While surfing may have first put Santa Cruz on the map, there’s a landlocked sport that’s been gaining traction and attracting international attention over the last couple decades. The epicenter of mountain biking sits right here in “Surf City” with year-round riding conditions and world-class trails just minutes from your home or hotel room.
Whether you’re brand new to the sport or you grew up shredding singletracks, there’s a trail for you in Santa Cruz. We asked Emma Ussat of Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz (MBOSC), Ibis frame designer Roxy Lo and Girls Rock Board Vice President Alexis Morgan to share their favorite trails in the area, how to get into the sport, and how to bike responsibly so that you respect both fellow riders and the trails.
BEST TRAIL FOR BEGINNERS: EMMA MCCRARY
Located in Pogonip park just a few minutes from downtown and the University, the Emma McCrary Trail first winds through a mix of oak and bay forest, along a burbling creek crossed twice by sturdy wooden bridges. The trail then gently climbs into the cool redwood forest before connecting to the more challenging Rincon and U-con trail at the top.
“Emma McCrary is a fantastic beginner route for an out and back that’s very accessible,” says Morgan. “It’s a lot of fun and very user friendly.”
This fun, forgiving flow trail (a continuous flowing ride with very little pedaling required) is also the most sustainable trail in Santa Cruz, even with 80,000 trips a year. Built in March 2012 by 300+ volunteers who donated over 3,500 hours of trail work, the trail’s design includes berms, jumps, and rollers (packed dirt mounds that create intentional bumps to ride over in the trail) with built-in drainage to minimize erosion.
“Every time I ride Emma McCrary I like it even more,” says Ussat. “It’s just super awesome, super fun, and flows really well. I love how you can have fun going uphill and downhill because it’s not super steep.”
For beginners seeking a doubletrack with little to no inclines, the first 4.5 miles of the Aptos Creek Fire Road in Nisene Marks State Park is an easy, flat option for inexperienced riders. There’s also the Old Cove Landing Trail along the coast in Wilder Ranch State Park with endless ocean views.
BEST TRAIL FOR ADVANCED RIDERS: SOQUEL DEMONSTRATION FOREST
All Santa Cruz mountain biking trails are multi-use but on the Soquel Demonstration Forest Flow Trail bikers dominate the landscape. Located in Nisene Marks State Park, the mountain biking review site Singletracks rated this dirt-packed rollercoaster the #1 flow trail in the U.S.
Prepare for long climbs and challenging technical drops (although Ussat assures us you can avoid these if you’re in over your head) in addition to the many berms, jumps, and rollers on this popular ride.
TRAIL WITH THE BEST VIEWS: WILDER RIDGE LOOP
The 4-mile Wilder Ridge Loop in Wilder Ranch State Park climbs through coastal grasslands dotted with wildflowers and rewards bikers with stunning views of the glimmering blue Pacific. If you’re looking for a longer trek, you can connect to several trails, including Baldwin Loop and the enticingly named Enchanted Loop (see below).
MOST DIVERSE TRAIL: THE OLD CABIN CLASSIC
Starting on the ocean-side of Wilder State Park near the historic dairy ranch, The Old Cabin Classic (technically not a trail but the route of a race that takes place every May) offers 11 miles of riding through chaparral, oak woodlands, open coastal prairie, and shady redwoods.
“Wilder incorporates challenging climbing, beautiful vistas, and really fun, challenging drops and turns that go through the Enchanted Loop (my favorite trail),” says Morgan.
While Morgan’s favorite trail may not offer big, sweeping vistas, the Enchanted Loop is blissfully quiet and pleasantly shaded. The singletrack cuts through lush carpets of redwood clover beneath a canopy of Sequoia sempervirens. The MBOSC also did a reroute of the climb in 2016 to restore a badly eroded section and improve the riding experience.
“It has a really fun technical descent that goes through towering bay trees and madrones down into the valley,” explains Ussat, “Then you go through the fern gulley and you take this really mellow, beautiful climb back to the top.”
OTHER TRAILS WORTH RIDING
Henry Cowell State Park (fire roads only)
University of California Santa Cruz (fire roads only)
(For a full list of legal trails, pump tracks and bike parks in Santa Cruz County, check out MBOSC’s website.)
GUIDED MOUNTAIN BIKING TOURS
Some bikers prefer planning their own adventure, but sometimes it’s nice to have a seasoned (and first-aid-certified) guide to show you the ropes. With Ride the Redwoods, whether you’re looking for an cross country ride with ocean views, an adrenaline gravity fueled rip on some more technical tracks, or maybe a mixture of both, they’ve got you covered. In addition to thrilling guided rides of spectacular singletrack, Ride the Redwoods also provides individual and group instruction for riding skills development.
Another great option is The Ride Guides. With over 20 years of experience, The Ride Guides’ team of professional mountain biking guides and coaches are committed to helping you discover your dream trail among Santa Cruz’s superlative singletrack. They’re passionate about Santa Cruz’s environment, from the redwood forests to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and eager to share it with our guests. First-time mountain biker looking to develop a few skills and explore the coast or a seasoned rider looking to challenge yourself on our loamy mountain trails, they’ll customize a tour to suit your needs.
If you’re just looking for someone to ride with, Girls Rock holds public rides every month, weather depending. When it’s too wet to ride, the MBOSC-hosted Dig Days are a great way to meet new friends and help maintain the trails you love.
WHERE TO RENT A BIKE
Santa Cruz not only has 11 bike shops but is also home to leading mountain bike manufacturers like Santa Cruz Bicycles, Ibis, Juliana, and Specialized. For rentals, check out Epicenter Cycling in Aptos, Another Bike Shop on the Westside, Spokesman downtown, or the Family Cycling Center in Pleasure Point.
If you want a little extra help pedaling up those hills, Current eBikes has a selection of electric mountain bikes. Just make sure you do your research first as electric bikes aren’t allowed on all the trails.
TIPS FOR MOUNTAIN BIKING RESPONSIBLY
Stick to legal trails. The first thing riders should know about mountain biking in Santa Cruz is that not all trails found online are legal. Lo, Ussat, and Morgan all stress the importance of staying on legal trails to help cultivate a culture in Santa Cruz that’s friendly and welcoming to the mountain biking community. MBOSC has worked directly with the City on a number of projects to create more legitimate trail access for mountain bikers.
Check conditions. Trails are periodically closed due to storm damage, maintenance, or for prescribed burns which are relatively common in Wilder. To find out whether a trail is open you can call a local bike shop or check MBOSC’s website or social media channels.
When it’s wet, grab a beer instead. Tip number three is avoid biking in the rain and the mud. Despite what most people think this is a) not all that fun and b) bad for the trail and bad for your bike. Riding on wet dirt not only tears up the trail and causes erosion, it’s also bad for you and your bike. The rain and mud wears down the bike’s components and slippery conditions can lead to bad falls and nasty injuries. We say this is the perfect excuse for a hike & beer combo.
Be prepared. Lo reminds riders that it’s up to you to watch out for yourself when you go out on rides in the forest, so plan accordingly. “You’re pretty much fending for yourself out there so be safe,” says Lo. She encourages bikers to go out with a riding buddy and to bring a map because cell service is unreliable on most trails.
Keep it friendly. Last but not least, be respectful of other riders and trail users. “Remember that you’re not the only one using the trail,” says Ussat. “None of the trails are mountain bike specific-they’re all multi-use trails-so be nice and say hello to equestrians and hikers.”