North of Castaic Lake, in a valley hidden by a beautiful but unforgiving landscape, is the Redrock Canyon mine. Forgotten for years and rediscovered throughout history, our visit was the third recorded since 1932. It’s a leg-burning 15 miles roundtrip, including 34 river crossings, which swell in the spring.
UPDATED 8/6/12 See Mark Mendenhall’s comment below for more information about the mine’s history.
According to legends retold, this land is brimming with beasts, Chumash burial sites, and wild terrain. Described are tales of men who have come and failed, including King Gillette and his fortune, and of ragged men emerging from the woods with nuggets of gold. This place has the makings of an epic Western film.
Most of what is known about Redrock Canyon was compiled by Hugh Blanchard. I found his website L.A. Gold Mines by searching simple keywords in Google like “Redrock Mountain” and “Liebre Mountains,” derived from names I had seen on a topo map. From what I can gather via the web, Hugh Blanchard was an outstanding man, who passionately sought to preserve history about Southern California mines that were long lost to time. His website still stands as a testament to his legacy; tragically at the age of 79, Hugh Blanchard passed away when he fell while exploring the nearby Castaic mine. I never got to meet Hugh, but I think I would have very much enjoyed his company.
More about the mine after the jump and pictures.
Hugh Blanchard made several attempts to find the Redrock Canyon mine, which he also theorized was the Lost Los Padres mine, “Supposedly, a lost mission mine was rediscovered in the area back in the 1870′s and this area is the favored mythological site of the Los Padres Mine.” Where To Find Gold In Southern California by James Klein gives an excellent account that suggests the gold went through Fort Tejon, which still stands to this day. The existence of the Los Padres mine is not debated by historians and the story retold by Virginia Wegis is a popular legend in Angeles National Forest. After making four different attempts, Hugh was defeated by box canyons, fading light, and poison oak. He never made it.
You should read Hugh’s report; but to summarize, in the 1980′s, John Childress and Robert Rice found the Redrock Canyon mine with the help of a 92 year old Castaic life-resident. They spent days backpacking in search of the Los Padres mine… and found it after it had been hidden for five decades. Hugh spoke with these gentlemen to get pictures and their story. It was believed that they were the first known visitors since 1932.
[Edit] Since the writing of this article, I was made aware that there were at least two other visitors to Redrock Canyon mine, what was claimed as the Smokin’ Joker. I confirmed this with BLM. Mark Mendenhall’s father, Bill Mendenhall, held a claim here before Robert Rice. Please see the comments below for more information given by the men themselves.
After Hugh had written his account, a man named Kevin Dixon took on the task and failed three times to find the mine as well. Finally in 2006, Dixon found a way to get to the mines, mapped it, and took pictures. Our visit to the mine is the only other that has been recorded since that date.
Finding Redrock Mine
This land has many unique ecological characteristics. The mouthes of Redrock and Fish Canyons open at the northern end of Castaic Lake, at the end of Templin Highway. There’s a big gate that reflects the Forest Service’s policy on this area: derelict and unmaintained. Forest Service Road 6N32 runs through the narrow bottom of Fish Canyon; it is no longer open for vehicle traffic and is quickly being retaken by the river and nature. The broken and fragmented road leads to the abandoned Cienega Campground. Only the concrete shells of two restrooms eerily remain.
In the past, wildfires have swept through this area and perhaps some rehabilitation is in order. After all, condors were discovered in Redrock Canyon, and they need lots of space. Although I didn’t see any condors, (I believe that they have been relocated) I am thankful to have experienced it in this way-unimproved with no one in sight.
Heading upstream past Cienega Campground, the river strafes the base of Redrock Mountain. It winds its way through shady oak trees that offer a nice canopy to hike beneath. After about a mile, a very large and prominent oak tree marks the Pianobox Prospect. It has a fire circle and the remains of a site exposed in the rock. It was named after an old pianobox that was left by prospectors and it stayed there for many years. At this junction, the trail crosses the river at a rock cairn and begins to climb the slopes of Redrock Mountain. The old trail slowly ascends a divide between Fish and Redrock Canyon, traveling through thick chapparral brush. As Hugh described it, “I found the journey quite sporting.” At the top of this saddle, the trail continues down, but getting to the mine requires climbing up to the summit register of Redrock Mountain. The rest of the journey is off the beaten path.
