Downtown Santa Cruz to UCSC Via Emma McCrary Trail

West Side Levee Trail of San Lorenzo River to River Street to Golf Club Drive to Emma McCrary Trail to U-Conn Trail
9.6 miles; starting elevation 100 ft; max elevation 800 ft

by Brooke Wright

This is one of the best, if not the best, trails for beginner and intermediate riders who want an enjoyable, exciting ride through the Santa Cruz redwoods without having to memorize a map of details or be concerned about steep or technical sections surprising you. Start to finish, this 9.6-mile ride straight out of downtown Santa Cruz gives a rich taste of the region’s mountain biking offerings—and the best part is you don’t even need to drive to get there.

Starting in downtown Santa Cruz, head north on the west side levee path. To get there, take any main east-west road running through downtown—Water Street, Soquel or Laurel—toward the San Lorenzo River just east of downtown. You’ll find entrance paths leading you onto the paved levee trail.

Follow the levee trail north (away from the ocean) under Soquel Avenue and Water Street, and finally behind The Tannery, a large artist live-work complex. The path ends just behind the Tannery buildings. Head through the parking lot and ride north on River Street for just one block before turning left onto Golf Club Drive. The road says “Not a through street” and becomes narrow, with properties lining it, until it comes to an end at a gate and the trailhead for the Emma McCrary Trail. Take the Emma McCrary Trail, entering to the right of the gate, and follow it for 2.2 miles.

Emma McCrary steadily gains elevation from start to finish. After half a mile it wraps around a canyon and over a wood bridge, after which some woodsy, brush-free switchbacks take you to the Rincon Trail intersection. This is where McCrary ends and U-Conn begins.

U-Conn is a .9-mile steady, relatively steep climb over some roots and rocks with blackberry- and poison oak-dodging to boot. Despite that, it is still beginner-friendly; the sight lines are long, and even the trickiest sections are short. Just when the climbing gets a bit irritating, there is a sign, a curve and a bench to greet you at the end. (You'll now find yourself on the UCSC upper campus. If you want to make a big day of it, take Fuel Break Road, then Chinquapin Road, about 1.3 miles to reach Empire Grade and the entrance of Wilder Ranch State Park, which has many miles of bike trails.)

The return journey is the real fun, of course. Almost exclusively downhill, the trail is smooth and has great sight lines so you can fly through sections and around banked turns without getting surprised by uphill traffic (which there is likely to be). Watching the pace will keep even a beginner at ease, as there are no significant drops or otherwise technical sections to navigate.

Give some breathing room between yourself and anyone else out there—the ride down is roller coaster ride-fun, and don’t want to have to grip your brakes.
When you emerge back at the trailhead, remember the paved world includes cars until you cross back to the levee path and enjoy the car-free cruise back to town.

Photo by Brooke Wright

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