Posted by: James Wapotich | February 26, 2012

Trail Quest: Red Rock and Beyond

With Paradise Road now open and the bridge at Lower Oso repaired a number of trails and day use areas are now available for recreation, including the ever popular Red Rock. From the Red Rock trailhead one can hike to Red Rock, Gibraltar Dam and the even more remote Sunbird Quicksilver Mine.

Red Rock Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Trail Hike

Red Rock

Paradise Road is a roughly 11 mile road that runs from State Route 154 to the Red Rock trailhead, where it ends, along the way the road crosses the Santa Ynez River six times. This stretch of the Santa Ynez River is a popular destination and its closure has been felt by a lot of people.

At that first river crossing Paradise Road is often closed from winter rains, although this year that has yet to happen. Last year Paradise Road was closed at First Crossing from December 2010 to July 2011.

When it was reopened last July, it was discovered that the bridge over Oso Creek at the Lower Oso Day Use Area, just barely past First Crossing, was undermined by the winter storms and in need of repair and so Paradise Road remained closed from Lower Oso to Red Rock until just last weekend, a record 14 months.

In the fall the Forest Service was able to secure funds and repair the bridge and then complete its environmental assessment and clear debris along the road, also from last year’s rains. And so at long last the road and all sites are now open to visitors.

To get to the trailhead for Red Rock from Santa Barbara take State Route 154 over San Marcos Pass and turn right onto Paradise Road and follow it all the way to the end. An adventure pass is still currently required to park and camp within the National Forest, although that may change.

From the parking lot there are actually two trails or routes, from the far left end of the lot there is a trail that follows the river, also known as the Gibraltar Trail, and to the far right of the lot there is an access road to Gibraltar Dam that rides above the river. The two routes meet just below the dam and make for a good loop hike of about 5.5 miles.

To get to just Red Rock, take the river route from the far left end of the parking lot. Red Rock is roughly a half mile in and so the hike is about a mile roundtrip. Red Rock is a tall, prominent rock outcropping overlooking the waters of the Santa Ynez River, and takes its name from the mercuric sulfide or cinnabar found in the rock that gives it its distinctive orangish-red color.

It is this same cinnabar, that when processed can be made into mercury or quicksilver and is what gave rise to the Sunbird Quicksilver Mine, remnants of which still overlook Gibraltar Reservoir. The hike to the mine is long, roughly 12 miles roundtrip so plan accordingly, but the views of the reservoir are exceptional and the mine itself makes for an interesting destination. The trail is also well suited for mountain bikes and horseback and there is space for trailer parking at the trailhead.

Gibraltar Reservoir Lake Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Hike Trail

The Santa Ynez River is seen emptying into Gibraltar Reservoir

For this hike I recommend starting at the far right end of the parking lot and taking the access road in as it is a long hike and the road makes for easier traveling and you can still take the river route on the way out depending on how much time you have. From the access road be on the lookout for a side trail on your left just after the first turn in the road. This side trail will save a half mile on the hike in.

The hike along access road provides some nice views of the river and the surrounding valley. At the 2.5 mile mark the road drops back down to river where it meets the Gibraltar Trail, which follows the Santa Ynez River. From here the Gibraltar Trail joins the access road and both continue uphill toward Gibraltar Dam. At the 3 mile mark the trail arrives at the dam where there are two picnic tables. No swimming is allowed in the reservoir.

From the dam continue east along the road. At about the 3.5 mile mark the trail branches. To the right Angostura Pass Road continues away from the reservoir and eventually connects up with East Camino Cielo. From here the Gibraltar Trail continues to the left, past a gate and along an old access road and almost immediately offers some great views of Gidney Cove.

Gidney Cove Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Backcountry Gibraltar Trail Dam Hike

Gidney Cove

It’s here that Gidney Creek empties out into Gibraltar Reservoir forming a long cove that the road circumnavigates. On this particular hike the upper reaches of the cove were teeming with full-size goldfish that someone must’ve released into the reservoir. Surprisingly there weren’t more bear and mountain lion tracks along the shore with such a tempting meal close at hand, although there was sufficient evidence of their presence along the trail.
Santa Barbara Backcountry Gibraltar Lake Reservoir

Goldfish in Gibraltar Reservoir

Past Gidney Cove one can start to see the upper reaches of Gibraltar Reservoir and even see where the Santa Ynez River empties into the reservoir. Also visible is a prominent sandbar, silt from the 2007 Zaca Fire that’s been carried downstream and deposited there.

