A pastoral Central Coast hike with sweeping views and historic mining ruins
San Luis Obispo County offers a wonderful variety of hiking opportunities, both near the coast and farther inland. While the county’s numerous coastal parks generally teem with visitors, the interior “backcountry” region sees relatively light use by hikers. The Santa Lucia Ranger District of the Los Padres National Forest provides a bountiful supply of public land, including three designated wilderness areas and many miles of hiking trails. However, private property inholdings and a network of rough, unpaved roads conspire to make access to many of the area’s trails challenging.
A notable exception is the Rinconada Trail, located just off Pozo Road between Santa Margarita and the tiny community of Pozo. The Rinconada Trailhead is one of the few trailheads in the Santa Lucia Ranger District that can be accessed via a paved road. This allows the trail to remain open year-round, including during the winter months when wet, muddy conditions usually force the closure of the district’s network of unpaved roads. While the five-mile semi-loop hike described here makes a fine outing in itself, the Rinconada Trail also serves as an important access route into the adjacent Santa Lucia Wilderness. As an added bonus, a short side trip from the trailhead visits the nearby Rinconada Mine, an abandoned mercury mine and processing mill that dates back to 1872.
Cinnabar, the mineral from which mercury is derived, was first discovered at the site of the Rinconada Mine in 1872. A mine and processing facility to convert the cinnabar ore into mercury were established on the site, which operated intermittently for almost 90 years, finally closing in 1961. While the Rinconada Trail lies on the Santa Lucia Ranger District of the Los Padres National Forest, the mine site itself is administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). From 2003-2004, the site and the adjacent Rinconada Trail were closed to public access while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted a thorough environmental clean-up of the mine site. The trail re-opened to the public in 2005.
It should be noted that while the Rinconada Trail is named for the nearby mine, the trail as currently laid out was constructed to circumvent the mine site. The current trail stays east of the mine site, then re-connects with the original road from the trailhead after about a mile. Be alert for ‘TRAIL’ signs along the way that steer you away from the mine site.
Although beyond the scope of this post, hikes on the Rinconada Trail can be extended into the Santa Lucia Wilderness, which lies south of Hi Mountain Road. This wilderness area, established in 1978, now consists of 20,486 acres of national forest and BLM land. From the end of the Rinconada Trail on Hi Mountain Road, it is possible to access Little Falls and Big Falls Canyons. Wilderness permits are not required for visits to the Santa Lucia Wilderness.
Distance: 4.8 miles semi-loop trip
Elevation gain/loss: +1200’/-1200′
Hiking time: About 2-3 hours
Permits and fees: No Adventure Pass is required to park at the Rinconada Trailhead. Likewise, if you extend your hike into the Santa Lucia Wilderness, a wilderness permit is not required. However, you will need a California Campfire Permit if you plan to build a fire or use a camping stove during your visit.
Maps: The Santa Margarita Lake 7.5′ USGS topographic map provides the best coverage for this hike. Note that the first 0.5 miles of the trail have been re-routed slightly east of the path shown on the topo in order to avoid the maze of use paths and mining prospects that lie above the Rinconada Mine.
Best time to go: The Rinconada Trail is generally accessible year-round. November-April is usually the best time to visit due to cooler weather and a vibrant spring wildflower display that normally peaks in March. As with most trails on the Los Padres, winter rains bring very muddy conditions which can last for several days after the rain itself has stopped. From May through October, the weather is usually dry and very hot, with daytime highs frequently in the 90s or even higher. Most of the route is unshaded, which only adds to the misery during this time of year. However, the Rinconada Trail is short enough that it can still be a pleasant experience during the summer if you start your hike as early in the morning as possible. Be sure to abide by any seasonal fire restrictions which may be in effect during your visit, particularly during the summer.
From Highway 101 just north of San Luis Obispo (at the top of the Cuesta Grade), exit onto Highway 58 East. Continue through the small town of Santa Margarita, following signs to stay on Highway 58. Once out of town, you will reach an intersection where Highway 58 turns left. Continue straight at this intersection, now on Pozo Road. Follow Pozo Road for 9.4 miles to the signed turn-off for the Rinconada Trailhead on your right. A short driveway leads up to a large gravel parking lot. The trail starts on the left (east) side of the parking lot. On the right (west) side of the parking lot is the start of the short side trip to the Rinconada Mine.
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: N35-17.396, W120-28.490. Elevation 1740′.
Park in the large gravel parking lot described above. The start of the Rinconada Trail will be to your left as you enter the lot, at an information sign board. On the right side of the parking lot, a vehicle gate marks the start of the short side trip over to the Rinconada Mine. The trail starts as a well-graded singletrack through pleasant, shady oak woodland. Enjoy the shade now, as there will be very little of it later on.
