Distance – 6 miles
Elevation Gain – 500′
Difficulty – Easy to moderate
Topo – Little Pine Mountain
The Red Rock Trail provides not only an enjoyable 3-4 hour hike, but provides you with some of the best swimming holes on the river. You can head in either direction on this loop though I tend to take the high road in and return along the river. At the midpoint along the way you’ll find Gibraltar Dam. Near the top of it is a picnic area and a large board with interpretive information regarding the dam.
From Lower Oso continue up the Santa Ynez River for 5 miles to a large open dirt parking area. From here you can hike either up the river or on a dirt road which proceeds uphill beyond a locked gate.
Though this area may have one of the largest concentrations of swimmers, sunbathers, picnickers, fishermen, and mountain bikers I fall in love with it every time I hike here, which is fairly often. There are two choices – the low road or the high road. The low road goes up the river bed for a half mile to Red Rock, one of the most exquisite combinations of rock and emerald-green water anywhere.
But beware almost every year a careless swimmer is injured seriously here – mostly the daredevils who dive headfirst into the water. While it is deep in most places, in other places it is extremely shallow due to a number of large rocks hidden just underwater
Beyond Red Rock, the road – which dates back to the days when this area was being developed for its mineral riches – crosses the river and continues along a wide riverbed. Contorted layers of rock on the north side of the river show the extreme pressures which the shale must have undergone. Underfoot, if you look carefully, you can still find pieces of the red brick quicksilver kilns. Beyond this you’ll find more pools as the road meanders back and forth across the river and through sycamore, cottonwood, and willow groves, meadows, and groves of live oak for several miles to Gibraltar Dam.
Depending on the time of year stream crossings may be wet or dry, and often spring floods litter the road with cobblestones. Your hike will be a bit more comfortable if you wear tennis shoes you don’t mind getting wet and carry extra socks to put on afterwards. Be cautious if the river is high; the stream crossings can be treacherous.
The down side of hiking the loop in this direction is that you’ve got a very steep half-mile climb to get up on the bench that takes you back to your car. The good news is that once you get up this hill the next 2.5 miles not only beautiful almost all level or downhill. About a mile along the downhill section look for a trail which leads down through a saddle (the road turns to the right here). This is a little shorter.
If you decide to take the high road on the way in, look for a dirt road at the back side of the parking area. It is pretty obvious and beyond the locked gate it climbs steadily (but not too steep) through a series of switchbacks for a mile up onto a high, wide plateau that looks out over the river. If you look carefully along the way you can spot a connector trail which leads up and to the right, cutting off some distance. Once up on the plateau, the rest of the walk on the road is gentle, leading to a high point from which you can see Gibraltar Dam.
If you have the time (and energy) for a full day’s hike, the historic Sunbird Quicksilver Mine is an additional 4.5 miles beyond the dam.