mostly dry creek bed. After a few miles the trail begins to climb toward the Alexander Saddle, breaking out into the sun and offering great views of the canyon you just walked through.
Once you reach Alexander Saddle stop and enjoy the views of the Los Padres to the east, Santa Barbara to the west, and on clear days you can see Channel Islands National Park about 20 miles off shore. At 3,950 feet this will be the high point of your trip, before you begin to descend the back side of the pass. A little more than a mile after the pass you will reach a section of trail that is somewhat endearingly called the “40 Mile Wall” as you side-hill along a steep southwest face. In reality the wall is just over two and a half miles long, but the Santa Cruz trail is so well engineered that there are very few switchbacks, which can make sections such as this feel longer than they really are.
Finally at just over 9 miles you’ll descend via a few switchbacks into a cool and shaded canyon with a creek running along the bottom—be sure to filter water here before drinking as there is no potable water at the campsite. After crossing the creek you are less than a quarter mile from Santa Cruz Pack Station. Here you will find several nice campsites to choose from, picnic tables, and a pit toilet. Better yet, you’ll likely have it all to yourself. The next morning return to your car via the way you came.
Who is Going to Love It
This hike is a great introduction to Los Padres and the Santa Barbara backcountry, offering great views, and the opportunity to pass through several ecosystems including cool canyons, sun-baked chaparral, and large grassy fields that will have you singing songs from The Sound of Music. It’s proximity to Santa Barbara means that you can hit the road early Saturday morning, and be back in time for dinner Sunday night.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
The trail departs from Upper Oso Campground off of Paradise Valley Road. Car parking is $10 and is payable to Parks Management Company who took over management of the area in early 2016. You can also reserve a campsite for $20/night, which is a good option if you’re coming from further afield and plan to use the campground as a staging area on Friday night.
Before departing into the backcountry be sure to sign the trail register. There are no permits required to hike or backpack in this part of Los Padres, so the trail register is your only method of declaring your party's presence.