21 January 2015

Devil's Canyon and Gibraltar Dam Road

Los Padres National Forest




I had decided to go down to Gibraltar Dam by the road, so looked around for a loop to make it better. Because I also want to see the mine, I almost went for one going all the way over to Cold Spring Trail and back up, but it seems a bit long, especially the road walk back along Camino Cielo. I noticed a bit of trail heading more directly down to the dam from the road. A little research in my new copy of Hiking and Backpacking Santa Barbara and Ventura (with corrected coordinates for Tule Creek, route 83) shows this to actually be two trails. The upper portion of Matias Trail (route 10) and the lower portion is Devil's Canyon (only mentioned in descriptions for the trails at either end). It also mentions that the map shows an unmaintained fuel break as the route while the actual trail leaves the road much closer to the top.

panorama of the Santa Ynez Valley
Checking out the valley. (Click to embiggen.)

There is plenty of parking at the top of the road. Past the locked gate, the view opens up quickly. The hills are getting very green, but the reservoir is still low. I can see the trail traveling along the side of a ridge below, but do not see the top by the first outside bend. From a little lower, I can see it crawling up very close to the bend below power poles that match the old lines that come up Tunnel Trail. Climbing back to the curve, there is a trail that looks rather hard to miss even though it is unsigned.

Gibraltar Reservoir
The dammed up reservoir far below and the trail along a ridge a bit closer.

shadow down a clear trail
Sun at my back and trail before me.


I head down the trail and under a downed wire attached to the century old and unused poles. It is a strong hint that this route is really the rest of Tunnel Trail that was used when building the water tunnel and reservoir below. Now it gets far less use than the front country trail. There are faint footprints and one set of pole marks on the tread. The tread itself is generally in beautiful shape although a few spots have an outslope large enough to be uncomfortable. Above this tread, the brush is a frequent companion hanging over the trail. Spiny scrub oak poke at me every few feet. It is generally cool and shaded, although when out in the sun, bruised yucca join in the poking. There are a few madrones mixed in with the more common area plants.

trail with green stuff encroaching
A shaded path with plenty of vegetation reaching halfway across. A few madrones stand on the downhill side.

bruised, but not trimmed, yucca
There are only a few yucca plants encroaching on the trail, but none of them are trimmed.

A long arch of wire still hangs over the canyon and there are still insulators on many of the poles. There seems to be a bit more remaining on this side than the front side. I pass big oaks and little peonies not yet blooming as I make my way down. The trail gets dryer as I go. Around the ridge and over a little hill, the massive transmission lines in use today come into view.

Matias Potrero
Coming over a manzanita lined hill to find the transmission lines in the nearby Matias Potrero.

There is a sign at the junction for Matias Trail and the trail itself shows quite a bit of traffic, especially mountain bike, going over the potrero and down the canyon. They are following an old road bed. I turn to follow it too, down Devil's Canyon Trail. Erosion is taking a greater toll on the trail as I drop down into a delightful little valley.

pink flowers hanging on a stem
Chaparral current showing off some blooms.

trail in the bottom of a canyon
Looking down into the canyon. This is actually a tributary to Devil's Canyon, which is the canyon seen far down this one.

The road bed ends, although there is some suggestion in the side of the canyon that it takes a switchback the current trail does not follow. The trail makes a delicate descent into the canyon, eventually coming into the bottom. There is a little water in the bottom. At first it is murky and uninviting, but it begins to flow clear a little further along.

large mushroom with gills
The grass is growing up out of some rather moist dirt with a few large mushrooms.

oak tree in the canyon
There are a few huge oak trees in the bottom of the tributary.

The trail becomes narrow and rocky. I can hear a lot more water as the pretty little canyon reaches the larger Devil's Canyon. At first, the water is hidden by a tall, sharp ridge of rock, but then it ends and the trickle of water I am following empties into a stream with good flow. The trail is wide dirt again. There are a few leftover pieces of metal to suggest that there was a road here, too, but the canyon does not look like a good candidate for one.

the creeks join together
The confluence of a trickle of water with the stuff already in Devil's Canyon.

short barbed wire fence
A little bit of barbed wire fencing comes up next to the trail on a stunted pole.

The trail keeps very close to the creek, crossing it every 200 feet or so. There must be seven crossings in the short distance down to the access road below. They are increasingly diagonal making the far side a little harder to find as I go. The bottom of the trail is only marked with a right-of-way informational sign. The road to the left takes a high route past the north portal of the tunnel and back to Red Rock and the right drops a short way to the lower road. Here, there is a choice again between going to Red Rock on the lower road and trail or climbing up past the dam.

Gibraltar Dam
The dam from below.

Turning up the road, I pass by a number of buildings that service the dam in one capacity or another. The road was once paved with red material and has been patched in black, but now very little of either remains.

work related buildings by the dam
Some of the buildings at the top of the dam.

The road splits and the part that continues along the side of the reservoir is blocked by a gate. Behind the gate, the decaying road is Gibraltar Trail. This, too, has patches of old, red paving, but none of the newer patchwork. It wraps around the arms of the reservoir, past oaks and cliffs, to the Sunbird Mine. A couple metal signs help direct the hiker around a sharp turn instead of down the steep hillside to the water as though there could be any question. The water in the reservoir looks extremely murky.

large canyon with cliffs and water in the bottom
The road as it traverses Gidney Creek, which brings water down from Forbush's homestead.

brown water in the reservoir
Looking out over the reservoir, which seems a bit brown.

shady and overgrown road bed
An easy walk under the oaks on the shady and overgrown old road.

At the mine, it is clear where the red came from in the paving. Displaced red dirt and stones separate it from the reservoir built below it. The building is falling apart and a few old cars are rusting in place. Ore carts that have somehow kept some of their rubber sit on rusting tracks. The only thing that is not dilapidated is the fence surrounding it all to keep the public out of the dangerous building. A pipe by the access road pours water that could be from a spring or could be mine runoff.

large building, carts, gas tank
The mine sits below the road with ore carts and trucks and an old propane tank.

building from the southeast
Another look at the dilapidated building.

ore cart on rusting tracks
A broken and patched ore cart sits on rusting tracks.

bones of a small creature
Some bone I suspect were once a fox.

There is more to poke around the mine than just going to the bit of the road above it and looking at what has been abandoned. The map shows three sites above that were being mined. Where the road heads down to the main building, another heads up although this one is almost lost in the growth. I only poke around a foundation and a bench above the reservoir and leave the rest of it for another time. It is time to start on the return.

three shooting starts
Shooting starts already in bloom in one moist spot along the road.

Once back to the gate, I turn to start the slow climb as the road makes its gently curving and slow way back up to the top.

dam and view
A new angle on the dam and general area.

rocky canyon with some green
Gidney Creek again, from up on the edge of Devil's Canyon along the road.

panorama in the lowered late day light
Shadows are getting long as I survey the route of the road around the edge of Devil's Canyon.

It is just past sunset as I finish off about 16.5 miles. It has been a while since I did a longer hike and it really feels good.




©2015 Valerie Norton
Posted 27 January 2015

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