Coming home to Little Pine Mountain

Coming home to Little Pine Mountain

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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.

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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.
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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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