Posted by: James Wapotich | April 12, 2014

Trail Quest: Devil’s Canyon

The trails along the backside of the Santa Ynez Mountains can be a refreshing break from the more popular front country trails of Santa Barbara, and can provide a chance to explore areas that have more of a backcountry feel.

The lower portion of Devil’s Canyon typically has water in it, and the trail through the canyon arrives at the Santa Ynez River just below Gibraltar Dam, providing an alternate way to experience this portion of river.

Because both the route along the trail and Angostura Pass Road start at the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains and lead down to the dam, one can make a loop hike and enjoy a variety of scenery. The hike along the trail and back is about nine miles, while the loop route is about 11 miles.

Gibraltar Reservoir Santa Barbara hike trail Los Padres National Forest Tunnel Trail Devil's Cayon

The San Rafael Mountains frame a view of Gibraltar Reservoir

To get to the trailhead, find your way to Gibraltar Road in the foothills of Santa Barbara, and follow it to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Turn left onto East Camino Cielo Road, and continue a short way to the first pullout on the right, which is the beginning of Angostura Pass Road. Parking is found along the very beginning of the unpaved access road. The drive from Santa Barbara is about 20 minutes.

Continue along the access road past the metal sign that says Gibraltar Dam. Here, you can already start to see the San Rafael Mountains in the distance. Next, you’ll arrive at a locked metal gate across the road with a sign indicating that Gibraltar Dam is seven miles further. This is the distance along the road to the dam, although the actual distance is more like 6.5 miles.

The route along North Tunnel Trail to the dam is about 4.5 miles. The beginning of North Tunnel Trail is easy to miss along the road now that the carsonite sign marking the trail has been damaged. What you’ll want to watch for is the first big turn in the road that provides views out towards Gibraltar Reservoir, and look for the trail on your left.

Here, North Tunnel Trail leaves Angostura Pass Road and begins its descent down towards the Santa Ynez River. The trail leads through a mix of chaparral plants including chamise, ceanothus, manzanita and holly-leaf cherry, and is in generally good shape. Views from the trail out towards the San Rafael Mountains include Little Pine Mountain, to the northwest, and Madulce Peak, to the northeast.

Devil's Canyon trail map hike Santa Barbara Los Padres National Forest Angostura Pass Road

Map courtesy Maps.com

The trail starts off mostly shaded, and where it crosses several dry side creeks one can find bay laurel and maple trees. Along the trail are also two small stands of madrone trees, remnants from a time when Southern California was a much wetter region, more akin to how Northern California is now. With its red bark, madrone can be mistaken for manzanita, which grows as more of a low shrub or tree.

At the 2-mile mark, North Tunnel Trail ends, arriving at the beginning of Matias and Devil’s Canyon Trail. From the signed intersection, Matias Trail continues west towards Arroyo Burro Road, and Devil’s Canyon Trail continues towards the Santa Ynez River, descending down through Devil’s Canyon.

Continue along Devil’s Canyon Trail as it follows a side drainage east before joining the main creek. Here, the trail starts to take on more of a remote feeling, becoming more wooded and shaded as it continues.

It’s also here that one starts to find bear sign on the trees, that is places where bears have scratched and bitten the trees, in this case sycamore. Bears tend to mark and rub on trees along their travel routes, and are said to select trees, such as alder and sycamore for the high contrast the marks make, or pine for the scent that is activated.

Devil's Canyon hike trail Santa Barbara Los Padres national forest

Devil’s Canyon Trail follows a side canyon down to Devil’s Canyon Creek

The trail then arrives at the main creek, which typically has water flowing in it. The presence of bear sign, and alder trees in the creek are both potential indicators that at least a portion of the creek flows year round. This section of the trail, unfortunately is also loaded with poison oak.

At about the 4-mile mark, the trails arrives at the access road that leads to Gibraltar Dam. To the left, the road continues over towards Red Rock Trailhead, and to the right, follows Devil’s Canyon Creek down towards the Santa Ynez River where it meets Gibraltar Trail.

Both the unpaved access road and Gibraltar Trail represent alternate routes for visiting Devil’s Canyon. That is, one can take State Route 154 from Santa Barbara, continue over San Marcos Pass to Paradise Road, and then follow Paradise Road to Red Rock Trailhead. From Red Rock trailhead one can follow either the access road or the trail as the two meet up a half mile from the dam.

As Devil’s Canyon Creek nears the Santa Ynez River you may notice a large green V-notched weir across the creek. Part of the city’s water supply, the weir can be lowered into the creek to divert water into nearby Mission Tunnel.

Devil's Canyon Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara hike trail

Devil’s Canyon Greenery

Near the weir, the unpaved access road splits. To the left, the road continues briefly down river to the North Portal of Mission Tunnel, which carries water from Gibraltar Dam to Santa Barbara. The tunnel was built in 1912 to tap and channel water in the mountains to the city, and then with the completion of Gibraltar Dam in 1920, was also used to carry water from the reservoir. The south portal of the tunnel is noticeable along the access road to Tunnel Trail, about a mile from the end of Tunnel Road.

Directly across from the mouth of Devil’s Canyon on a bluff overlooking the river is the remains of Gibraltar Camp. The site was originally used to house workers during the construction of Gibraltar Dam, and later converted into a campground. The campground was closed in the 1980s.

For the full loop along Angostura Pass Road, or to visit the dam, continue to the right, upstream, along the unpaved access road. The road climbs above the river, and a half mile later arrives at a turnoff to an observation area overlooking the dam. Here, one can find two picnic tables and take in views of the dam and reservoir.

From the turn off to the observation area, the access road and Gibraltar Trail continue east. And, at about the 5-mile mark the road branches. Here, Gibraltar Trail continues to the left down towards Gidney Cove and Sunbird Quicksilver Mine. To the right, Angostura Pass Road begins its climb to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

Along the access roads you may notice a layer of salmon-colored rock, these are tailings from the quicksilver mine that were used to pave the road.

As Angostura Pass Road leaves Gibraltar Trail it quickly climbs for the first half mile, before beginning its more gradual ascent of the mountains. And although the route along Angostura Pass Road is two miles longer than the route through Devil’s Canyon and North Tunnel Trail, it has the advantage of being less steep, and free of poison oak.

The road skirts the upper drainage of Devil’s Canyon and is mostly exposed, except for where it crosses the small feeder creeks that join Devil’s Canyon Creek. At these places along the road one can find shade and occasionally a trickle of water.

The road then returns to the beginning of North Tunnel Trail, and from here it’s a short distance back to East Camino Cielo Road.

Regardless of how for you go, you’ll get to take in some great views of the Santa Barbara backcountry.

This article originally appeared in section A of the April 12th, 2014 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

bear sign Devil's Canyon Los Padres National Forest Santa Barbara hike trail

Bear teeth marks on a sycamore tree


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