Ultimate Base Camp: Santa Cruz mountain bike destination guide

California Bay Area’s trail ride epicenter offers options galore


Flowin' Santa Cruz

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


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 »

About the author: Don Palermini

Chicago-born Don Palermini became a cycling-based life-form in the sixth grade after completing a family road bike tour of his home state. Three years later he bought his first mountain bike to help mitigate the city's pothole-strewn streets, and began exploring the region's unpaved roads and trails. Those rides sparked a much larger journey which includes all manner of bike racing, commuting, on- and off-road bike advocacy, and a 20-plus-year marketing career in the cycling industry that landed him at his current gig with Santa Cruz bicycles. Now residing in the San Francisco Bay Area, his four favorite words in the English language are "breakfast served all day," together in that order.

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  • thomas says:

    You know what would be really cool?!?!?! Take this whole base camp thing to a whole ‘nother level and feature all different cities! I’m thinking Sedona, AZ, Fraser, CO, Rapid City, ND, Vermont’s Kingdom Trails. . . I could go on and on obviously, but I won’t! Take your great base camp idea and run with it!!

  • Jeffro says:

    Great guide. These legal trails are very representative of the scenery, flora, and spirit of the not-legal mountain biking trails in Santa Cruz (which make up the vast majority of riding there). Wilder Ranch, while also legal, is a far cry from the look & feel of the true SC mtb trails that I grew up riding; thank you for resisting including it here as filler.

  • cave man says:

    Don’t forget the loaded tri tip sandwich at Summit store on Summit rd.
    mmmm- me so hungry!

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