Trail builder Matt De Young tests his work on the new flow track at Soquel Demonstration State Forest near Santa Cruz, Calif. Photo by Bogdon Marion

This article is part of Mtbr's Ultimate Base Camp feature. See all the stories in this special section here.

Sending it in Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz, Calif.

Hang out in Santa Cruz for a day or two and you'll likely see a "Keep Santa Cruz Weird" bumper sticker or two…or 10. Those four simple words aptly summarize the quirky California beach resort town-turned-fiercely independent mini republic. And while claiming to embrace diversity and open-mindedness, the attitude toward mountain biking hasn't always been welcoming. But thanks to the efforts of relentless local advocates and changing attitudes of land managers, the area is shedding its contentions and (somewhat) opening its arms to mountain bikers.

Located less than an hour's drive from Mtbr World HQ, we like to think of Santa Cruz as our extended backyard. And despite the inevitable selfish "locals only" and "Valley go home" chorus we'll likely elicit, we're gonna tell you about it anyway…

Ride 1: Soquel Demonstration State Forest

Ride Snapshot:

On the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains between Silicon Valley and the coastal waves of Santa Cruz itself lies the Soquel Demonstration State Forest, known in the vernacular simply as "Demo." Boasting some of the best legal mountain biking in the San Francisco Bay Area, Demo is a regional riding hotspot that plays host not only to the annual Santa Cruz Super Enduro, rides from the Santa Cruz Mountain Bike Festival, and Trek Dirt Series mountain bike camp, but serves as a test track for a number of the bike industry's biggest players, Specialized, FOX, Bell, X-Fusion, Giro, Santa Cruz, Ibis, and Easton Cycling among them. It also served as the proving ground for our Enduro Compare-O bike shootout earlier this year.

Lauren Rocks

An old forestry skid trail-turned-legit MTB track, Sawpit Trail makes the longest loop in Demo and offers some fast, fun and flowy lines. Here pro racer Lauren Gregg aces the rock garden. Photo by Tyler Frasca

From sinewy rolling singletrack to techy downhill sections with numerous drops, jumps and stunts, Demo's trails offer a fun, progressive riding environment. This spring, two segments of a new, six-part flow trail opened to rave reviews, adding another dimension to the riding options in the forest. Dry weather has halted construction for this season, but the completed sections 3 and 5 are open for riding and account for about a quarter of what will be a four mile flow trail.

JKW get's his flow on

Pro endurolete Jeff Kendall-Weed was on hand at the flow trail opening to fly in low earth orbit over the new trail. Photo by Bogdon Marian

Presuming it rains this winter, the trail should be completed in the spring of 2015 and will compete with the established Braille, Sawpit and Corral trails for riders' downhill affections. And when we say "downhill" we really mean enduro-style downhill in the American sense-gravity-driven and technical, but not like the full-face/full-pads European variety.

For the strong-of-leg, multiple runs that combine some or all of these options is within the realm of doabiity, but newbies and first-time visitors would be wise to moderate their enthusiasm-the venue features significant climbs at both at the start and the end of almost every ride.

Balancing on Braille

Some riders describe Braille Trail as "freeride light." It's long been the favorite option at Demo of more aggressive riders. Photo by Tyler Frasca

For a 2-3 hour "greatest hits" ride, we suggest The Blind Horse, a route that traverses the crest on Ridge Trail, descends Corral, comes back up Sulphur Springs (sometimes called Suffer Springs for reasons your legs will alert you of) then drops down Braille before climbing out the Hihn's Mill Fire Road. It packs roughly 3,000 feet of climbing in 15 miles of riding, and-in our opinion-the highest fun-to-climbing ratio of any route in the forest.

You can download a PDF of the map below which includes this and other route suggestions, as well as driving directions to the trailhead. Check out our notes on the next page under "Outfitters" if you'd rather shuttle up from Santa Cruz instead.

Demo Map

NOTE: This map shows the flow trail sections as closed but sections 3 and 5 are actually open for riding and accessible from either end of Tractor Trail. There are signs in the forest to direct you.
MAP PDF DOWNLOAD: Mtbr Soquel Demo Forest Map.

