Hell's Half Acre/McKinley Peak
The trail itself is pretty straightforward. You walk along the dirt road for a very very long time. There are gorgeous views on both sides, looking down into the Santa Ynez Valley and into the Manzana River Valley. You can see Hurricane deck and the Sierra Madre in the distance to the North, and the Santa Ynez Mountains to the South. You may even be able to see the ocean horizon, if the day is especially clear.
There is snow in winter and spring, and ice as well, making this a better choice for warmer months.
You begin the hike at the locked gate. In about 3 miles you come to a horse watering station with a picnic table and large water tank. There is a faucet on the back side. In hot months, it feels good to splash some water on your face, especially since you just did quite a long, slow climb.
Past the water tank you continue to climb slowly. You pass a large meadow and then head toward the north side where you find yourself among very large fir trees. It smells like the Sierra Nevada.
Hell's Half Acre is an area of rounded sandstone rock formations and dead manzanita wood that is quite beautiful to look at and fun to explore. The rocks are wind-worn and eroded with small caves. At this point you've gone nearly 6 miles. The road will get steeper from here. Continue if you want, or turn back.
Past Hell's Half Acre the road continues its steady, arduous climb. One particular hill is especially demanding. When you reach the top you will be in manzanita brush with pines that have died from a fire.
After an eternity or so, you will come to a large metal sign marking the Big Cone Spruce trail. The sign is in much better shape than the trail is, but friends and I did do a little work on the top half of the trail and made it down to the camp, so it should still be doable. From the camp, which is dark, shady, swampy and almost spooky, you can continue down the creekbed, following large ducks and a faint, poisonoaky trail all the way to the Manzana trail. The Manzana Narrows will be a left turn when you reach the junction with the Manzana trail. White Ledge will be a right turn. Loops and backpack trips of many designs are possible, all multi-day trips.
If you didn't take the trail to Big Cone Spruce, you can continue along the road, passing McKinley camp along the way. This camp is below the trail and has a spring that runs all year long protected inside a rusty tank. You can fill up your water here and then rest on the picnic table. Or camp if it's a multi-day trip you are doing.
Continue along the road and in about 1/4 mile you will come to its end. McKinley Peak can be climbed from here on the south-east side of its peak.
There is a metal box on a pole with sign-in sheets from the forest service. Some of the things that these backpackers write are pretty funny. This is the trail junction for Mission Pine Springs and beyond, beautiful, wild and remote backpacking destinations.
If this was a day hike to climb McKinley peak, just head back the way you came. You'll need a foot rub when you get home because the trip was a good 20 miles!