The Search for Redrock Canyon - a lost Shangri-la
Most Hundred Peaks Section (HPS) hikers are familiar with the Liebre Mountain Region because of its three listed peaks. Many Sierra Club members have also visited Castaic Lake, one of Southern California's largest reservoirs. Few, however, have ventured into the region in between. I am referring to the rugged but beautiful Redrock Mountain Area. It has no HPS peaks and only one summit on the Lower Peaks list. However, it is scenically magnificent, with many ecological assets including unique wetland habitats, sculpted sandstone formations, prehistoric Chumash Indian sites, abandoned campgrounds, ranches and mines and one of the last natural refuge areas of the endangered California Condor. Some regard the portion of Forest Service Road 6N32, extending one mile west of Cienaga Campground, as the most fascinating Forest Service Road in California. It goes along the bed of Fish Canyon barely 15 feet wide in places. However, it is also a harsh, unforgiving land with no present inhabitants.
Most of its few hikers are hunters searching for its numerous mule deer and quail. Its trails are heavily overgrown - a result of a policy of no trail maintenance begun by the Saugus District Rangers Office in 1978. Roads formerly open are now heavily gated. It is gradually turning into a rehabilitated wilderness. The Sierra Club is recommending it be designated an official Wilderness Area. All this in a region barely 50 miles from Los Angeles. I knew nothing about the locality but soon found out that virtually no one else did either.
Despite visits to libraries, historical societies and the Forest Service, I was unable to find any written history of the district. However, personal communication with several individuals disclosed that it has an interesting, even violent, past.
My interest in this area began by hearing of a number of trips made about 20 years ago by several young men then residing in the Santa Clarita Valley. One of them was told by a 92 year old Castaic resident of a trip that he had made about 50 years earlier, in 1932, to three old gold mines in remote Redrock Canyon just west of Redrock Mountain (3991'). Following his directions, the young men found the mines and subsequently made many camping trips to them, using motorcycles most of the way. Supposedly, the mines are old Spanish gold mines at or near the legendary Los Padres Mine.
The Los Padres Mine is the most persistent of the vanished mine legends of Southern California. It involves a Spanish Monastery obtaining quantities of gold from a now lost mine using forced Native American labor. The supposed location of the lost mine varies, but many old timers favor a location near Redrock Mountain as the most likely spot. Supposedly, a lost mission mine was rediscovered in that area back in the 1870s.
The map indicated a hike of no more than 6 miles and an elevation gain well under 2000'. I had recently completed the Hundred Peak List all on day trips (no more backpacking for this kid!) so I thought that even for a senior citizen this should be a mere stroll in the park. Surely there must be a catch! As it turned out, there was.
I started hiking from the gated road at the eastern end of Templin Highway, 4 miles from the I-5 exit. The gate was installed in 1988 by the Forest Service. I hiked up the eroded and overgrown Cienaga Canyon trail, sometimes referred to as the "Old Telephone Road" since it is the site of the first telephone line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, installed sometime after 1915. The line was underground cable covered with lead and several black strands can still be seen protruding from the hillside about a mile up the trail. The cable was later replaced by poles, of which some stumps remain. The original road extended north about a dozen miles to the Old Ridge Route.
The trail passes near an old Chumash burial site. There have been reports of alleged "malevolent Indian spirits" guarding the mines. A Forest Service employee told me that several years ago he and a female companion of Native American descent were hiking up the trail en route to the mines. During the hike his companion became increasingly disturbed, apparently sensing the presence of unfriendly spirits and finally insisted on turning back. Perhaps I should add that the young man who had originally found the Chumash burial site around 1980 was later severely injured in a motorcycle accident along the trail. The Chumash subtribe in this area was the Tataviam, or Alliklik. They were a small tribe of 500 to 1000 members and were assimilated at an early date into the Spanish missionary system and little is known of their native culture.
After about 4 miles, I bushwhacked east to the bottom end of Redrock Canyon. The mines are about a half-mile above a small waterfall. I found the route quite sporting. It involved going through and under thick chaparral. After finally reaching the bottom of the canyon, I encountered dense thickets of blackberry brambles and clusters of poison oak while attempting to go up a thickly banked stream. I finally abandoned my efforts to proceed up the canyon bottom and instead worked my way along the side of the cliff as far as I could. I found to my dismay, that it was a box canyon with a sheer 40' cliff from which a small waterfall flowed. Thus ended my first attempt to reach the mines.
During my bushwhack, I noticed two rather old blinds made of branches and pipes. I assumed they were made by hunters but later learned they were made by a team from the National Geographic Society and Federal zoologists who went to the area in 1978 to observe two condors whose nesting area was on the side of the inaccessible cliff. For several years, the immediate area was closed as a condor reserve but was reopened after the condors were removed to a zoo under the captive-breeding program.