The trail passes a hitching post for equestrians and two small, seasonal seeps. A metal trail sign indicates two miles to Little Falls and five miles to Big Falls. These distances are to the start of the Little Falls Trail and Big Falls Trail respectively, not the waterfalls themselves! The first mile of the trail is perhaps one of the most pleasant stretches along the route, especially in springtime when the meadows are green with a fresh crop of grass and the wildflowers are in full bloom. This section of the trail was constructed to avoid the Rinconada Mine. The trail occasionally intersects old mining roads that lead back over to the mine, but ‘TRAIL’ signs will keep you on the correct route.
After about a mile of easy hiking, the trail rejoins the original road that used to lead up to mining prospects on the north slope of Bell Mountain (peak 2618′ on the topo map). Once on the old road, the grade steepens considerably and you climb south, shortly emerging into the open. The stretch of trail from here to the top of the ridge consists of a steep, shade-less climb through high chaparral. Although it can be unpleasant during hot weather, the views of the surrounding countryside improve continuously as you climb toward the top of the ridge. Bell Mountain is immediately visible to the southwest, its reddish rock outcroppings surrounded by a sea of chaparral and a few scattered grey pines. Be sure to stop occasionally and admire the view to the north, where broad Pozo Valley spreads out before you.
The old road continues on a climbing traverse of the east side of Bell Mountain, aiming for a saddle to the east of the summit. Soon, you will reach a cattle gate across the trail. This gate is usually closed, but a hiker pass-through allows easy passage. Just beyond the gate, the trail climbs on the right side of a sloping grassy meadow and shortly reaches a broad saddle on a ridge, 1.4 miles from the start of your hike. At the crest of the ridge, excellent views of the Santa Lucia Wilderness open up to the south. This grassy meadow makes an excellent place to rest or enjoy lunch. Although unsigned, it’s also an important junction. The main Rinconada Trail continues (somewhat vaguely) over the saddle and begins a steep, rocky descent down to its end at a junction with Hi Mountain Road. This is the shortest route down to the Little Falls and Big Falls Trails, and you should head this way if you’re bound for either destination.
However, if you’re following the route described here, you’ll want to turn left onto an abandoned and unsigned road that leads east along the ridge. You will eventually return to this spot, coming back up the Rinconada Trail from Hi Mountain Road. This road descends, briefly climbs, and then descends again through light oak woodland, eventually ending at a junction with Hi Mountain Road. Along the way, it passes a fire ring at an unofficial dry campsite beneath a gnarled, ancient oak tree. If you camp here, be sure you have your California Campfire Permit.
At the junction with Hi Mountain Road, turn right onto the road and follow it west along a gradually descending traverse with excellent views south into the Santa Lucia Wilderness. Be alert for automobiles on this stretch of the route, as Hi Mountain Road is usually open to vehicular traffic. Due to its very rough condition, the road is lightly used. Before reaching the junction with the Rinconada Trail, you will pass Little Falls Spring, on your right. While there is a large concrete water tank here, the spring itself lies in a brushy gully. While you MIGHT be able to get water here, it’s certainly better to carry an adequate supply from the trailhead. The spring is intermittent, and extensive cattle grazing in the area make the water quality questionable.
Beyond Little Falls Spring, you will reach the junction with the Rinconada Trail after about a mile of walking along Hi Mountain Road. This junction marks the end of the Rinconada Trail and is your return route. However, before turning to climb back up the Rinconada Trail, continue about 100 yards west along Hi Mountain Road to reach the signed upper terminus of the Little Falls Trail. This trail leads south into the Santa Lucia Wilderness to Little Falls, nestled deep in Little Falls Canyon. There are more excellent views to the south and west into the Santa Lucia Wilderness here. Hikers bound for Big Falls will want to continue west along Hi Mountain Road for approximately 1.5 miles to reach the upper end of the Big Falls Trail.
For those following our main semi-loop route, backtrack along Hi Mountain Road to the Rinconada Trail junction. The trail heads north from here, climbing gradually at first. However, it soon re-connects with an old mine road and reaches what is undoubtedly the most unpleasant part of the hike – a steep climb straight up the hillside through a shallow, rock-filled gully. There is no shade and there are no switchbacks between here and the top of the ridge. However, the climb is very brief and soon you will be back at the grassy saddle and trail junction where you started your loop.
After catching your breath and perhaps taking a break in the shade of the solitary oak tree near the trail junction, pick up the Rinconada Trail as it descends north back to the trailhead. The descent back to your waiting vehicle is certainly more pleasant than the initial climb to get up here, although it might also be a lot hotter if you started your hike early in the morning.
