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Coming home to Little Pine Mountain

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on December 26th, 2012 at 10:50 am

Little Pine Mtn ride-1
And it's all uphill.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland

[I'm on a road trip through California visiting family for the holidays. This is a dispatch from a recent ride in Santa Barbara, where I lived prior to moving to Portland. — Jonathan]

For anyone that has ridden bikes for a long time, there are some rides that are special. Like an old favorite song that brings up memories of when you first heard it. Rides like this have meaning beyond the mileage.

For me, that ride is Little Pine Mountain.

Done by itself (without riding to it or connecting other loops), Little Pine is about 15 miles round trip. About 8-9 miles uphill (for over 3,000 feet of total elevation gain) and then five miles down. I did Little Pine for the first time back in 1994 in one of my first outings with the UC Santa Barbara Mountain Bike Club. I was new to mountain biking, and I remember being nervous to tackle the legendary ride.

By the time I first conquered Little Pine, I has already dove head-first into mountain biking. I was riding and racing at every chance I could. I remember having a copy of the local mountain bike map and I would mark with a pen on every trail I'd ridden. It was my goal to have the entire map filled.

Yesterday I got the chance to return to Little Pine for the first time in about 10 years.

Little Pine Mtn ride-9

The route includes a tough, exposed (brutal in the heat), and long fire road climb followed by a downhill singletrack. The climb never really flattens out, and in parts it steps precipitously up. When your legs and lungs finally find a rhythm, there are sections with loose rocks to break it. And the switchbacks. They are classic in the way you always think you're on the last one. And then there's yet another.

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See the golden meadows at the very top of this image? That's Little Pine Mountain.
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The long and winding road.
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Looks beautiful, but on a hot day this can be brutal.

Yet while climbs are usually considered to be just the nasty thing standing in the way of a downhill, the ascent up Little Pine is well worth the effort. You are rewarded with views of the vast expanse of the Santa Ynez Mountains, the weather is usually fantastic, and the solitude and smallness you feel are — at least to me — the quintessential off-road riding experience.

On Thursday as I set out on the climb, my mind was flooded with past adventures. I remembered all the places I'd crashed and the various friends and groups I'd ridden it with. After the initial thrill of realizing I was actually riding Little Pine again wore off, my next thoughts were: "Damn I've gotten slow."

It took three hours, but I eventually made it to the top. As is tradition, I took a short detour before heading down. Happy Hollow is a west-facing hilltop clearing just off the Little Pine summit. In the old days I would ride up to it with a backpack and spend the night on the soft, tall, grass stalks. And the view! Little Pine is higher than the front range, so you can see over it and out into the Pacific Ocean. On a clear day, the sun will shimmy off the ocean water and create a silhouette of the Channel Islands.

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Happy Hollow.
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Mindful of the time, I reluctantly left Happy Hollow after snacking on cheese, a hard-boiled egg, and some trail mix.

The descent of Little Pine has always been a bit harrowing, but therein lies the attraction. Especially in the upper sections, the steep and narrow singletrack carved right into the mountainside holds high consequence for mistakes. Some trail crews recently did a lot of work up on the top, so it was was wider and more predictable than I remembered. But after that recently re-worked section, it was just like the old days: Fast sections punctuated by sharp, exposed corners, rock gardens, and a few other surprises thrown in for good measure.

I felt good on the descent, if not a bit relieved that I didn't make any big mistakes.

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These slides are always here. Many years ago, I tried to be cute and ride/hop over them, only to lose my balance and tumble down the cliff to the right.
Little Pine Mtn ride-21

When I was back onto the paved roads of the day-use area, I took one last look back at the Santa Ynez River and said goodbye to Little Pine. I'm not sure when I'll get back there again.

With all the fires, mudslides, and trail access debates that plague this area, it was comforting to know that the roads and trails that helped shape my relationship with cycling in those formative years are still as great as I remember them. I realize 'you can never go home again,' but for a few hours last week it felt good to be back in my old neighborhood.