My next effort, this past January, involved hiking east across Redrock Meadow on the overgrown Redrock Trail to the benchmark Redrock Peak (3991') where I found a small film canister register containing the name of a Jack Grams dated February 13, 1990. Grams, who was then active with the Lower Peaks Committee, persuaded that LPC to add the peak to its Peak List. The peak remained on the list for five years before being delisted because of access problems with the register showing no further ascents. Earlier, this year it was re-listed. Recently, Erik Siering, Chairman of the Sierra Peaks Section, advised the writer that he had passed over the peak on his way to the high point of the Redrock Mountain Chain in 1996 but hadn't noticed the small, inconspicuous register.
I now attempted to reach the mines via the Redrock Mountain Chain starting from the old Pianobox Mining Prospect. The Pianobox is best reached by taking the Lake Hughes Road from Castaic to its junction with the Warm Springs Road, FR 6N321, 13 miles. Follow the well-graded but dusty and winding dirt road to the Warm Springs Divide, a three-way junction at 2.5 miles.
At the junction, the right-hand road goes north about 4 miles and dead ends at a parking area. An overgrown firebreak goes up about 1-1/2 miles to Sawtooth Peak. On the left side of the parking area is an old mining road, which soon turns into an overgrown trail that ends after a mile. The Burnt Peak Topo and the Auto Club LA. County Map show a Maxwell Mine at this location. This is presumably one of several graphite mines that a Frank Maxwell dug in this area in the 1930's and 40's. I have not been able to find any sign of the mine along the overgrown trail.
Back at the Warm Springs Divide, the lefthand road goes about 3 miles to the summit of Warm Springs Mountain but is gated at the beginning. This is to help prevent vandalism at the Forest Service's radio repeater station on the summit. An extremely overgrown 3-mile trail leads from the summit to Lake Hughes Road at mileage marker 11.23.
After a short jog to the left, the Warm Springs/Fish Canyon Road continues west down to Cienaga Campground in Fish Canyon, 6.5 miles. From there, head north up Fish Canyon on any of the several jeep tracks which soon converge into one trail that leads to the Pianobox Mining Prospect, 1 mile. It was named for a piano brought there during its mining days. The unmarked Redrock Trail is across the creek just behind a large live oak and sycamore. If you continued on, the canyon turns sharply right and abruptly enters the dark and cool Fish Canyon Narrows. After another mile the narrows end at Rogers Campground with its 15' exploratory tunnel on the left side of the canyon wall. The Sierra Club Schedule regularly includes trips from Cienaga Campground to Rogers Campground. This is the only "O" rated hike I would recommend for this area.
In February I again climbed the benchmark peak from the Pianobox, on the Redrock Trail, this time accompanied by Tom Hill, outgoing Hundred Peaks Section Chairman. We did some pruning, flagging and duck placement on the overgrown trail and reset two fallen metal junction markers at the high saddle and peak. Tom also installed a register can and pad at the summit. We continued past the peak along the ridgeline over several small bumps for 1-1/2 miles until reaching the high point of the Redrock Mountain chain (4489'). There was no benchmark or ducks on this peak.
About a mile northwest from this high point at the east end of FR 7N221, but hidden by an intervening hill, is the occasionally worked Benco Mines site owned by Joe Benz along with his two brothers. The mines consist of two short tunnels with several corrugated metal buildings, an older truck and much construction equipment lying around. Mr. Benz advised me that he started the mines about 20 years ago and extracts rare earth and platinum. He said there are numerous rattlesnakes in the area and that he and his brothers wear thick leggings to protect themselves. He added that there are a number of black bears and cougars who can be aggressive when meeting a solitary hiker. He feels that the area is dangerous.
About a quarter mile above the Benco Mines is the reputed site of the Gillette Mine, at least it is so marked on the Liebre Mountain Topo and the Auto Club LA. County Map. I could find no mine there. The Forest Service apparently blasted the tunnel(s) shut in 1979. As near as I can tell, mining operations started there in the mid-1920s by King Camp Gillette, founder of the Gillette Razor Blade Company, with his only child King Gaines Gillette playing a major role. He or his son had obtained an old map that showed the location of Spanish mines and buried treasure. They began tunneling, hoping to find one of the hidden mines but nothing was ever found. The senior Gillette passed away in 1932 in poor health and in bad financial shape. His widow and son spent their last years in extreme poverty. After his death, mining efforts continued with some members of the Hollywood movie community involved, including Tom Mix, the cowboy star. According to Mr. Benz, there was violence and shootings during this period over conflicting mining claims. Things finally quieted down after the Forest Service closed the mines.
