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Sulphur Mountain Remains a Terra Incognita

May 16, 1999|JOHN McKINNEY | John McKinney is the author of "Day Hiker's Guide to Southern California" (Olympus Press, $14.95)

Once upon a time, Sulphur Mountain Road was one of the Southland's great drives. Motorists loved this curvy dirt byway near Ojai for its superb vistas of the Ojai Valley, Topa Topa Mountains, coast and Channel Islands.

These days, vehicles are banned from Sulphur Mountain, but the sterling views remain for anyone willing to walk a crooked mile.

Make that 10 crooked miles. A substantial length of the road has been renamed Sulphur Mountain Road Recreation Trail, and traffic is restricted to equestrians, cyclists, hikers and occasional vehicles belonging to local ranchers.

The Ojai back country is generally assumed to be the public lands of Los Padres National Forest, which borders Ojai to the east, west and north. But south of Ojai is more back country--Sulphur Mountain--almost all of which is private property. The mountain, occupying a 12-mile-wide by 12-mile-long block of land, is surrounded by highways: California 33 to the west, California 150 on the north and east, California 126 and U.S. 101 on the south. These highways approach, but do not cross, Sulphur Mountain. Sulphur Mountain Road Recreation Trail (maintained by Ventura County) is the only public crossing of this terra incognita.

Because Sulphur Mountain is not part of the national forest, it has the one Ojai-area trail that allows you to hike without the need to buy or display a U.S. Forest Service Adventure Pass.

And a good thing, too, because in Ojai nothing is more odious than an Adventure Pass. Ojai residents are fomenting a rebellion against the Forest Service's monumentally unpopular revenue generation program, and the town is filled with bumper stickers and signs protesting the Adventure Pass.

The ridgeline traverse of Sulphur Mountain is a one-way hike, requiring either two vehicles or the cooperation of someone to drop you at the top of Sulphur Mountain and collect you at the bottom.

It's not difficult persuading friends or family members to provide shuttle service because, while you're on the trail (three to four hours), they can enjoy nearby Ojai.

Directions to the trail head: From U.S. 101 in Ventura, exit on California 33 and follow it north to the outskirts of Ojai. Bear right onto California 150 and motor into downtown Ojai. Proceed another 6.5 miles on Highway 150 to signed Sulphur Mountain Road. Turn right and travel 4.75 miles on the steep and winding road to a locked gate at the trail head.

To the pickup point at trail's end: From Highway 33 north drive 7.5 miles to signed Sulphur Mountain Road. Turn right and proceed 0.4 mile to the vehicle gate.

The hike: Join the road (paved at first) and hike west. Enjoy glimpses of the Ojai countryside at its most eclectic: a gazebo, a yurt, a huge red-tile-roofed hacienda.

About 1.5 miles from the trail head, the asphalt ends and you continue the descent on well-graded dirt road. Nearly three miles out, enjoy views of the Channel Islands and the blue Pacific.

At about Mile 4, the trail delivers the first of several stunning, oak-framed panoramic vistas of the Ojai Valley. Particularly prominent in this aerial view is the Ojai Valley Inn and Country Club.

In some years, Sulphur Mountain boasts fine spring wildflower displays. This year, however, only a scattering of lupine and California poppies join the profligate yellow mustard alongside the road.

The road continues dropping down the ridge and enters classic Southern California cattle country, where cows graze utterly undisturbed by passing hikers.

The last two miles of trail are steep--an elevation loss of more than 1,200 feet. All too soon, you might think, you hear the sound of traffic from Highway 33 and descend to trail's end.


Sulphur Mountain Road Recreation Trail

WHERE: Sulphur Mountain above Ojai

DISTANCE: 10 miles one way with 2,300-foot elevation loss.

TERRAIN: Oak dotted ridgecrest

HIGHLIGHTS: Inspiring views from Ojai Valley to the Pacific.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Moderate: easy on the lungs, hard on the knees.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau; tel. (805) 646-8126.

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