Our State Water Resources Control Board suggests that one of the most beneficial uses of the upper Santa Ynez River is for "water contact recreation." Translated from bureaucratic jargon: "Go jump in the river!"
Great swimming holes await hikers who venture to the attractive Santa Ynez Recreation Area in the mountains behind Santa Barbara.
During dry years like this one, the river's swimming holes are filled by periodic releases from Gibraltar Reservoir upriver from the recreation area. Thanks to Santa Barbara's contribution of a small part of its municipal water supply, some of the pools maintain year-round depths of six to 18 feet.
Indian Summer can be a fine time to enjoy the cool, but not cold, pools.
Easy Family Hike
Santa Ynez River Trail leads to several pleasant swimming holes and is an easy hike, suitable for the whole family. The most popular ol' swimmin' hole is Red Rock Pool, just a short distance from the trail head. The trail to the pools and to Gibraltar Dam Picnic Area follows the remains of an old mining road, built in the 1870s during a quicksilver mining boom. The road was later used by workers during the 1920 construction of Gibraltar Dam.
--Fill your canteen at one of the Forest Service campgrounds located along Paradise Road. No water is available at the trail head.
--Old running shoes, a pair you don't mind getting wet, are the best footwear for this hike. Santa Ynez River Trail crosses its namesake nine times. Now, in early fall, most of these crossings are virtually dry, but if you hike this trail during the winter or spring, expect some knee- or thigh-high wading.
--Bring your swimsuit.
For more information about the Santa Ynez Recreation Area, stop by Los Padres National Forest Los Prietos Ranger Station, about midway between California 154 and Red Rock Trailhead on Paradise Road; (805) 967-3481. Office hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m.-noon, 1-5 p.m.
Directions to trail head: From U.S. 101 in Santa Barbara, take the Lake Cachuma/California 154 exit and proceed inland. At the top of San Marcos Pass, you'll spot the historic Ceilo Store, featured as "Papadakis Tavern," in the remake of "The Postman Always Rings Twice."
Leave Car at Gate
A short distance over the pass, just past a Vista Point (about 10 miles from Santa Barbara if you're watching your odometer), turn right on Paradise Road and drive to the end of the road--10.7 miles. Leave your car in the large dirt parking lot adjacent to the trail, which begins at a locked gate.
If you're the kind of hiker who loves loop trips, note the presence of a second trail leading from the parking lot to Gibraltar Dam. The "high road," as it's known by locals, makes a gentle traverse across the mountains above the river. Like the "low road,"--Santa Ynez River Trail--it's about three miles long. It's a good trail to keep in mind for times of high water.
The Hike: Wide flat Santa Ynez River Trail passes a "No Nudity Allowed" sign and, after one-quarter of a mile, crosses the river. Near this crossing you might observe some scattered bricks, all that remains of a turn-of-the-century quicksilver furnace. Quicksilver ore, mined in the nearby hills, was crushed and heated in the furnace. The ore became gaseous at a low temperature and the gas condensed into liquid mercury. Mercury, a very heavy element, was transported in small, foot-long cylinders, each weighing about 75 pounds.
Soon after the first river crossing, you'll reach Red Rock, the most popular swimming hole. Geologically minded hikers will examine the red rock, metamorphosed volcanics of Jurassic Age. Other hikers will plunge into the river.
The trail passes through oak woodland and zigzags from bank to bank along the river, which has a canopy of cottonwoods, sycamores and willows.
Wildlife viewing opportunities, particularly during the early morning hours, are quite good near the Santa Ynez River, because the area includes several different habitats: oak woodland, coastal sage scrub, grassland and freshwater marsh. You might spot a deer, gray fox, striped skunk, lizard, cottontail rabbit or raccoon. Watch for pond turtles basking on the rocks, logs and banks of large pools.
The ecological diversity of the area also means a wide variety of bird life. In the woodland areas, birders might sight a mourning dove, warbling vireo, northern oriole or a woodpecker. Cliff swallows, flycatchers and belted kingfishers swoop over the river.
Several more dry-river crossings and a couple wet ones, and some travel beneath the boughs of some handsome coast live oaks, will bring you to Gibraltar Picnic Area.
You may continue up the trail to Gibraltar Dam, named for the large rock here, which is said to have a resemblance to the great guardian rock of the Mediterranean. A second, shadeless, picnic site is at the southeast top edge of the dam.
Santa Ynez River Trail
Red Rock trail head to Gibraltar Dam picnic area: six miles round trip; 400-foot elevation gain.