Quicksilver, lost trails and cottonwoods: A history of the Cold Spring Middle Fork

The+Cold+Spring+Middle+Fork

Caleb Crother

The Cold Spring Middle Fork

Tristan Williams, Staff Writer

Tangerine Falls, reached by an offshoot of the Cold Spring Trail’s West Fork, has long been a Westmont hiking favorite. However, after the 2018 debris mudflow, the journey to Tangerine Falls became a slog, full of rock scrambling and route finding. By the time one reaches the bottom, there is little energy left to explore.

Before heading off to the falls, the observant hiker will notice a steep, crumbling dirt pathway to the left. This pathway is the start of the Middle Fork Cold Springs Trail, which leads up to the coveted upper canyon, and even further to the ridgeline of Camino Cielo. Its history is just as interesting as its obscurity. 

“In the early days of the Santa Barbara Mission, the Chumash escaped on this route over the mountains and hid in the marsh tules from the cavalry that pursued them and then brought them back,” said Dr. Paul Willis, English professor and renowned Westmont hiking guru. This history is no wonder, for a trek to the secluded upper canyon provides quiet isolation and is much less accessible than the lower canyons. The route’s distinction as a trail would come later, however, with the advent of mining in the area.

Starting on the Middle Fork (Ethan Vaughan)

The Gibraltar Mine, also known as the Los Prietos Mine, was built in 1860 and is known for its deposit of quicksilver — otherwise known as mercury near what is now Gibraltar Reservoir. In January of 1966, “Desert Magazine” published an article about the “famed, century-old ‘Gibraltar’ quicksilver mine” and the wealth the deposit offered.

As with all mining operations, the trails were developed for the miners. In an article published by the “Santa Barbara Independent” in 2008, Ray Ford cited a Santa Barbara newspaper clipping from 1878. The article described “Mr. Shedd and two men, two donkeys, and two mules” traveling over the mountains from the Gibraltar Mine via a “new trail.” This trail is the Middle Fork above Tangerine Falls and is the original incarnation of Cold Spring Trail. In 1899, forest rangers chose to maintain the East Fork, leaving the Middle Fork to recede into obscurity.

History gets murkier after this point, but several local hiking guides and historians — chief among them the late E.R. “Jim” Blakley — have suggested that the trail was forgotten until 1964, when the Coyote Fire ripped through the vegetation that covered the route. The fire revealed not only the original trail, but the scant remains of an old homestead deep within the canyon, now listed on maps as the Root Cellar.

According to Dr. Willis, the trail was not fully developed and opened until the summer of 1999. He recounts his discovery of the trail’s existence in his essay “Development Dreams.” Trudging up a steep mountainside to the “diamond-shaped rock” above Tangerine Falls with his wife and friend, he saw “[g]athered around the diamond-shaped pinnacle … no less than twenty people, all of whom had hiked up a newly brushed and constructed trail that circled around from the canyon below.”

This rejuvenation of the trail lasted just under a couple of decades. The 2018 debris flow devastated the landscape, and the Middle Fork Trail along with it. The very beginning of the trail was wiped out, and the upper canyon as a whole was rearranged by rocks and debris, wiping out a grove of cottonwood trees Dr. Willis was particularly fond of. The switchbacks leading up to the canyon are still there, but parts of it are crumbling and overgrown, making for a rugged, challenging experience. It is not clear if the trail is preserved up to Camino Cielo, or even if the Root Cellar has remained intact.

Despite these conditions, the Middle Fork Trail provides a classic Santa Barbara hiking experience, offering breathtaking views and a more intimate wilderness experience. Edwin Wertz, a recent Westmont graduate who now lives in Carpinteria, said, “You get a better view than most people [that hike on the Cold Springs Trail]. The nature is less perturbed by people up there. It’s a really great hike.”

Chloe White, a sophomore, avid hiker and president of Westmont’s Adventure Club, also enjoys the trail. “It felt like the trail less traveled on. I also just love hiking on ridges because you get to see everything around you, and this one had spectacular views of the ocean and the canyon below.” When she hiked up to the diamond-shaped pinnacle above the falls, she remembered feeling like she was walking “on a place not many people have been before.”

Whether the Middle Fork Trail will retain this untamed nature is uncertain. There has been little, if any, regular trail maintenance on either the Tangerine Falls or Middle Fork trails since the debris flow. Instead, a sign sits where the trail leaves the Cold Spring West Fork, warning hikers of the hazardous conditions.

However the trail incarnates itself, it will hold a special place not only in Santa Barbara’s history but in its scenery. Dr. Willis noted that cottonwood trees are rare for this side of the Santa Ynez mountains. The last time he visited the Middle Fork Trail’s upper canyon, in December of last year, he saw all of the mature growth had been destroyed, but “head-high shoots of cottonwood had already grown from the debris.”

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