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Local Secret Series: 5 Best Mountain Bike Trails in Santa Cruz

Joel Smith

Santa Cruz has long been considered a mecca for mountain biking. Just minutes from downtown, the singletrack is as bountiful as any riding area in the world. And with year-around temperatures averaging in the mid-60s, Santa Cruz is one of the go-to hot spots for any-time riding.

I’ve lived in Santa Cruz for over ten years now. As anyone who’s spent a bit of time there knows, the shear quantity of trails can make it difficult to separate the good from the great. Below are 5 well-known and hidden gems around Santa Cruz that are a must for mountain bikers.

1. Flow Trail in Demonstration Forest

It’s hard for a rider to find fault with the Flow Trail in Demonstration Forest. Designed and built by local advocacy club and trail builders Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz, the trail is a 40-minute drive from Santa Cruz, and is considered one of the best descents in the US.

The Flow Trail is smooth, it’s flowy, it’s fast and it’s long — running over 3 miles from top to bottom with a vertical drop of just over 1600 feet. The best part about it? Half of the climb is at the start, and half of the climb is at the end, so there’s a plenty of fun to be had in the middle. Weekends are pretty packed in Demo, but during the week you will basically have the entire area to yourself.

2. Pipeline Trail in Toro Regional Park

Every year, thousands of people make the trek to attend the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey. But few make it just a couple of miles across Highway 46 to ride one of the best trails in Central California: The Pipeline Trail in Toro Regional Park.

To get started, Pipeline Trail has a super steep climb to access the trailhead, and they recently starting charging $2 just to enter the park. But the payoff is worth it: The trail traverses a long and windy canyon, and despite the extreme narrowness of the trail in places, it’s fast, flowy, and predictable.

3. Barking Dogs by the UCSC Campus Trail Network

Barking Dogs is a classic Santa Cruz trail because of its proximity to the UCSC Campus trail network and its length. Most of the Campus trails have pretty short descents, but Barking Dogs is a solid 10-minute descent.

Another benefit of Barking Dogs is that only takes an extra 20 minutes of climbing to access the trailhead from Twin Gates. Being slightly out of town also keeps it from being ridden by the hordes, so it’s not as beat down at the rest of the local trails.

4. Braille Trail in Demonstration Forest

One amazing thing about Santa Cruz is the close proximity of great mountain bike trails to other great trails. And Braille Trail is no exception.

Braille is in Demonstration Forest, just one turn earlier off the connecter Ridge Trail before the Flow Trail. As a result, you can do both Braille and the Flow Trail in one day.

Braille is a little more technical than Flow and is farther up the ridge, making it a little shorter. But Braille has a more natural build with some faster sections.

It’s the type of trail that takes a few runs on it to get comfortable on, but when you do, it’s one of the most satisfying trails to hit.

5. The Best of the Rest

Since there are so many trails in the Santa Cruz area, there are a few more that deserve some attention:

Sweetness/Airborne: UCSC Campus Trails

  • Besides getting lost on the vast network of trails, there is no downside to spending a solid week on the Campus trails.
  • There is so much variety there for all levels of riders and the Emma McCrary mountain bike trail, which connects the city to the trails, is a hoot in and of itself.
  • Sweetness and Airborne are two of the original Campus trails, and shouldn’t be missed.

Zane Grey: Wilder State Park

  • A solid trail with amazing Pacific Ocean views, Zane Grey trail is a perfect place to spend a late afternoon and then watch the sunset.
  • The trail isn’t that technical beyond the very top section, but it stays narrow and single-tracky throughout and is usually well maintained by the park rangers.
  • If you’re over in that area, I’d also recommend dropping the Enchanted Forest loop from the ocean side and climbing out on the new access trail MBOSC build just a few years ago.

Marks Canyon: Toro Park

  • Right next to Pipeline in Toro Park, Mark’s Canyon Trail is a little shorter of a descent, and a little less polished than Pipeline, but equally fun.
  • Be on the lookout for wild pigs near the top section of the trail, as they tend to feed in the open meadows before the trail drops into the canyon.

Purisima Creek Trail: Half Moon Bay

  • Just North of Santa Cruz is one of the most beautiful trails around, the Purisima Creek Trail.
  • The bottom is a bit of a grunt to climb, but the middle section is smooth and flowy and the views at the top are all time. In the late afternoon, the fog rolls off the ocean, and the cold cloud-wall you descend into is ethereal.

Of course, hitting the best local trials is only as good as the bike you’re working with. Check out the story behind our Arktos 29 ST, the perfect Santa Cruz trail weapon »


Alchemy’s Joel Smith has been riding mountain bikes for over 35 years. Starting out in the dirt on a converted Laguna-brand cruiser in the mid-1980s, his immediate love of the sport turned into a lifelong career. Smith raced both XC and DH in the 1990s (in the now defunct NORBA National Series) and has worked on nearly every aspect of bike development over his nearly 30-year long career.

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