Posted by: James Wapotich | July 26, 2013

Trail Quest: Gibraltar Reservoir

Completed in 1920, Gibraltar Dam was the first dam built along the Santa Ynez River. The dam was built in response to the growing water needs of Santa Barbara. The reservoir currently supplies about a third of the City’s water.

For the public, the reservoir can only be reached by trail, either on foot, horseback or mountain bike. And it’s this sense of remoteness, combined with the opportunity to travel along the river or through the backcountry that can make the reservoir an appealing destination. Although no swimming is allowed in the reservoir.

There are several ways to reach Gibraltar Reservoir by trail. Perhaps the most common is from the Red Rock Trailhead at the end of Paradise Road. The reservoir can also be visited from East Camino Cielo Road. Both North Tunnel Trail, which connects to Devil’s Canyon Trail, and the gated access road at Angostura Pass arrive near the dam. And from Cold Spring Trail one can connect to Gibraltar Trail, which follows the southern side of the reservoir to the dam.

Santa Ynez River


One approach is to start from East Camino Cielo, take Cold Spring Trial to Gibraltar Trail and follow Gibraltar Trail to the Red Rock Trailhead, which allows one to see more of the area. The hike along this route is about 12.25 miles and includes a visit to Sunbird Quicksilver Mine.

To get to the trailhead for this hike, find your way to Gibraltar Road in the foothills behind Santa Barbara. Gibraltar Road climbs to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains where it intersects East Camino Cielo Road. Turn right and continue east on East Camino Cielo as it traverses the top of the mountains.

The first pullout that one sees along the left hand side of the road offers an excellent view of the dam and reservoir, as well as the Santa Barbara backcountry.

Continue along East Camino Cielo to where Cold Spring Trail crosses the road. The trail juncture is noticeable by the cement water tower and large pullout area on the right hand side of the road. Parking is found at the pullout.

From the trailhead continue down the backside of the mountains along Cold Spring Trail towards the Santa Ynez River. At about the 1.75-mile mark the trail arrives at Forbush Flats. Here one can find two campsites tucked under the tress along Gidney Creek. Both sites have a picnic table and fire ring, and can make for a good overnight backpacking destination in the spring when water is more plentiful.

Forbush Flats was once the homestead of Frederick Forbush who built a small cabin there in 1910. The pear and olive trees he planted can still be seen between the two campsites.

Cold Spring Trail continues over the small ridge that defines the northern edge of the horseshoe-shaped meadow at Forbush Flats. The trail then continues its descent towards the Santa Ynez River following an unnamed creek part of the way. A portion of the creek often has water year round, and in the spring the waterfall found along the creek can be quite striking.

At about the 3-mile mark, just past the waterfall, the trail arrives at an open, grassy area. Here Cold Spring Trail arrives at the intersection with Gibraltar Trail. Both trails are marked with brown carsonite signs.

Cold Spring Trail continues down the canyon roughly another quarter before arriving at the Santa Ynez River. From there Cold Spring Trail continues north, passing through what is affectionately known as the Mono Jungle, before arriving at Mono Campground.

Gibraltar Trail continues to the west. The trail climbs out of the canyon and parallels the Santa Ynez River, offering great views of the confluence of the Santa Ynez River and Mono Creek, as well as the Mono Jungle. Both are marked by a dense growth of cottonwood trees.

The original area of the reservoir is said to have extended above the confluence, and as it filled with sediment, it shrank to its current size. As the reservoir retreated, riparian plants colonized the basin, most noticeably cottonwood trees.

When the reservoir was built it had a capacity of 14,500 acre feet. By 1945 sedimentation had reduced its storage capacity by almost half. In 1948 the top of the dam was raised 23 feet, restoring the reservoir’s capacity. Debris dams were also built along Mono and Agua Caliente Creeks in the 1930s to intercept sediment; both were filled with sediment within several years.

Sedimentation continues to reduce the reservoir’s capacity by approximately 150 acre feet per year. The current capacity is around 5,000 acre feet. In comparison Cachuma Lake has a storage capacity of approximately 190,000 acre feet.

Gibraltar Trail is in generally good shape and follows the remnants of an old road bed. At about the 6-mile mark from the trailhead, the trail arrives at the Sunbird Quicksilver Mine. Here one is sometimes rewarded with expansive views of the reservoir, however during dry years such as this, the western edge of water is still roughly a half mile downstream.

Cinnabar, from which quicksilver can be derived, was first discovered along the Santa Ynez River in the 1860s by Jose Moraga. The orangish-red rock can seen in a number of places along the river. The last mining operation near the reservoir was the Sunbird Quicksilver Mine, which ran from the 1960s to the early 1990s when the domestic market for cinnabar collapsed. The site is now surrounded by a chain link fence for safety.

Past the mine, the trail widens some as the road bed becomes more pronounced. The trail then descends towards Gidney Creek, tracing the contours of Gidney Cove, before climbing back out of the canyon and arriving at the access road from Angostura Pass.

Both the access road and North Tunnel Trail start along East Camino Cielo Road, roughly three-quarters of mile west of the intersection with Gibraltar Road.

Gibraltar Trail continues west along the access road and a half mile later arrives at Gibraltar Dam. Here one can find two picnic tables: one under a couple of pine trees overlooking the reservoir, and the other, unshaded overlooking the dam.

From the dam continue west along the road as it descends down towards the river. A half mile later the road splits with the road to the right doubling back and continuing towards the base of the dam; this road is not open to the public.

Stay to the left, and almost immediately the access road branches again. From this intersection, Gibraltar Trail follows the road to the right a short distance before crossing the Santa Ynez River and continuing downstream along the river towards the Red Rock trailhead. While the road to the left continues past Devil’s Canyon Trail and continues above the river to the Red Rock trailhead. Both routes are about three miles long, and if starting from the Red Rock Trailhead can be combined to make a nice loop hike to the dam.

At this intersection, to the south one can see a green V-notched weir across Devil’s Canyon Creek. The weir can be lowered to divert water to Mission Tunnel to supplement the flow from Gibraltar Reservoir. To north, across the river one can see what’s left of Gibraltar Camp. The site was originally were the workers building the dam lived. In the 1930s it became a campground and was eventually closed in the 1980s.

As Gibraltar Trail continues downstream it passes several good size pools, including the popular Red Rock. The pools usually have some water in them even when the river is flowing intermittently.

Regardless of how far you hike you’ll get to see some of what makes the Santa Ynez River an appealing destination.

The article originally appeared in section A the July 26th, 2013 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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