Ride Level:

We'd peg the technical difficulty of Demo at advanced intermediate-it's definitely not the place to take someone who's new to the sport, and it requires both fitness and technical skills. By adding in Demo's many optional stunts and jumps, you can scale the difficulty level to expert if you wish.

Kurt rolled

Most of the stunts and rollovers are optional, like this one on Braille Trail. Photo by Tyler Frasca

Seasonality:

In normal years, the Bay Area enjoys some of the nation's most desirable weather conditions with year-round high temperatures averaging between 60 and 80-degrees. Rainfall events are seldom for most of the year but precipitation is common between November and March. The last couple years have seen very little rain even in the winter. Except in periods of extended daily rain, riding is a year-round possibility here. But if you're travelling from far away, it's best to shoot for the April through September timeframe just to be safe.

Continue to Page 2 for more on Santa Cruz and full photo gallery »



Emmy on Emma

Fun, flowy lines define the ride experience on Santa Cruz's Emma McCrary Trail. Photo by Tyler Frasca

Ride 2: Emma McCrary Trail, Wilder Ranch State Park

While the Santa Cruz visitor's bureau makes much ado about the Giant Dipper roller coaster on the town's signature Beach Boardwalk, local mountain bikers know the true thrill ride starts not on the waterfront, but at the edge of the woods on the west side. Beginning near the ruins of an old country club (the clubhouse of which served as the set for grandpa's house in the movie The Lost Boys), the Emma McCrary Trail climbs gradually from Golf Club Drive and winds its way for just over two miles through a city-managed open space called the Pogonip. Almost smooth enough to ride on a road bike, the flow-style trail connects to the Uconn Trail-short for University Connector-that ascends in leg-straining earnestness to the redwood-punctuated campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC).

The Full Monty

The Emma McCrary trail is down Highway 9 a few miles from the Santa Cruz Redwoods RV Resort and Monty's Log Cabin cocktail bar. Photos by Don Palermini

From here, we'll skip the controversial UCSC trails and direct you to take the fire road right for about 2.5 miles to the Twin Gates at Empire Grade Road. Once through, you roll into amazing ocean vistas as you descend towards the coast in Wilder Ranch State Park. Though a bit complex, we've put together a downloadable route map that takes you through a mix of fire roads and singletrack before bringing you up, around and back to the Emma McCrary Trailhead. Download it to your phone and print out a copy-with modest navigational skills you should be in for a sweet three hour-ish ride.

MTBR Wild Emma

Our Emma McCrary/Wilder Ranch route takes some navigational fortitude, but is well worth the effort. Base map courtesy of Virtual Parks.

Ride Level:

Technically speaking, this is a beginner-to-intermediate ride, with nothing too scary. Ironically the sketchiest sections tend to be fire roads, where heaping helpings of fresh gravel combined with some steepness can get loose in a hurry. Physically, the ride requires modest fitness. It's long and there's a fair amount of climbing, though nothing exceptionally steep.

Other sweet rides in the area

Saratoga Gap Open Space, El Corte de Madera Creek (AKA Skeggs), Santa Teresa County Park, Waterdog Lake Park

Outfitters, supplies, bike shops, repairs

Santa Cruz is home a disproportionate number of bike shops, most of which are very good for both customers and cycling culture as well. Epicenter Cycling has two well-stocked area locations and sponsors a segment of the new Demo flow trail. Scotts Valley Cycle Sport in nearby Scotts Valley backs high school mountain bike racing big time and features a great selection and knowledgeable staff as well.

If you're hankering to try out a new bike from the town's namesake bike company, you can pick one up from the factory and give it a spin by registering for their Santa Cruz Factory Demo Program. Just over a stone's throw away, Ibis offers a similar demo program but with a twist-they charge a small fee, but that money goes to local advocacy group Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz. Email them at [email protected] for details and availability.

For straight-up rentals, Trailhead Cyclery on the valley side of the hill boasts a killer demo fleet. But be warned-you might end up buying yourself a new bike at the end of the day.

