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JAUNTS: Ventura County

Star Trekking the Back Country

Four-wheel outings near Ojai include an astronomy tour from atop Chief Peak on July 4.

June 26, 1997|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You can stargaze from your backyard, squinting at the heavens through the urban glare of street lights. Or, you can view the pitch-black night sky from atop mile-high Chief Peak in the Ojai back country.

For the more adventurous, the latter is a Jeep ride away. Pink Moment Jeep Tours in Ojai is now offering four-wheeling astronomy outings, and the first is the Fourth of July--a double feature of sorts. If it's a clear night, you'll look down on the flickering lights from fireworks in Ojai and beyond, and later gaze up at a star-filled moon-less sky.

These star treks are led by Ojai astronomer Ernest Underhay, who sets up his high-powered telescope near the 5,400-foot summit and points out celestial landmarks. Costing $45 per person, the four-hour outing begins at 7:30 p.m. in downtown Ojai when you climb into customized open-air Jeeps with room for six riders.

Don't look for pink Jeeps, though--despite the company name. These are a subdued white.

"Ojai is not a pink Jeep town," said Rich Holly, an attorney, who started Pink Moment Jeep Tours three years ago with his wife, Carol, an elementary school principal, and Ojai couple, Pat and Jim Nichols.

All longtime hikers and campers, they got the four-wheeling idea from the pink Jeeps that take tourists on off-road sightseeing excursions in Sedona, Ariz. But the "pink moment" is an Ojai phenomenon--that time around sunset when light reflects off the Topatopa Mountains, casting a pinkish tint over the valley.

The two-family operation began with one Jeep and limited permission from Los Padres National Forest Service to conduct the back-country tours. The business is flourishing--they pick up guests from the Ojai Valley Inn and other spots--and now they have four Jeeps with see-through plexiglass roofs for panoramic viewing.

The tours range from a gentle 90-minute spin around Ojai with a driver-guide who knows the historic spots ($28 per person), to the most popular, the trek to Chief Peak (normally $55).

Underhay's Fourth of July astronomy outing leaves downtown Ojai in time to see the sunset from atop Chief Peak, which resembles a reclining face if you strain your imagination. The ride takes you up Highway 33 into Matilija Canyon, through scenic Wheeler Gorge, to the Rose Valley Campground, about a 25-minute drive.

From here on, the trip becomes just that--a trip. The driver unlocks a gate, slips the Jeep into four-wheel drive, and lowers the windshield to get the full air-in-your-face effect during the five-mile ascent up Chief Peak.

But if you're hoping for a hair-raising ride over boulders and gullies, you're out of luck. The Jeep hums over a surprisingly smooth dirt road with a few sharp turns and roller-coaster ups and downs. (The drivers will go faster or slower, depending on the whims of the passengers.) The road follows a ridge with incredible views on either side. But if you're afraid of heights, this trip isn't for you.

"We've had them right down here under a blanket," Rich Holly said, gesturing to the floor of the Jeep where one passenger huddled rather than see the view.

The road ends just below the summit where Underhay will likely set up his telescope. If it's clear, the night sky should be spectacular because it's so far away from city lights.

"We're trying to get people away from that and show them the sky their ancestors saw thousands of years ago," said Underhay, who ran the planetarium at Santa Barbara's Museum of Natural History until two years ago when he moved to Ojai.

Although the Hale-Bopp comet isn't visible any more, Underhay will point out the Milky Way, constellations and other celestial sights such as Jupiter and its clouds and moons. He has a similar outing scheduled July 19, and several more in August when the Perseid meteor shower will be visible.

The astronomy outings are the latest addition to Pink Moment Jeep Tours' on-road or off-road adventures. They do guided hikes into Matilija Canyon, nature walks in Wheeler Gorge, wildflower and bird outings with trained naturalists and sunset drives.

For those with a romantic bent, they'll pack a gourmet picnic lunch, complete with linen tablecloth and napkins from a local restaurant like Ojai's Suzanne's Cuisine. They will tailor jaunts to include a rigorous climb to the summit of Chief Peak, or a short, gentle walk at Rose Valley Campground to a steep, moss-covered waterfall with a hidden cave.

But they can't just drive off-road wherever they wish. Their permit from the Forest Service allows them access to a couple of four-wheel-drive roads including the one along Nordhoff Ridge to Chief Peak. And it's not an exclusive access either. The Forest Service allows up to 20 other vehicles a day, provided they get the required permit and have four-wheel-drive.

But on weekdays, anyway, Jeep traffic may be the only traffic in this fairly isolated spot. If Pink Moment's white Jeeps are rattling hikers who expect more of a wilderness experience here, then they're apparently not complaining to Forest Service officials.

"Everything has been fine--our relationship with them [Pink Moment] has been real positive," said Ojai district ranger Larry Mastic. The outfit pays the Forest Service a fee per Jeep passenger and helps with road maintenance and emergencies.

"It's another way people can get up there who don't have four-wheel vehicles," Mastic said.

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BE THERE

Pink Moment Jeep Tours offers an astronomy tour the Fourth of July at 7:30 p.m. Jeeps meet riders at the park-and-ride site, Ojai Avenue and Montgomery Street, downtown Ojai. For information, call 646-2903.

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