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Comments
  • John Lascurettes December 26, 2012 at 10:59 am

    The Santa Ynez mountains are brutal in how quickly they rise above the coastal floor. I was down seeing my dad at Thanksgiving in Santa Barbara and regretful that I didn't have my bike with me. I wanted to tackle Old San Marcos Pass Road like I did when I was 13.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) December 26, 2012 at 11:47 am

      Yep. That's one way to put it John. And I was hoping to do Old San Marcos Pass. That's one of my faves too! And then Painted Cave above that of course. ;-)

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      • Dave Thomson December 27, 2012 at 2:27 pm

        Hi Jonathan - An inspirational post for sure. I'm going to be doing a tour next June from San Louis Obispo to San Diego. I'm going to be staying in Santa Ynez and then going over San Marcos Pass into Santa Barbara. Would you recommend descending on San Marcos Pass Rd (Hwy 154) into SB or taking N San Marcos Rd (sounds like maybe that is what you call Old San Marcos Rd)?

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        • John Lascurettes December 28, 2012 at 2:48 pm

          There is an Old San Marcos Road too (not to be confused with the San Marcos Road which is a state highway). It's probably the funner descent as it's curvier and has fewer cars (going much, much slower).

          Google marks these as San Marcos Pass Road/Chumash Highway/State Hwy 154 and just plain San Marcos Road. In my mind, the latter is actually called Old San Marcos Road (that's how I remember it on the street signs) which is why I make the distinction.

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  • Bill December 26, 2012 at 11:08 am

    Sweet! that gives a little inspiration to get out and ride the landscapes around here even while its wet and soggy. summer is just around the corner!

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  • patrickz December 26, 2012 at 11:13 am

    Thanks for the sunny report. Reminded me of the rides I took from Stanford to the ocean in an old Schwinn that took the bumps better than me. But what fun! Your ride sounds and looks much grander. Congratulations, and a good and safe New Year to you and family.

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  • Granpa December 26, 2012 at 11:30 am

    Back when I went to Cal Poly Pomona I used to climb Glendora Mt. Rd at least once a week. There is great riding down south. Great climate in the winter time. I'm a tad jealous with that golden winter light on the mountain sides.

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  • Nick December 26, 2012 at 11:31 am

    One of my all-time best rides was Little Pine one a full moon in the fall. Rode up with our lights off and our eyes were so well-adjusted by the top it felt like we could have descended without them as well. Love the SB back country and miss being able to ride to front country trails from my house.

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  • Brian December 26, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    Great write-up, Jonathan. Thanks for sharing.

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  • Chris December 26, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    Nice write up!

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  • Jim Lee December 26, 2012 at 2:34 pm

    Beats Forest Park.

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  • Sunny December 26, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    Nice weather. Nice Sunny weather.

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  • Pete December 26, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    Thanks J Maus! I just picked up an MTB for winter training and to improve road skills. I've been in the bay area now about four years and this is an area I want to check out come early spring weekends. Sounds like I'll have to work up to this one (training currently on the Priest Rock climb in Los Gatos) but it'd be well worth it. Good to see pictures of the sun, too, even though I'm only hours north of you...

    Happy Boxing Day everyone!

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  • Joe December 27, 2012 at 11:42 am

    some of the best MTB riding out there.. SC :)

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  • Rob December 28, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    I'm jealous!! We used to ride Little Pine back in the mid-80's. Definitely brings back some fond memories... Sespe Gorge...

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  • q`Tzal December 28, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    main article
    On a clear day, the sun will shimmy off the ocean water and create a silhouette of the Channel Islands.

    Shimmy?
    I blame SwiftKey auto complete; perhaps you meant "shimmer"?

    Great story marred only by the cognitive dissonance of trying to envision the sun shimmying; something Disney animation like and amusing.

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  • drew January 1, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    Gibraltor road, and refugio pass road were my favorites while living in Santa Barbara in the early 80s. Mt bikes were just starting to appear on the radar then.

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