For shuttle services, Shuttle Smith Adventures will give you a lift from Santa Cruz to Demo both saving you the twisty drive up Highway 17, and tacking on a 12 mile fire road downhill to the end of your ride.

Santa Cruz from on high

The West Coast surf and mountain bike paradise of Santa Cruz, Calif. as seen from above. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Grub, beans and brew

On a busy east side corner, far from the tourist's Santa Cruz sits Charlie Hong Kong -one of the town's best eateries that's not only tasty and healthy but cheap to boot. Spicy Dan's Peanut Delight, Gado Gado and the green curry chicken rice bowl are all delicious options and just the tip of the menu's iceberg.

Charlie Hong Kong Santa Cruz

Sorry/not sorry for teasing you with Charlie Hong Kong photos making you hungry. Photos courtesy of Charlie Hong Kong.

Of Santa Cruz's countless taquerias, Taqueria La Cabaña on the far west side stands out from the crowd. Whether you're all about the veggies-try the fresh artichoke or cactus tacos-or are in the mood for a meat-and-potatoes California burrito that combines carne asada and French fries, this place never disappoints.

Just down Mission Street from La Cabaña is Burger, which, not surprisingly, serves gourmet hamburgers…along with an exceptional selection of craft brews. Also on the "good brew" list-downtown's 99 Bottles, the Seabright Brewery and Santa Cruz Aleworks, not far from the Emma McCrary Trailhead.

Finally, since we camped down Highway 9 near the town of Felton, we'd be remiss not to mention Monty's Log Cabin cocktail bar--perhaps the world's only log cabin dive bar.

For coffee lovers, Verve Coffee Roasters' addictively amazing new-school joe is offered at three locations in Santa Cruz, while Lulu Carpenter's in Santa Cruz and Coffee Cat in Scotts Valley rock the java party in old-school style.

If you end up in Scott's Valley, Jia Tella's serves up tasty Cambodian cuisine, while its adjacent JT's Next Door bar is always a good time.

Accomodations

Camping: We dropped anchor at the cozy Santa Cruz Redwoods RV Resort-a great, family-run campground that accommodated our little GO trailer, ginormous bus-like RV's and tent camping alike. It's a tad pricey, but considerably less than motels and hotels in the area, particularly in the busy summer season. If you can get a reservation, camping at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, as well as at state beach campgrounds south of town at New Brighton, Seacliff and Manresa are more economical despite steady fee increases over the last several years.

Motels: What they call "moderately priced" in Santa Cruz is about $200 a night, but at least the Mission Inn is very nice though located on a busy street. The Best Western Plus in Scotts Valley is well situated between the trails of Santa Cruz and Demo and rooms can be had for a more reasonable $139 a night. If money is no object, stay at the ritzy Chaminade which will run you about $300 per night.

Santa Cruz Redwoods RV Resort

Our neighbors for the night at Felton, California's Santa Cruz Redwoods RV Resort? Hundred year old redwoods and an Airstream. Photo by Don Palermini

Tips

    • Unfortunately bike theft is a cottage industry in Santa Cruz. Lock your bike well and always keep an eye on it.
 
  • If you're coming from the valley side to Santa Cruz on a weekend day in the summer get over the hill early. The beach crowds clog Highway 17 worse than commuters during the week.
 

 
  • Riders looking for an epic ride option at Soquel Demonstration State Forest can start from the bottom of the Forest of the Nisene Marks in Aptos on the Santa Cruz side of the hill. A steep, 12-mile climb takes you to Demo's Ridge Trail and adds big miles and climbing onto the ride.
 

 
  • Watch your speed on the fire roads-though they look harmlessly un-technical, steep, loose, off-camber descents in Wilder Ranch and Nisene Marks surprise many riders.
 

 

NOTE: Each of the bike companies and shops mentioned contribute in some way to the larger trail community, most often through the excellent local IMBA club, the Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz.

This article is part of Mtbr's Ultimate Base Camp feature. See all the stories in this special section here.