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Wet & Wild

Santa Paula Canyon Trail Promises Cool Waters and Spectacular Views


You want to stretch your legs out on a back-country trail, but the warm weather makes you wilt at the thought. Think Santa Paula Canyon.

The trail that winds up this creek through a narrow gorge is no secret. Sometimes 100 or more people flock here on summer weekends to splash around in cool pools and dangle a toe in the rushing water.

"We consider it the most heavily traveled trail in the district," said Charlie Robinson, recreation officer for the Los Padres National Forest Service in Ojai.

That shouldn't stop you, though. This trail, located on the edge of Thomas Aquinas College between Santa Paula and Ojai, is a gem. But for a more serene experience, the forest service recommends hiking it on weekdays.

Park along Highway 150 on a turnout just below the college. (You'll see a sign for the trail with an arrow.) Cross the highway, and at the entrance to the school follow the road that skirts around this picturesque little campus. You'll see trail signs.

The paved road takes you past some oil fields that famous oilman Edward Lawrence Doheny once owned around the turn of the century. You'll likely see a couple of rigs pumping away. It's an odd sight for the start of a hike.

After nearly a mile, you leave all these signs of civilization behind and finally hit the trail leading into the canyon wilderness. Unfortunately, one of the first things you'll notice are some urban reminders--graffiti. It's everywhere--on rocks, trees, logs.

"We're attempting to remove the graffiti," Robinson said. "But the more you have, the more you get." Despite the vandalism, there have been few other problems on the trail.


You'll hear the creek and soon see it. Water rushes down over big boulders. You might see a duck cruising the water. The shaded trail follows the creek for a bit, then crosses the water (hop on the rocks) and follows a wide, smooth dirt road. You'll be climbing a little and gaining a spectacular view of the canyon.

After about three miles, the road comes to Big Cone Camp, named for the giant spruce trees that shade this clearing where camping is allowed. (Check with the district office about camping rules; the fire danger is high now.) Some steep switchbacks take you down to the creek where you'll find small waterfalls and pools. You'll have company here. People picnic on the boulders.

From this point, you can cross the creek and pick up the trail, bearing left at a junction. After less than half a mile, you'll be gazing down at a breathtaking gorge with cascading water. You'll find more pools carved out of the sandstone here and a huge flat ledge of rock for lounging.


Even though the water is cold and looks clear, don't drink it unless you purify it, Robinson cautioned. If you go in the water, watch out for broken glass; there's plenty of it. The water here moves deceptively fast, and some of the pools are too shallow for jumping in. Don't dive: Swimmers have been seriously injured up here in the past.

Nearby is Cross Camp, another camping spot. From here, the forest service is working on reconstructing the old Last Chance Trail north to Hines Peak. The south half is done, and more serious backpackers can now hike another three miles from Cross Camp to Jackson Hole Camp.


* WHAT: Santa Paula Canyon Trail.

* WHERE: The trail head is located at the entrance to Thomas Aquinas College on Highway 150 between Santa Paula and Ojai.

* FYI: Maps are available at Los Padres National Forest district office, 1190 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai.

* CALL: 646-4348.

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