In January, Gibraltar Reservoir reached full capacity and began spilling over for the first time in six years. The arc-shaped dam was built in part against a large outcropping of sandstone where the river narrows. As water leaves the spillway it flows over the sandstone creating a waterfall comparable to those elsewhere in the backcountry.
The shortest route to the dam is from the Red Rock Trailhead at the end of Paradise Road. However, the same rains that have brought our creeks and waterfalls back to life, have also closed Paradise Road at the first crossing of the Santa Ynez River. The wide, flowing river has made the crossing impassable to vehicles.
Fortunately, there is an alternate route down to the dam from the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains that leads through Devil’s Canyon. The hike starts off along North Tunnel Trail and is about eight miles roundtrip.
I had already been wanting to see the reservoir spilling over and getting to hike through Devil’s Canyon added to its appeal.
North Tunnel Trail is reached from Santa Barbara by taking Gibraltar Road to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains, where it meets East Camino Cielo Road. Turn left onto East Camino Cielo and continue towards the first access road on the right. Parking is found along the beginning of the access road.
Sometimes referred to as Angostura Pass Road, the gated access road leads to the beginning of North Tunnel Trail and down to the dam. Past the locked gate, the views open up dramatically out across the Santa Ynez Valley towards the San Rafael Mountains. Here, the various summits from Figueroa Mountain to Madulce Peak can be seen. The burn area from the Rey Fire is also visible on the landscape.
The unpaved road then rounds a corner and Gibraltar Dam comes into view. Even from here, I can see the water flowing over the spillway. Just past the bend, is the beginning of North Tunnel Trail, which is hard to spot now that the trail sign is gone.
From the road, the trail continues down the backside of the Santa Ynez Mountains, leading through a mix of chaparral, including ceanothus, chamise, manzanita, scrub oak, and toyon. The trail is overgrown in places, but still easy to follow.
The trail is mostly exposed, however there is a patch of shade where the trail passes through a small stand of madrone. More common now to northern California, the tree is a remnant from the last ice age when our area was much cooler and wetter. Madrone is often found on the north side of the Santa Ynez Mountains, near the top.
The trail briefly shifts onto a small south-facing ridge. Here, the additional sunlight has created opportunities for yerba santa, white sage, and yucca to grow. Passing through the brush, I can see that the rain combined with warmer weather has also been exciting for the local ticks and brush several off me as I continue.
At about the two-mile mark, the trail arrives at a three-way intersection. Here, North Tunnel Trial ends. To the left Matias Trail continues over towards Arroyo Burro Road, and to the right Devil’s Canyon Trail continues towards Gibraltar Dam.
The trail descends into a side canyon, passing through several grassy areas dotted with coastal sagebrush and lined with shooting stars in bloom. Further down, blue dicks, or brodiaea, are also in bloom. On one of the flowers I spot a shy, yellow spider crab that maneuvers its way around the plant each time I try to get a closer look.
The trail becomes more shaded as it starts to follow the flowing creek in the canyon. There are no other footprints along the trail. Part of the charm of Devil’s Canyon is the sense of enclosure, cut off from the visual reference of the San Rafael Mountains or even the reservoir, it is a place unto itself.
Continuing through the canyon I can see bear sign, or scratches, on several of the trees, that add to the sense of remoteness.
The trail then arrives at the confluence of the side creek and the main creek through Devil’s Canyon. Here, alder trees line the watercourse, suggesting that this section of the creek flows year round. I continue downstream along the trail under a canopy of oaks.
Having seen Humboldt lilies along a couple other trails on the backside of the Santa Ynez Mountains, I’m hopeful that there are some growing in this canyon. I spot several along the trail, before stumbling across an unusual sight. Surrounding a single cluster of California bay laurel are more than a dozen lilies sprouting up near the trees.
After a number of creek crossings, the trail arrives at the unpaved access road that comes up from the Red Rock Trailhead. From here, the road follows Devil’s Canyon down to the confluence with the Santa Ynez River.
Supported by water from the overflowing reservoir, the river is striking in its fullness, covering completely the trail that leads to the other side. As I continue along the access road towards the dam, the spillway comes into full view. Here, water from the reservoir is pouring over the rock face forming a good size waterfall.
Completed in 1920, the dam was the first along the Santa Ynez River. Its original storage capacity was 14,500 acre feet of water. Over the years, sediment filled the reservoir reducing its capacity by almost half. In 1948, the height of the dam was raised 23 feet, bringing the reservoir back to roughly its originally capacity. Today, after almost 70 more years of sedimentation, the reservoir’s capacity is just 5,272 acre feet, which is why it didn’t take long to fill with water. In comparison, Lake Cachuma has a capacity of more than 190,000 acre feet.
From here, the access road continues above the dam and leads to an overlook that provides additional views of the spillway. Nearby, is a picnic table under a couple of pine trees, next to a quonset hut, that provides shaded views out across the reservoir.
Appreciating the shade, I take a quick lunch at the table and assess the time. I have enough daylight to hike over to Gidney Cove and back out, but not enough to visit the Sunbird quicksilver mine. I know my pace will improve along the access road and decide to revisit the topic at Gidney Cove.
The access road continues eastward another mile and then branches. Here, Angostura Pass Road continues to the top of Santa Ynez Mountains where it meets the trailhead. To the left, Gibraltar Trail continues around the reservoir, eventually meeting North Cold Spring Trail.
I continue along Gibraltar Trail, which follows an old access road around the cove towards the mine. The road makes a wide descending switchback, offering views out across the cove, before then heading towards Gidney Creek. The cove is remarkably placid and quiet, giving the area an almost eerie feeling. I don’t hear the creek until I’m almost upon it.
Continuing past the creek, the road starts to climb as it rounds the far side of the cove offering additional views of the reservoir. At the far side of the cove, I realize that I’m probably just a mile from the mine, and if I keep a steady pace I can make it to the mine and back and only have to hike the last hour in the dark.
As I continue along the road, several more sweeping views out across the reservoir come into view, including one more at the mine where the river flows into the reservoir.
Quicksilver was first mined at the site in the 1860s, and then on and off over the years as the demand and favorable pricing for quicksilver ebbed and flowed. Sunbird Mining Company was the last such venture, which started in the 1960s, and closed in the 1990s. A fence now surrounds the abandoned structure for safety.
After taking in the views, I hasten my return back to the trailhead.
This article originally appeared in Section A of the March 20th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.