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.

<publicserviceannouncement>
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.
</publicserviceannouncement>

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.

<sciencestuff>
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.
</sciencestuff>

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.

Surly Straggler: A Cyclocross Experiment

Surly Straggler 1x11 Ultegra to XTR via Tanpan.

Surly Straggler 1×11 Ultegra to XTR via Tanpan.

I spoke to Captain Obvious and he told me (confidentially) that cyclocross is kind of a big deal. I was loath to believe him as I usually don’t trust people with ridiculous names. But a quick look at sites like the Radavist convinced me. It’s everywhere!

Cyclocross has been around since the early 20th century. It was a niche category with niche bike builds (usually totally custom) and a little-understood reason for why anyone would want to ride a drop-bar bicycle in the mud. As it turns out, human beings, especially cyclist humans, are filthy creatures. They love getting all dirty and holding it up as a badge of honor. Remember that guy who drove his 4×4 to get groceries with his truck all covered in mud from the last time it rained? The same theory applies to cyclocross. It’s just plain rad, is what it is. There’s nothing like getting all tricked out in some amazing, colorful kit, then getting it all muddy. Entropy is awesome. As humans and cyclists, we’re damn good at it.

So in response to getting older and wanting to be more awesome, I decided to build a cyclocross bike…only build one that would get me more points in the rad department. Though not a pure cyclocross frame, the Surly Straggler seemed to fit the bill for my needs. I love steel and Surly makes some pretty nice frames with disc tabs. I decided to do a frame-up compete build from scratch, including lacing my own wheels. So strap in and get ready, I about to attempt to blow your mind…

After acquiring a mint-colored 54cm Surly Straggler frame from my shop, I set to work building the wheels. Since I wanted to get a nice colorway going, I thought lacing red anodized White Industries XMR 6-bolt disc hubs to WTB Frequency Team CX hoops would look pretty neat-o. DT Swiss 2.0/1.8 Revolution spokes? Don’t mind if I do.

Disc brakes are always fun, but I’m a bit of a scaredy-cat when it comes to hydraulic disc setups. I am still not comfy with the whole bleeding and olive and barb thing. Besides, cables are easy to maintain and can be fixed in the field. So I took a look at the new Paul Components Klampers and decided that the cool factor was too high for me to ignore. After much truing of the wheel and bolting on of the discs, I had a rolling frame.

Next was the drive train: I could have gone the traditional 2-by route and got myself a Ultegra or CX-specific setup. But I wanted to go deeper. I wanted the ability to climb, race, and haul heavy loads (like myself, for instance). I chose an Ultegra-to-XTR-via-Tanpan setup. Didn’t get all that? Well I wanted STI shifters, a single chainring, and the ability to run a 40-tooth cog. The only thing I could see that works well enough is the Wolftooth Components Tanpan cable pull adjuster. Now, with a Wolftooth 39-tooth narrow-wide chanring attached to my Ultegra crankset and connected to an 11-40 cassette lovingly cradled by an XTR 11-speed derailleur, I could get as rad as I want.

Combine all this with Salsa Cowbell 2 Handlebars,  Thompson stem and seat post, Chris King Headset, Brooks Cambium C15 saddle, Raceface Atlas pedals (until I get used to the ride), and S-Works Renegade 29 x 1.8 tires, I am now ready for some serious dirt assault. It’s entropy time!

Partial build list (costs MSRP or sale in US Dollars at the time of posting). Please order from and support your LBS (local bike shop) unless link provided below:

  • Surly Straggler 54 cm frame – approx. $500.
  • WTB XMR 6-bolt disc hubs – Front: $189, rear, $379.
  • WTB 32-hole Frequency i19 Team CX rims – $79.95 x 2.
  • Shimano Ultegra 6800 Crankset – $169.99 from Chain Reaction.
  • Shimano Ultegra 6800 2×11 shifters – $196.49 from Chain Reaction.
  • Shimano XT M8000 11-speed 11-40 tooth cassette – $59.95 from Chain Reaction.
  • Shimano ICE-Tech SM-RT86 6-bolt rotors (160 mm) – $32.00 x 2
  • Paul Components Klamper short pull disc brake calipers – $175.00 x 2
  • Wolftooth Components 39-tooth Chainring for 110 BCD 4-bolt Shimano cranks – $78.95. Get direct.
  • Wolftooth Components Tanpan inline pull adjuster – $39.95. Get direct.
  • Shimano XTR M9000 Shadow Plus Medium Cage rear derailleur – $149.99 from Chain Reaction.
  • Thomson Elite X4 70mm MTB stem (31.6 clamp) – $99.99
  • Thomson Elite 27.2 seat post – $99.95
  • Chris King Red Sotto Voce 1-1/8 Threadless Headset – $149.99
  • Brooks Cambium C15 saddle – $175.00
  • S-Works Renegade 29 x 1.8 tires – $59.95 x 2
  • Salsa Cowbell 2 handlebars – $50.00
  • Salsa Lip Lock seat post clamp (30.0 clamp) – $22.00
  • Raceface Atlas pedals – $150.00

Ride it!