Gravel Biking to the Sunbird Quicksilver Mine

Sunbird Mercury Mine - Offloading chute
Sunbird Mercury Mine – Offloading chute

[Image gallery at end of article!]

The Santa Barbara backcountry is vast. The Los Padres National Forest, thankfully, is mostly undeveloped. In the area surrounding the Santa Ynez River, there are many opportunities to escape into the wilderness. There are plenty of campgrounds, picnic and barbecue areas hiking trails, and — when the river is full — lots of places to swim. These areas are a short drive from the city. However, it can get dangerous if you are not prepared.

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Bring plenty of water and nutrition, and ride carefully. Seriously. This trail is remote, and there is no cell service there. If I had fallen and broken something or passed out from dehydration, the chances of my survival would be slim. It’s beautiful country out there, to be sure. However, the turkey vultures and other carrion birds don’t discriminate when it comes to dead meat.
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Intrigued? Well, grab your bike — we’re going to the old Sunbird Quicksilver Mine. Before I get into the specifics, here’s my Strava map.

The ride from the parking area outside the National Park kiosk to the mine and back is about 37 km (23 miles). Not bad for a round trip through some amazing country. Paradise Road is a gentle incline on asphalt through the recreation areas until the junction with Red Rock trail, where the dirt fire road starts. There are many creek crossings, of which the first one is littered with slippery, cobble-shaped rocks. The rest of the crossings are smooth concrete dips that allow the water to flow over the road. Keep in mind, we are in drought conditions at the time of this writing, so I could ride across without getting wet. When the water is high, you should carry your bike across on foot.

The fire road (a continuation of Paradise Road called Forest Route 5N18) near the Red Rock trail is wide and hard-packed. Because of the drought, dust can be an issue. Once on the fire road, it is a more obvious uphill until the first vista, about 3.5 km (2.1 miles) from Red Rock. There are a couple of benches and a grand view of the Gibraltar Dam and the surrounding mountains. I stopped there to soak in the picture and have a snack.

Paradise Road vista of Gibraltar Dam

From the vista to the mine, the trail gets rockier and more unpredictable. It is still technically a fire road. However, it oscillates between some steep inclines and descents. Too gnarly, in my opinion, for a gravel bike. The geometry is not slack enough, and I had to get my butt over the rear wheel to keep from tumbling over the bars. My drivetrain is also geared a little too high, so it became a bike and hike in some areas. There is a steep descent before the climb towards the dam (see the trail on the right of the image above). With a grade up to 14% in some places, it was tough to climb back up on the way back.

Because I do not own a modern dual-suspension mountain bike, I often ride my gravel bike on trails it isn’t designed for. As a result, I often find myself stuck in a situation with only my curiosity to blame. I had hiked to the mine years ago. However, I had forgotten getting to the mine was way easier than coming back. I bonked, became dehydrated (I had a hydration backpack, even), and ended up climbing the steeper hills on the way back on foot. Not an enjoyable experience.

Forest Route 5N18 before the Gibraltar Road junction

Once past the dam, the road again widens a bit and features remnants of asphalt interspersed with some gnarly potholes. There is an electrical station there, after which the road widens a little. After a mile or so, there is a gate near the junction with Gibraltar Road (the gate is just to the left of the large rock in the center of the image above). After the gate, the road narrows and roughens up.

In my opinion, this is the best part of the ride. The fringes of the dam lake, though the water is low, are lush and green. There are more trees, which not only add to the scenery but offer more shade. The trail was slightly overgrown on the ascent to the last leg…even though I was tired, I had to step it up to outrun the numerous bees that expressed their discomfort at my destruction of their work environment. They are very busy, and they dislike being disturbed in this way.

Once within a few miles of the mine, the trail takes on a reddish hue in spots, due to the presence of depleted cinnabar in the soil.

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Cinnabar. Not a sugary treat you eat at the mall, cinnabar is a mineral which contains mercury sulfide (HgS)…a highly toxic ore from which elemental mercury is derived. Hence the presence of the quicksilver mine (for those who don’t know, quicksilver is the common name for the liquid metal mercury). Since most of this reddish dirt is by-product of the mine, it is mostly sulphur and therefore not toxic to humans. Don’t be stupid and eat it, though.
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View of Gibraltar Lake periphery from Sunbird Quicksilver mine

The approach to the mine is a slow descent towards the river basin. The mine comes into view on the left, and the road forks. Take the left fork down the hill towards the mine. There is a rest area with a bench and a vista of the periphery of Gibraltar Lake. There is also a shade tree nearby. This is a great place to eat lunch and enjoy the view. The soil here is almost totally red, which makes for a great contrast with the blue sky. From here, the mine property is accessible, though the mine itself is fenced off.

To recap, if you can make the trip, please bring a dual-suspension mountain bike with at least 130mm of travel. A gravel bike is okay but very uncomfortable and not recommended. Try and avoid visiting this area during the late Summer months as temperatures can easily reach 40º C (100º F). Bring plenty of water and nutrition, and remember there is no cell service out there.

Be safe and happy riding! As promised above the pictures…black and white really captures the ambiance.

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