Mountain Biking in Santa Cruz – A Few Thoughts from a Visitor

full-suspension bikes
Hanging out under the forest canopy.

Mountain Biking in Santa Cruz at a Glance

  • Where to Rent
  • Where to Ride
  • A Few Thoughts on the Rental Bike
  • Where to Refuel
  • Other Fun Stuff to Know about Mountain Biking in Santa Cruz

A summer of cycling in Phoenix has really taken its toll on me. I’m just absolutely sick of the heat, the bike infrastructure closures and the drivers (I spend most of my time riding a road bike, at least until fall).

An early September trip to Santa Cruz reminded me of why the hell I am so willing to endure desert riding. Mountain biking wasn’t the main focus of the trip. We all just wanted to not be hot for a few days.

Fortunately, it’s easy to squeeze in some saddle time while visiting Santa Cruz. That’s down to a combination of factors: The trails are close to town, the bike infrastructure is excellent, and you can easily get your hands on a decent bike if you didn’t bring your own.

Where to Rent

COVID-19 is the biggest obstacle to renting a bike in Santa Cruz. Some shops have stopped their rental programs altogether.

Fortunately, Epicenter Cycling came through. They’re an all-Trek store, which candidly didn’t thrill me. That’s a personal quirk — I’m very anti-The Big Bike Companies.

mountain biking in santa cruz
My rental from Epicenter Cycling.

They didn’t have a hardtail in my size, so I splashed some extra cash for a carbon-fiber Trek Fuel EX 9.7 dualie. The shop techs installed my pedals, dialed in the suspension for my weight and sent me on my way.

Also nice: The employee handling the front-of-house duties was kind enough to stash my regular walking shoes behind the counter. My wife dropped me off, and I planned to just walk back to the hotel (about a mile away) after my ride. My overall impression of Epicenter is that it’s a good shop stashed by a very helpful bunch of employees.

Worth noting: Santa Cruz is home of Santa Cruz Bicycles. They often have demo days, so it’s worth checking their schedule to see if you can grab one. I’m an OG Santa Cruz owner — I had one of the original Heckler models back in the old days (coil shock, Shimano V-Brakes and a RockShox Judy DH that my ol’ buddy Pepperoni Doug lent me … three inches of travel, which was considered a downhill fork in its day!). I’ve since had two Superlights, but I can’t personally vouch for the newer models. I’m sure they’re solid, though.

Where to Ride

Wilder Ranch State Park is the closest trail network to where we stayed — and to Epicenter Cycling. I took a wrong turn, so I lost a few minutes getting headed in the right direction. There’s an absolutely perfect car-free cycling path all the way out to Wilder Ranch as well as a decent bike lane along the road.

mountain biking in santa cruz
Some Trailforks info to help you plan your mountain biking in Santa Cruz.

I fumbled my way around to get under the road and to the mountain bike trails, though. This stemmed from taking a left on the cycling path when I should’ve gone straight. No big deal either way, though.

Getting Down to Business

Once on the trails, I hit the Cowboy Loop first. It’s a nice little warmup that starts with a stiff climb. It soon decreases in pitch, giving you a steady climb through a grassland type of environment. Toward the end, there’s a grade with a switchback that will make you glad to have a dropper. The Cowboy Loop closes with a shady, beautiful romp that includes a little stream crossing.

mountain biking in santa cruz
Heading out toward the Cowboy Loop.

Next up is a new section called the West Englesman Reroute which connects to the regular ol’ Englesman Reroute. You’re starting to gain elevation here while working your way in and out of the shade. All in all, a nice 2-mile warmup for your legs.

From there, I went into the Wild Boar, Old Cabin, Baldwin/Enchanted/Eucalyptus fire road, Rodrigo, Bobcat, Twin Oaks and Wilder Ridge trails. Wilder Ridge took me back to the beginning.

If you try following a similar route, be aware that I cost myself some fun. I think I should’ve gone straight where Bobcat met Rodrigo and the Enchanted Loop to connect to the Baldwin Loop. Signage could be a bit better at Wilder Ranch.

mountain biking in santa cruz

Most of the riding was technically not very difficult. One of the main challenges was dealing with changing lighting conditions as I cruised into and out of the forest canopy. There are also a few tricky bits on the Old Cabin section.

A Few Thoughts on the Rental Bike

The Trek felt efficient – even on the bike path I rode to get to the off-road trails, the suspension didn’t distract me at all.

mountain biking in santa cruz

It also handled every climb — felt efficient on the easier fire road climbs, but also was excellent on steep and technical stuff. Solid on downhills. In the past 6 months or so, I’ve demoed/rented a Rocky Mountain Altitude, an Ibis Ripmo AF and this Trek. I like the Trek best, and it really pains me to say that; I have a very surly attitude toward the big brands!

The only problem I had with the Trek is that it just has one water bottle mount. That’s a deal breaker when considering buying one.

Where to Refuel

Before the ride, I enjoyed an excellent breakfast at Verve, a coffeeshop right along the wonderful Coastal Rail Trail — a serving of overnight oats and their flash-brewed coffee fueled me up right. They also do an excellent cappuccino — just the right temperature with perfect latte-style microfoam — and a nice egg-and-cheese sandwich.

mountain biking in santa cruz
A skillfully prepared cappuccino at Verve Coffee Roasters.

For post-ride refueling, Santa Cruz seems to be all about tacos and burritos. These are not exactly my favorites. I’d recommend instead seeking out Monster Pot for some awesome Chinese options. There’s also a Korean place immediately next to Monster Pot.

Both are much more my speed than the usual burritos, pizza or burgers. You can find plenty of those in the same area, if that’s more your speed.

Other Fun Stuff to Know about Mountain Biking in Santa Cruz

I’ve enjoyed some great riding all over the planet, from British Columbia to New Zealand. Wilder Ranch wasn’t as varied or extensive, but they are still an absolute treat to ride, especially if you’ve been beaten down by summer heat as some guy from Arizona. I simply felt amazing — I motored up the climbs and was able to thrive even without a massive ongoing infusion of electrolytes.

Relive ‘Wilder Ranch Ramble’

You’ll see a variety of people on the Wilder Ranch trails, even parents pulling kids on the fire roads. But the singletrack is the real deal. If you don’t have fun darting in and out of the forest, please have your pulse checked — you’re just not wired right!

I’d also consider renting a road bike to enjoy the infrastructure. Drivers also seem less homicidal with rage at the thought of having bikes around, so that’s nice. Also, I found two pump tracks without even trying. The cycling culture in Santa Cruz makes me so jealous that I can’t even express it.

Bottom line, mountain biking in Santa Cruz will make you happy. Go do it!

This post just might contain affiliate links. Fear not, they’re non-spammy and benign. Hey, I have to keep this thing running somehow!

Categorized as Adventures

By Wandering Justin

Writer. Traveler. Gastronomic daredevil. Fitness fan. Homebrewer. Metal dude \m/. Cat and dog lover.

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