It took me three tries to finally reach the mine, although the first trip was a less serious reconnaissance mission. On my second attempt, my hiking partner James Hardy and I made it to the Fir Tree Valley, only to turn back at 4:30 PM since we were not supplied for an overnight. It did give me a beautiful glimpse into the notch that the Redrock Canyon mine is reported to be. We hiked 7.5 miles back, 5 of which were with headlamps in complete darkness. Defeated, we experienced freezing temperatures… and had 17 more river crossings to go.
The view that this trip had granted me haunted my every waking moment. For weeks, I fixated on the image of that valley, a rarely touched nook in the side of a mountain, forgotten. The sun was setting, washing the red rocks in golden light… A tranquil oasis that hides a trove of history: the real California gold.
The Last Attempt
Weeks later on the third attempt, we returned with a tent and food, and by sunset had descended into Redrock Canyon from Fir Tree Valley. We faced the same point where we had turned around on our last trip, defeated.
Unbridled, I blistered down the slope, sliding over scree and trying to stay upright. The anticipation had built up inside me for months. James slowly made his way down, a smart move, especially when you’re fatigued. I just couldn’t resist, and took a couple diggers as a result. The golden afternoon light was filtering through douglas fir needles, striking the red rocks in vibrant hues.
At the bottom, I dropped my pack in the sand of the river wash and scrambled toward the opposite edge. The target gully ran up the sides of the canyon and I climbed for about five minutes before I was stunned to see a hole tunneling straight through the rock. I was standing right in front of the mine. In quiet reverence, I stepped in about three feet and saw the wood stove and generator, but quickly realized that I forgot my headlamp back at my pack. It was late in the day and we were losing light fast, so I had to act quickly.
Exploring Redrock Mine
I returned with James and headlamps, and entered the mine. I was impressed by how even the floor was and how I could comfortably stand upright. There was a lot of left over remnants from the last prospectors who mined, including cans, flashlights, sleeping bags and pads. It was interesting to pick through their forgotten wares. I walked about 80 feet in to the end of a drainage pit which was empty and about 25 feet deep. It is also possible that this pit was an exploratory tunnel that was chiseled in an attempt to find gold bearing quartz veins at lower depths. This doesn’t appear to have been fruitful.
The mine also cuts to the right, 90 degrees at this point, and continues for about 30-35 feet before making a left turn and ending approximately 6 feet in. At the end of the mine, I found a modern Dietz lantern ($22) and a bottle of lamp oil with a copyright label of 2009. There was also a “Made in China” sticker on the bottom of the lantern. It is virtually worthless, but the discovery of this lantern was like finding gold. It symbolizes the entire journey, a talisman that now sits on my shelf. If you get to it before me, will someone please put an American made lantern in that mine?! I may pass the lantern on in a new mine, perhaps at a geocache. In fact, I may have one in mind. We’ll see.
I didn’t find any gold at the mine, nor did I look. Crazy, some might say, after so much effort getting there. I may return and try my hand at prospecting, but it wasn’t gold that drew me to this place in the first place. It was the story. It was the realization of discovering a modern day western frontier.
Sleeping in Redrock Canyon
We found a sandy patch level enough for a tent in Redrock Canyon, at the base of the side canyon. We pitched the tent away from poison oak and dosed off. The temperature dropped that night, but we both slept soundly.
To my knowledge, there is no written account of someone reaching the mine in 2009. I’d like to know who has been there in the recent past, since Dixon in 2006. I’d like to speak to anyone who has been to this mine and may lend me some further information.
To support the claim that this is the Lost Los Padres mine, Hugh Blanchard, John Childress and Robert Rice compiled this information:
1. One of the mines has leached iron stalactites and calcite, which was tested by a college geologist as 200 years old.
2. Mescal cactus found near the mines is not indigenous to the area.
3. Spanish style “X’s” and crosses were carved in the rocks in a small dry canyon just west of the mines.
4. Some very old iron fragments from a wagon axle perhaps dating back to the Spanish Mission Period were found near the mines.
5. 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.
With the budget crisis in California and amid the closure of state parks, please do your part to tread lightly and practice leave no trace. Leave this wilderness as it belongs.
Important things to consider:
The river crossings are much more difficult in the spring, but are also a great source of drinking water. When we went in April, we resorted to walking straight through each crossing, soaking our boots. At the end of the summer, the river is easily crossed without getting wet, but streams close to the mine are dry, so you’ll have to carry in water. Nights in the winter may be too cold for comfort. There is a massive amount of poison oak everywhere. Sunscreen is essential. I strongly recommend spending the night rather than doing a long day hike. Don’t forget flashlights, or even better, headlamps. Study topographical maps for navigation, since about half of this journey is off trail. There are mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and more. Keep the 10 essentials handy.