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Gibraltar Reservoir

Gibraltar Reservoir Trail MapMany people have never even heard of Gibraltar Dam, let alone hiked or ridden there.

The dam was constructed from 1914-1920 on the Santa Ynez River, creating the basin, Gibraltar Reservoir, that provides water for Santa Barbara. The reservoir is accessible via two trails. The popular Red Rock Trail is a single track that crosses the Santa Ynez River several times and spits out at a popular swimming hole on the river. The second is a dirt access road to the dam, which is used a lot less and provides a challenging climb and a fun downhill for mountain bikers and trail runners hoping to avoid the crowds that flock to the Santa Ynez Recreation Area.

Best Time

Because the road to the trailhead and the trail itself can get flooded during the rainy season, the trail is at its best in the summer and fall. The first half of the trail has little shade and no drinking water is available along the hike, so be sure to pack plenty when hiking in the afternoon.

Santa Ynez River flows are at the highest in the late spring and early summer, which makes for good fishing.

Finding the Trail

From the 101 in Northern Santa Barbara, take Highway 154 West toward Lake Cachuma and turn right on Paradise Road. Follow Paradise Road for 10 miles to the first river crossing. After crossing the river, hang a right and follow Forest Road 5N18 along the river to the Red Rock day-use area. Because the road crosses the river a couple times, small cars are not recommended. The gated trailhead to the dirt fire road is located just past the campground on the far end of the parking lot.  An Adventure Pass, available at the Paradise Road ranger station and sometimes the kiosk located before the first river crossing, is required to park in this portion of the Los Padres National Forest.

Trail Description

Pass the gate at the trailhead • 1 and begin the quick climb via the old access road to the dam. Like many hikes that start with a rigorous climb, a 5- to 10-minute warm-up before the hike is a good idea to prevent strains on the way up. The dirt road takes you high above the crowds below, which can be heard screaming in the pools below. At .87 mile, full views of the turquoise pools below • 2 can be seen at the base of “Red Rock.” When the trail hits the 1-mile mark, it has already climbed about 400 feet• 3. After a short decent, the trail continues a slow, steady climb over the second mile.

Remember to enjoy the sights and sounds about the trail instead of focusing only on grueling climb itself. The dam can be seen after 1.9 miles. A bench is strategically located at the 2-mile mark • 4 and an elevation of 1,625 feet. Remember this bench, as it will be your best friend on the return trip. The next mile is nearly all downhill until the trail finally meets up with the dam and presents another quick climb to the reservoir.

The trail passes the trailhead to Devil’s Canyon at 2.5 miles and reaches the Santa Ynez River at 2.65 miles• 5, dropping down to an elevation of 1,200 feet. This stretch of the river up to the dam has been closed to the public. In fact, much of the dam area and the reservoir is off limits to the public.

To get the best glimpse of the reservoir, continue up the trail past the dam to a driveway that leads to the water station at 3 miles• 6. Respect the private property markers at the station, but make sure to pause and soak in all the sights the bright blue reservoir has to the offer. This is a good turnaround spot, keeping in mind the trail closes at sunset. The trail does continue around the perimeter of the lake and offers views of an old mercury mine, which tacks on another 3 miles to the trip.  Return the way you came, making sure to take a break at the strategically-placed bench before cruising the final 2 miles back to the car.

Milestones

1 0.0 Pass the gate and begin the quick climb along the ridgeline

2 0.87 Red Rock is visible to the left beyond the Santa Ynez River swimming holes

3 1.0 Trail has already climbed more than 400 feet and begins to flatten out

4 2.0 A bench marks an ideal resting spot before the descent down to the dam area

5 2.65 Trail passes the Santa Ynez River and continues up to the water station

6 3.0 The water station marks a the turnaround spot, return the way you came

 

Pull-out/Notice

The Devil’s Canyon trail, located 2.5 miles into the Gibraltar Reservoir hike, is an easy-to-following single track that follows a small feeder creek for five-plus miles one way.

 

The trails in this portion of the Los Padres National Forest close at sunset. Hikers are encouraged to leave ample time to return to their cars and drive to the park’s main entrance located at the first river crossing.

 

Trail Use

Hike, Run, Bike, Horse

Length

6 miles, 3 hours

Vertical Feet

±425’

Difficulty

5

Trail Type

Out & Back

Surface Type

Dirt

Features

Permit Required

Dogs Allowed

Canyon

Mountain

Summit

Stream

Lake

Autumn Colors

Birds

Wildflowers

Wildlife

Great Views

Great Photos

Camping

Geologic

Facilities

Restrooms

Picnic Tables

Campground