Two miles up the same road is the abandoned Knapp Ranch. A Mr. Kelly who
operated a gas station and restaurant on the nearby Old Ridge Route, in
operation from 1915 to 1933, originally built the ranch, consisting of several
houses. In the mid-1950's a wealthy businessman named Frank Knapp acquired the
property and operated it for many years as a hunting lodge and horse
ranch. After his death it was acquired by the Forest Service, about four years
ago. One remaining wild stallion still roams there, which is confirmed by the
abundance of horse droppings. The road is gated shortly above and below the
[Note added by webmaster in September 2009: Kathryn Hill comments on
the above paragraph, "I've never heard Uncle Frank being referred to as a
"wealthy businessman". Great-Grandpa and Grandma emigrated from Austria, and
they didn't have a lot of money when he showed up.
"Also, I have never heard of Uncle Frank using for anything other than as
his primary residence. I know he moved up there after his pet buffelo
got out in Canoga Park."
Knapp home, 1912]
One of the tenants at the Knapp Ranch was an enigmatic mining promoter by the name of Annie Rose Briggs, who was active during the violent days of the Gillette Mine. She supposedly raised substantial sums of money by selling mining leases with stories of lost mines and buried treasure.
Tom and I returned back along the ridgeline a short distance and then headed down a steep gully leading to Redrock Canyon. We noted old cans and other mining debris and the beginning of a dry blue-line stream, which soon developed steep rocky banks, which were frequently dogged. We descended about a third of a mile with a 1000' elevation loss. The gully was now getting less steep and we could see numerous fir trees below us. However, we reluctantly agreed that if we were to return to our car in daylight we should turn back. It took an hour to get back to the ridgeline. The rest of the return trip of 4 1/2 miles was easier and we arrived back at Cienaga Campground and our vehicle just as darkness was setting in. Redrock Canyon had defeated me again.
In April, I made a third and final attempt, this time with Sierra Club hardman Mars Bonfire. We proceeded on the same general route as my first attempt except that we went west over the top of the cliffs overlooking the canyon. This was basically the route followed by the explorers in 1980. It was tiring going up and down gullies of thick chaparral but finally we made it to the top of the canyon just above the falls. However, we could see no way down at that point so we continued north a ways and saw an animal trail which led to the canyon bottom. We followed it down and as we approached the bottom, saw a large fir tree with attractive green foliage surrounding it. A few moments later, we were at the bottom but my brief moment of triumph was short-lived. The attractive green foliage was a sea of poison oak to which I am susceptible. Reluctantly, we retraced our footsteps to the top of the canyon. We could see other possible routes ahead of us that might get us into the canyon bottom past the poison oak barrier. However, all would involve substantial additional effort and increase the chance we would not have enough energy or time to return in daylight. Thus, with a mixture of disappointment and relief, we headed back up to the ridgeline. With several rest stops, it took us two hours to get back to the Cienaga Canyon Trail. From there it was relatively easy to go the remaining 4 miles to our car parked near the east end of Templin Highway. Thus concluded my third and last attempt to reach the Redrock Canyon Mines.
I had a number of conversations with John Childress and Robert Rice, two of the group who explored the mines back around 1980. Both John and Robert felt then and now that the mines they explored are of Spanish origin and that those who worked the Gillette Mine(s) should have gone farther south into Redrock Canyon. They gave the following reasons for this belief:
- One of the mines has leached iron stalactites and calcite, which was tested by a college geologist as 200 years old.
- Mescal cactus found near the mines is not indigenous to the area.
- Spanish style "x's" and crosses were carved in the rocks in a small dry canyon just west of the mines.
- Some very old iron fragments from a wagon axle perhaps dating back to the Spanish Mission Period were found near the mines.
- There are no mine ore tailings by the entrances to the mines. This might indicate the availability of forced Native American labor to remove and process the tailings.
However, a geology professor I consulted stated that none of the usual methods of dating stalactites and calcite would be able to resolve the difference between 100 vs. 200 of age. Also, the California Journal of Mining reports two old Anglo-owned gold mines in that same area (The Great West and Silver Mountain Mines). John and Robert also found indication of early activity by Anglo miners in the area. (Remnants of a Victoria-era woman's high-button leather shoe and a pick ax head lodged 20 feet up a tree pointing the way to the mines.)
Let me suggest the possibility that the mines are of Spanish origin and that Anglo miners, a hundred years later, found them and continued mining them.
John and Robert both comment on the attractiveness of the canyon as compared to the surrounding area. With its fir trees and abundant water it is substantially cooler than the hot, arid, treeless slopes surrounding it. It must have seemed a veritable oasis to the original inhabitants as well as these early miners, whoever they were. Also, I suspect that trails now long gone led into the canyon making access to it far easier than is now the case.
Why did we fail? John and Robert and their companions had a powerful motivation to reach the mines and explore them by backpacking and camping, which I lacked. This was their belief that the Los Padres Mine was within their grasp. They did not limit themselves to day hikes.
Hopefully, this article may inspire a stronger hiker and a more competent historian than myself to do additional research on this little-known area of Los Angeles County and recover more of its lost history.
My sincere appreciation to John and Robert, as well as Joe Benz for their patience and good humor in answering my numerous requests for information on the geography and history of this area. Without their help, this article could not have been written.