Side trip to Rinconada Mine
Either before or after your main hike on the Rinconada Trail, you may wish to visit the nearby Rinconada Mine. The trail to the mine starts at the west end of the trailhead parking lot at a vehicle gate. The trail contours along an old mine road through a shady woodland to reach the mine’s processing mill in about 0.25 miles. Although the mine has been cleared of hazardous materials and closure orders for the site have been lifted, it is still extremely important to observe all basic safety precautions when visiting the mine. The large concrete pad in front of the mill ends in a steep drop-off that has no guard railing. Also, the hillside behind the mill is littered with tunnels and adits that lead into the actual mine itself. Most of these entrances have been sealed off to protect the curious public.
On a personal note, I did not find the mine to be very appealing. While its historical value is significant, it appeared to me to have degenerated into a rusted, graffiti-covered eyesore. The mine seems to be popular with local party-goers and target shooters, who have left it littered with trash and spent shells. Although the mine was the subject of a thorough EPA clean-up, a strong, unpleasant chemical smell pervades the area around the mill. Nonetheless, it’s worth taking a brief look at due to its proximity to the trailhead. It’s not a good place to take small children, however.
- The Rinconada Trailhead has ample parking, but no other facilities.
- The Rinconada Trail is open to hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians. A portion of the route follows Hi Mountain Road, which is usually open to vehicles. Mountain bikers can follow the semi-loop route described here, but are not allowed in the Santa Lucia Wilderness.
- There are no designated trail camps along the route. However, there is a fire ring at a dry campsite on the connector path between the main Rinconada Trail and Hi Mountain Road.
- Be sure to bring adequate water. Water is sometimes available at Little Falls Spring, but it is seasonal and usually dry during the summer and fall months.
- Poison oak is EVERYWHERE along the first mile of the trail up to the cattle gate. As with any hike in the Central Coast, ticks and rattlesnakes are also potential hazards.
- Cattle frequently graze in this area and you’re likely to encounter them along the trail. Be sure to keep a safe distance.
- The Rinconada Trail is generally suitable for children old enough to walk the entire hike, although you’ll want to keep them away from the poison oak on the lower stretch of the trail. The side trip to the Rinconada Mine, however, is NOT RECOMMENDED for small children due to the numerous hazards at the mine site.
Also in the Area
There are a variety of other hiking opportunities in this area. As noted above, the Rinconada Trail can be used as part of an extended hike into the Santa Lucia Wilderness, with Little Falls and Big Falls being popular destinations. Further east, the Trout Creek Trail leads into the Garcia Wilderness from a trailhead off Hi Mountain Road. Santa Margarita Lake, off Pozo Road, offers a variety of hiking trails in addition to camping, picnicking, boating, and other recreation opportunities.
Camping is also available at the Santa Margarita Lake KOA, located just before you reach the entrance to Santa Margarita Lake Park on Santa Margarita Lake Road. In addition to tent and RV camping, the KOA also offers small cabins and yurts.
If you’re looking for a great post-hike meal and steak sounds particularly appealing, The Range in downtown Santa Margarita is highly recommended as the best restaurant in town. OK, it’s just about the ONLY full-service restaurant in town, but the reviews are pretty unanimous that it’s a great place to eat. Just be sure to bring cash or make a stop at the nearby ATM – they don’t take credit cards. Also located in beautiful downtown Santa Margarita are not one, but two excellent wineries to choose from if you’re in need of a glass of wine to celebrate your day of hiking. While the Ancient Peaks Winery is larger and more well-known, you should also consider a visit to Pozo Valley Vineyards, a small, family-run winery that’s also on El Camino Real (Highway 58) and offers complimentary tasting.
The Rinconada Trail and the Santa Lucia Wilderness are managed by the Santa Lucia Ranger District of the Los Padres National Forest. The Los Padres website offers a wide variety of general information about the Forest. Be sure to check the road conditions and closures web page before your hike, especially in the winter. If you need additional information or the website hasn’t been updated recently, call or stop by the Santa Lucia Ranger District Office for the latest updates:
Santa Lucia Ranger District
1616 North Carlotti Drive
Santa Maria, CA 93454
Phone: (805) 925-9538
Hours: 8:00am – 4:30pm Monday – Friday
While the Rinconada Trail is mentioned in all of the currently available hiking guidebooks that cover San Luis Obispo County, Top Trails: California Central Coast: Must-Do Hikes for Everyone
Additional information about the Rinconada Mine and the environmental clean-up that was performed there can be found on the BLM’s website.
More photos of this hike are on Flickr.