The trail rounds one last corner and arrives at the mine, which is a surprising large structure given how remote it is. The building is completely fenced off for safety, but there is still much to see, including old ore cars, the gated mine shaft and even a truck with Sunbird Mines Ltd painted on the side.

Sunbird Quicksilver Mine Gibraltar Lake Reservoir Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Backcountry

The Sunbird Quicksilver Mine overlooking the eastern end of Gibraltar Reservoir

The mine’s history dates back to the 1860s when a prospector named Jose Moraga discovered the cinnabar bearing vein of rock that can still be seen behind the processing plant. During the California Gold Rush mercury or quicksilver was used in hydraulic mining or sluicing and was much in demand and the mine saw a flurry of activity. However because of the remoteness of the site, as the demand for quicksilver played out the mine lay all but forgotten until the First and Second World War when mercury along with other raw materials were needed.

The Sunbird Mining Company was the last venture for the mine and started in the 1960s when a spike in the demand and price for mercury made the operation enticing. Sunbird ran the mine until the early 1990s when the domestic cinnabar market finally collapsed. The mine has remained dormant since.

Sunbird Quicksilver Mine Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara Hike Trail

Ore cars for the Sunbird Quicksilver Mine

The Gibraltar Trail continues past the mine for roughly another half mine, at which point it branches with the Gibraltar Trail continuing to the left towards the Cold Springs Trail and the remnant mine road continuing to the right and making an overgrown and hard to follow mini loop back the road.

Regardless of how far you hike you will get some of what makes the Santa Ynez River such a captivating destination.

This article originally appeared in Section A of the February 26th, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


  1. Second photo above, of the east end of Gibraltar, where Santa Ynez River empties (confluence with Mono Creek): was it made recently, or in 1960’s? 1950’s? Thanks.

    • It’s from this year. All of the images I’ve taken for the News-Press are usually from within a week or two of publication, that is I’ve hiked the trail either the weekend before or two weeks before, in this case it was the weekend before.

      • Thanks James – I did further web searching that there has been a great deal of sedimentation and forest growth, so that your “confluence” and my “east end” are not the same location, mine being further upstream where Mono and SYR meet! Prior to about 2000, there was quite a deal of open water between the woods below the mercury mine and the 3rd woodland east of there. Now, except for the waterway, there is contiguous forest from nearly the mouth of Camuesa Ck to Mono Camp and up the SYR to Blue Cyn… I had feared the fires and near record rainfall recently had wiped out the forest; happy it is still intact — of course, that is to chagrin and consternation of water managers in SB. Thank you for answering my questions! Here is link to a photo of area to which I refer [4th one down]:

      • Thanks Jim, didn’t want to correct you, but as you noted the confluence is further east. The sediment from the 2007 Zaca Fire definitely altered the landscape in a number of way, the more subtle being as you pointed out the rivers and creeks downstream outside of the burn area! Thanks also for all the great bird shots on your website.

      • James – the sad thing is now the agencies are pitted against each other, and one endangered species (Least Bell’s Vireo) against another (Trout). Remove Gibraltar Dam and the beautiful, lush riparian forests for 2 miles upstream will definitely decay into scrubby, dry shrublands (eventually returning to their pre-dam state). The LBV will not likely thrive as it did once – I counted 50+ pairs in 1979-82, in my limited area [upstream of your photo], but by 1998 or so, it had declined to under 15 pairs (likely due to some pairs moving annually downstream with the younger woodland, which is what LBV do, being a bird of riparian “thickets”). Thus, while the trouts may thrive if they “get rid of” all the dams (Bradbury, Gibraltar, Jameson), the vireo will become as it was when I found the population, a scrarce remnant of what Grinnell and Miller (and Waldo Abbott, former curator at SBMNH) found in their days.

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